Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Puerto Rico Science & Research Trust Summit Focuses on Lessons from 2017

By on February 27, 2019

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Feb. 28 – March 6, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Lessons learned from the two powerful hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico in September 2017 should not be taken lightly, and it is crucial that the results of the experience serve to create resilience mechanisms that allow for an effective and orderly response and recovery process. Therefore, a group of recognized experts in health-related fields and leaders from both the public and private sectors will present their experiences and recommendations during the summit “Caribbean Strong: Building Resilience With Equity” organized by the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust. (PRSTRT).

The event, being held at the Sheraton Hotel & Casino in San Juan, Feb. 27 to March 1, marks the first post-emergency summit of this type that will focus on lessons learned from hurricanes Irma and Maria.

During the event, various entities and key-sector leaders from Puerto Rico and abroad will share their experiences, lessons and evidence-based recommendations for improved resilience of the healthcare systems and public health, and critical infrastructure.

Likewise, the need for collaboration and integration across sectors will be emphasized to strengthen the health and resilience of the Caribbean region’s communities during the recovery and rebuilding phase.

“The event is three days, and we will have a theme for each day. The first day will be ‘Caribbean Voices’ and we will have many local people from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean talking about their experiences at different levels: institutional; community-based organizations; and leaders of government agencies, not only in Puerto Rico, but also the entire Caribbean. They will talk about three aspects: what their role was during and after the disaster, and what they learned from it,” said Leslie Maas Cortes, program manager of the PRSTRT’s Brain Trust for Tropical Disease Research & Prevention as well as founder & director of Proyecto Agua Limpia (Clean Water Project), to help communities for the hurricane season that do not receive water service by delivering them water filters.

Many of the event’s speakers, she said, are researchers who will reveal concrete data gathered through their respective investigations.

“They will present their recommendations to improve Puerto Rico and the Caribbean’s level of resilience. On the second day, we will see more international, national and local people presenting their respective results. The third day is more of a working group, where we will compile all recommendations made by participants and integrate them into three categories before the event, into mitigation and preparation, the response during the event and the recovery period,” Maas Cortes added.

The event will feature many speakers, experts from various disciplines and aspects inherent to the response and recovery from natural disasters. Among the speakers are Richard Besser, MD, MPH, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and ABC News’ former chief health and medical editor; and oceanographer John Englander, who will talk about the environment and rising sea levels.

Also speaking are Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association; meteorologist Ada Monzón; and Satchit Balsari, MD, MPH, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who co-led the study “Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.”

Maas Cortes said the information collected during the event will be made available online for public access.

“We will make recommendations on the third day, and the plan is to publish them, and many of the participants have already submitted abstracts of the proposals in their respective research. They will be published in an edition of the journal ‘Disaster Medicine & Public Health Preparedness.’ That edition will be available at the event and the results of the summit will also be published in the same journal,” the Science Trust spokesperson said.

The fact most private and public systems in the Caribbean were impacted by the 2017 hurricanes, the Science Trust said, requires an examination of the resilience of all sectors and the development of evidence-based best practices for the future. Therefore, among the areas that will be focused on are medically fragile populations, infrastructure, access to transportation, power, education and training for community resilience, public health, institutional response and resilience, and the population’s mental health.

“The Caribbean region is at a unique moment in history to rebuild better, and this will require a new level of leadership focused on the search for innovative strategies [with] data-driven approaches and lessons learned to maximize available opportunities,” explained Lucy Crespo, CEO of the PRSTRT. “We decided to organize this summit as part of our role to promote the well-being of our citizens through an event at which experts in disaster response and management, emergency medicine and public health preparedness could bring their lessons to improve the results when we face a hurricane or a disaster.”

Leading roles

Trust member Emma Fernández Repollet, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Center for Collaborative Research in Minority Health & Health Disparities at University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus in San Juan, emphasized the importance of the conference being multisectoral because all sectors of society play a leading role before, during and after a natural disaster.

“The government, academia, the community, the private sector, nonprofit organizations will all be present because communication among these groups, which basically played the main [recovery] roles during Maria, is very important. The disaster showed how little information is available on resilience issues. Little information based on data, and I think this will contribute to analyzing the data collected and what recommendations are made based on that experience,” Fernández Repollet said.

The researcher also explained that once the findings and recommendations outlined at the summit are made public, they expect the local government to be receptive and take legislative action to better prepare the island for such natural events as hurricanes.

“A long-term goal that we seek is that thanks to this discussion, we can advance public policy with these recommendations. We know that is a bit more difficult and long term, but I think it should not be eliminated as one of our goals. I think it is also important to give recognition to the [Science Trust], which identified this type of event that not only has a value for the participating institutions but also for the people of Puerto Rico in general,” she said, adding that the Trust “has contributed greatly to the island because it doesn’t identify itself with a particular sector but with the integration of these [goals]. Having accepted this idea and being the organizer has given the event a lot of validity.”

Increased vulnerability

The idea of direct collaboration between various jurisdictions in the Caribbean Basin to mitigate the growing impact of phenomena linked to climate change is beginning to take hold in the region, especially with the recent visit to Puerto Rico of former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who announced a funding commitment of $4 million that will be used exclusively to promote sustainable agriculture projects on the island.

The Clintons’ announcement was made during the recent Clinton Global Initiative meeting held in San Juan, where the topic of climate change was comprehensively addressed.

During the event, the former president pointed out the challenges that rebuilding the Caribbean in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricane season represents, especially as experts assure that areas such as the Caribbean will be more prone to these types of disasters because not only is climate change causing the oceans to expand, but also melting glaciers and the polar ice caps quicker, resulting in rising sea levels.

“This summit is very relevant in the context of what was discussed this week with the Clintons, which is basically the importance of everyone in the Caribbean starting to collaborate and finding solutions that can be applied to all the islands. So, for us, it is a privilege to have the first meeting, where we will have the opportunity to discuss this topic as a region, which is so relevant today, but will have much more relevance in the future,” said Crespo, who will moderate the Caribbean Voices panel from an institutional perspective.

“As very well-articulated by former President Clinton, among the areas most susceptible to all climate change are precisely the islands of the Caribbean. That is why it makes the topics we are going to touch upon in this conversation even more relevant. We hope this is only the first step to achieve resilience in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean,” she added.

To participate in the summit, write to caribbeanstrong@prsciencetrust.org or visit www.prsciencetrust.org/caribbeanstrong.

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