Health Systems & Disaster Management

Dr. Calvello Hynes is currently teaching in the Colorado School of Public Health. She offers her students the opportunity to create blog posts to highlight current policies in global health.

This entry is by Leslie Walker, MPH candidate, submitted July 22, 2019

Photo credits: Getty Images

Health Systems Strengthening as an Approach to Disaster Management

While reading the qualitative analysis of the WHO Toolkit for assessing health system capacity for crisis management, I couldn’t help but think about certain natural disasters that have taken place in the United States and how the government has responded to them.  The World Health Organization (WHO) held its sixty-fourth World Health Assembly in May of 2011.  There, after identifying many publications and analyzing them, it was concluded that health system strengthening should contribute to disaster management. 

Natural disasters that have occurred around the globe were used as examples such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that left 1.5 million homeless and killed 149,095 people. It was stated that “Haiti lacked an effective health system prior to the earthquake and national authorities were not equipped to manage relief or recovery priorities when the disaster occurred” (Bayntun, 2012). This statement made me think about the lack of governance and how poorly the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was handled by the government officials in New Orleans in 2005. The United States does have an effective health system in place, compared to places such as Haiti or other impoverished countries around the world and yet, Hurricane Katrina was not handled in the best way possible.  The hurricane caused flooding in New Orleans, where more than 1,800 people were killed, and property damage was estimated at $100 billion (Edwards, 2015). “Weather forecasters warned government officials about Katrina’s approach, so they should have been ready for it. But they were not, and Katrina exposed major failures in America’s disaster preparedness and response systems” (Edwards, 2015). Some major areas where the current administration of that time failed were: there was fraud and abuse, miscommunication and obstruction of private relief efforts. “Federal auditors estimated that $1 billion or more in aid payments for individuals were invalid. Other estimates put the waste at $2 billion” (Edwards, 2015). In other words, the actual amount of money lost through scams and schemes is not known for sure. Agencies could not communicate because of the equipment not working properly during this desperate need. And finally the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA ) turned away doctors volunteering at the locations where medical attention was needed and blocked the delivery of emergency supplies that was ordered by the Methodist Hospital in New Orleans was blocked by FEMA on several occasions.

The WHO created a comprehensive Toolkit by studying lessons from natural disasters since 2000. The approach reiterates the WHO’s commitment to develop the health system approach to disaster management (Bayntun, 2012). In my novice level of Critical Polices and Global Health, I believe that while strengthening health systems can effectively increase the response to natural disasters around the globe, in certain wealthy countries like the United States, strengthening the health system that is already in place is not enough. There is already a health system in place in the U.S. and yet examples like that of Hurricane Katrina have taken place.  It is important to learn from previous mistakes, communicate and have well trained federal agencies along with being as well prepared as possible and having a plan in place when disasters such as hurricanes are forecasted to strike certain areas in the United States.  


 Bayntun, C., Rockenschaub, G., & Murray, V. (2012, August 22). Developing a health system approach to disaster management: Aqualitative analysis of the core literature to complement the WHOToolkit for assessing health­system capacity for crisis management. PLOS Currents, doi:

Edwards, C. (2015, August 27). Hurricane Katrina: Remembering the Federal Failures. Cato Institute, Retrieved from