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Weathering the Storm: How climate change is driving public health planning

Courtesy of the City of Midland

During the 2020 flood in Midland County, some 10,000 people were evacuated. The historic rain event, coupled with dam failures, left more than 2,500 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed.

But extreme flooding events like the one in Midland can have other, unexpected, impacts. Following the flood, people with diabetes struggled to access insulin, medical supplies, and necessary foods.

Erin White is a nurse and manager at the Midland Diabetes Center.

“We didn't expect the impact that was happening from the flood,” White said. “It made sense once it was going on, but you just don't know what kind of calls you're gonna get or what kind of needs people are going to have.”

She said during the flood, healthcare workers focused on communicating information and connecting patients with resources.

“Our services were important to have in the community at that time,” White said. “It was really an honor to be able to help people. In healthcare, we do this a lot, so it’s an expected part of the job, but it’s really rewarding.”

Two years after the disaster, White said the community has recovered. But the health impact of flooding is just one example of how climate change and more extreme weather can affect communities.

“Our sort of headline goal is to make sure that climate change is recognized as a public health issue,” said Aaron Ferguson, with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Ferguson helps run theClimate and Health Adaptation Program, which focuses on preparing the state’s health systems to be ready for the impacts of climate change.

“We look at climate change as a risk multiplier,” Ferguson said. “A lot of these issues we look at are not necessarily new, but climate change can certainly make them worse or more pervasive, or occur in communities that they weren't before.“

Relative to other parts of the country, Michigan is expected to fare better in the face of a warming planet, but the state is not immune to the impacts of climate change.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the last 60 years, Michigan average temperatures have risen over 2’F. On average, there are 16 more frost-free days in the year, and heavy rain events have increased by 35%.

These trends have direct and indirect impacts on human health. Heat illnesses, waterborne diseases like algal blooms, and vector-borne diseases from increasing tick populations are just some concerns.

“How might certain health issues get worse, due to climate change?” Ferguson said. “And then start looking at interventions or adaptations. What can we do to reduce the health impacts from climate change or eliminate them?”

Wayne Beyea is an urban and regional planning professor at Michigan State University. He helped develop a guide for how local officials, nonprofits, and health professionals can plan for climate-related health risks.

The guide is based on an initiative in Marquette County, one of the only counties in Michigan that has incorporated climate and health into its planning. Long-term goals in Marquette include improving emergency response, increasing communication on tick exposure, and updating water infrastructure.

“The urgency is on communities to be focused on how they can really figuratively and literally weather the storm in the short and long term, and then mitigate the contributing factors with some of the redevelopment,” Beyea said.

Health planning, like the guidebook, are focused on mitigation - adapting to the changes we’re expecting to see. Reversing global warming is a different undertaking, but Beyea said the solutions to both issues are closely related.

In many ways, preparing for climate change is all about having resilient infrastructure. In Midland’s case, inadequate damswere responsible for the extreme flooding, and emergency plans were meant to alleviate the impacts.

Back at the Midland Diabetes Center, Erin White said her clinic works to educate patients about disaster preparation. And since the flood, she said, more people are interested in planning for emergencies.

“We make a more of a point to say, ‘okay, winter is coming up. What happens if you lose your electricity for a couple of days? Do you have a plan?’ You know, that kind of thing,” White said.

White said emergency response and preparation plans are a part of healthcare. But accounting for climate change in public health is still a relatively new concept.

We're used to thinking about large disasters as something that's not doesn't happen often, but it could be a small thing like a winter storm,” White said. “I think it is an important topic because those kinds of things come up more frequently than maybe what we even expect or remember.”

The Midland flooding wasn’t strictly climate-related. But disasters like it are expected to become more common - and having infrastructure and health systems designed to handle the impacts, experts said, is non-negotiable.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.