International Conference on Disaster Medicine and Hurricane Resiliency Draws Hundreds to Campus

More than 280 healthcare professionals, emergency preparedness experts, and government leaders gathered on campus March 8-11 with the goal of increasing their communities' ability to manage hurricanes and other disasters.


His Excellency Eugene Holiday, Governor of Sint Maarten, addresses the audience at the Opening Ceremony of the conference.

"For the physicians in the audience, how many of you have any aspect of disaster training?”

Just a few hands rose after Dr. Gregory Ciottone, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, posed the question during one of the first sessions of the International Conference on Disaster Medicine and Hurricane Resiliency. Yet one thing was made clear throughout the conference: Despite many lacking the requisite training, society expects physicians and other healthcare professionals to provide leadership in disastrous situations.

“When a disaster strikes, people will look to you,” said Dr. Heidi Chumley, AUC Executive Dean, in her opening remarks. “It’s your duty to look back at them and let them know that you are prepared to step into the situation and help.”

More than 280 healthcare professionals, emergency preparedness experts, and government leaders gathered on campus March 8-11 with the goal of uniting their collective experience to increase their communities’ ability to manage hurricanes and other disasters. Attendees represented 12 countries, including 9 Caribbean islands, and a multitude of backgrounds in disaster preparedness and response, including disaster medicine and veterinary medicine, nursing, hospital administration, mental health, telehealth, EMS and first responders, disaster recovery and humanitarian assistance, medical education, and more.

Launching the Caribbean Center for Disaster Medicine

Organized in cooperation with Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the conference also served as a platform to begin discussions on priorities for the newly established Caribbean Center for Disaster Medicine (CCDM).

Formed around three pillars—Education, Research and Operations—the Center is designed to foster collaboration among professionals responsible for healthcare delivery, emergency response and medical education in the region, providing tools to integrate into disaster preparedness while continuing to develop best practices.

Dr. Mark Quirk, Senior Associate Dean for Medical Education at AUC, said Hurricane Irma’s impact on Sint Maarten in 2017 presented an opportunity for AUC to become increasingly accountable to its host country, while teaching new skills to medical students.

“Medical schools are obligated to direct their education and research efforts to the priority health needs of their communities,” said Dr. Quirk, who serves as Executive Director of the CCDM.

The role of academic institutions in advancing disaster medicine was highlighted by numerous presenters affiliated with universities such as Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center - New Orleans, and Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. In total, more than 50 speakers took the podium to share strategies and examine challenges to be tackled in the field, presenting around themes of hurricanes and health risks, disaster response and management, experiences and lessons learned, technology and education, and public health.

Many offered perspectives informed by personal experiences in Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and other natural disasters, including speakers from both the Dutch (Sint Maarten) and French (St. Martin) sides of AUC’s host country.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to be here and to have this first conference in Sint Maarten, certainly looking at what we can do facing the devastation of Hurricane Irma,” said Cylred Richardson, Head of Emergency Medical Services, Sint Maarten Ministry of Public Health, Social Development, and Labor. “This journey begins at home. It’s an opportunity for all of us to reflect, see, and understand the importance of this twin island working together. At the end of the day, it’s all about teamwork.”

“Islands Are Different”

The critical nature of the Caribbean Center for Disaster Medicine was emphasized by a refrain heard throughout the conference: “Islands are different.” While no two disasters are alike, those occurring on islands present unique challenges due to the heightened difficulty of providing resources to a location surrounded by ocean on all sides.

Dr. Satchit Balsari, Assistant Professor in Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School, noted that the effects of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico were especially destructive because it took months for the infrastructure to recover, causing a prolonged interruption in medical care, among other health consequences.

Because of these kinds of obstacles, presenters including Dr. Mary Russell, Emergency Nurse and Past Chair of the Healthcare Emergency Response Coalition of Palm Beach County, Florida, explained the need for a “whole community” approach to disaster response, and encouraged individuals and organizations alike to build their networks in order to increase their communities’ access to resources in case of a disaster.

Dr. Gavin Macgregor-Skinner, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Fellowship in Disaster Medicine, noted the importance of looking at disaster medicine through a global, One Health lens—integrating human, animal, and environmental health disciplines to attain optimal health for all—and building a “culture of preparedness” early on.

“Local connections need to be established before a disaster occurs,” he said.

The conference served as an important stepping stone for just that—enabling participants to learn from each other and strengthen their networks in pursuit of a common goal.

“I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this to happen,” said Earl Hernandez, Assistant Director, Tobago Emergency Management Agency. “The Caribbean Center for Disaster Medicine and its teachings can help [bring together] persons who are willing—who have that desire and passion—to become better trained to serve not only their country, but to serve the Caribbean region.”