Over the course of the last nine months, Kentucky and – in particular, rural Kentucky – has endured two significant natural disasters that have wreaked havoc on the physical and mental health of residents of all ages.
These days, no one is immune to the effects of tornadoes, floods and excessive heat, but unquestionably, those who are poor and underserved are disproportionately affected, particularly those who reside in rural communities.
While the middle of our state is experiencing a population increase, the rural counties in eastern and western Kentucky are shrinking in population. A decrease in population often results in fewer services, from physicians and hospitals to grocery stores and pharmacies. It also often means a lower tax base, meaning that municipalities don’t have the funds to invest in infrastructure and other necessary public health services to keep residents safe and healthy.
Meeting people’s needs day-to-day can be a struggle. Getting to and from doctor appointments, especially for pre-natal care and for health conditions needing regular monitoring, may be an ordeal without public or reliable transportation; maintaining access to nutritious food may be challenging if the only local supermarket doesn’t regularly offer fresh fruits and vegetables; and connecting with an online mental health therapist may be unrealistic if broadband is spotty.
Consequently, when disaster strikes – such as the tornadoes last December or the floods last month – rural residents’ needs move from chronic to acute and, far too often, it’s a piecemeal approach on the long road to recovery.
While monetary donations are critical at the time of these natural disasters, including the $500,000 that The Humana Foundation announced recently for flood victims, we need to invest in rural communities over the long term to strengthen them going forward.
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Although we can’t avoid natural disasters, we can fortify housing, especially for poorer communities. The landscape of eastern Kentucky is prone to landslides and flooding, and we need to offer affordable housing options in areas away from floodplains. For other areas of the state, especially the western side where the tornadoes hit, we need to update construction standards so that newer homes can withstand wind loads, as well as retrofit older homes to withstand extreme winds as well. These updates, endorsed by engineers and home safety experts, will not eliminate all damage, but will increase the chances that homes will survive and families can stay put, an important aspect to maintaining physical and mental health.
We need to connect with and listen to people on the ground, understanding that disaster response is just the first step. Recovery can take a long time and it’s critical to listen to community members in the rebuilding process to ensure that both urgent and long-term needs are addressed. Continuing to work with the community in the rebuilding effort for the long haul is as, if not more, important to being there in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
More:4 charts show how Kentucky’s natural disasters are becoming more common. And expensive
The recent floods in eastern Kentucky destroyed much of the existing medical infrastructure in an area that was already medically underserved. In addition to rebuilding facilities and attracting health providers to practice in rural Kentucky, we need to go further in addressing the systemic and structural health inequities that are impacting our rural residents. The University of Louisville Health Equity Innovation Hub, a partnership between U of L, Humana and the Humana Foundation is working to create evidence-based, scalable and financially sustainable solutions to close health equity gaps and improve health outcomes and the quality of life for vulnerable and marginalized populations, including those living in rural areas.
The Humana Foundation maintains a long-term approach to helping communities recover from disasters. Months after the tornados devastated Western Kentucky and through the Hopkins County Long Term Recovery Committee, the Humana Foundation continues to listen carefully to the needs of the community. The Foundation recently invested in the Mayfield Minority Enrichment Center, an organization dedicated to empowering youth and ensuring long term support for minority communities impacted by the tornado.
A warming planet indicates that natural disasters will continue. However, the destruction and subsequent destabilization of homes and families can be curtailed with investment, time and coordination. Let’s hope we can offer safer and healthier communities before the next disaster strikes.
Tiffany Benjamin is a resident of Louisville and CEO of The Humana Foundation.
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