Transcript of Get Ready Report podcast, episode 43: Why preparedness matters in housing

In this episode of the Get Ready Report, we speak with Dr. Warren Friedman, senior adviser to the director at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes about their efforts to comprehensively address housing health and safety hazards. He’s interviewed by Daniel Greenberg, communications specialist at APHA.

Welcome to APHA’s Get Ready Podcast. How are you doing, Dr. Friedman?
All right.

Well, thanks so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it and we’re really happy to have you.
Thank you.

Our first question for you is about the Healthy Homes Program. So can you tell us a little bit about the healthy homes program and how the program promotes homes safety?

 I’ll be glad to. We use the healthy homes approach in a number of ways. We use that term to mean addressing housing-related health and safety hazards. It’s a lot shorter in that one phrase. What we’ve realized is that treating homes for one hazard at a time misses things. It also leads to a lot more expense for the homeowner or the renter and where there is a government agency involved, more expense for the agency. So working with homes more comprehensively is cost-efficient. It’s also faster.
One of the classic examples is moisture. If you have moisture intrusion where it shouldn’t be, you can have everything from structural problems to trips and falls problems, to build up in mold. A number of things can happen. So if you address the moisture intrusion, then you’re addressing a wide range of possible things and health consequences.

In our office of what has control in healthy homes, we have had a particular emphasis on asthma: addressing allergens that are associated with the onset of allergies and ultimately asthma, if it is sufficiently severe. So, we try to have our grantees from the office look at conditions that create high levels of allergens in homes. We also look at a number of other things: radon, lead, pesticide levels. So this approach where we’re trying to look comprehensively is effective and we work with our federal partners at USDA, at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and a number of other agencies so that we all are looking the same way.

The federal agencies issued in 2012 a healthy homes strategy for action for the federal government where we sent out three dozen action items that we are looking at agencies undertaking and the federal agencies have been working on them. That’s available. It can be downloaded, for example, from our office’s website, which is www.hud.gov/healthyhomes. And, there is a link there on the homepage to the healthy homes strategy for action. And we’ll be glad to collaborate, especially with APHA professionals.

Well, that’s really fascinating talking about the comprehensive approach that you are taking. This is going to be a two-layered question. On the other side, what are some ways that individuals and families and even entire communities…what are ways that we can all prepare to make sure that our homes are safe during disasters?

Well, the biggest word that I would use is preparation. That the time to be able to get situated for responding to a disaster is before the disaster occurs. I know that sounds like an old bromide, but that does apply in this case. If people are aware of problems that may occur and coordinate with external resources that are available or take measures themselves, they can decrease the cost and extent of damage.

So, in terms of citing of properties, this is one thing at the community level. Let me start from the big level down. One of the lessons that we’ve learned was that where homes are to be rebuilt, after Sandy or Katrina or other places is going to have a major effect on the impact on people and the impact on communities and cost associated with future disasters. So zoning issues as to where or what kinds of buildings to be located are very important.

Codes, in terms of what happens if you are in a flood plain or if you’re in a low-lying area in terms of what’s the use of the first floor. If you have your car down there, that’s fine. It’s much better than having a bedroom down there that might be subject to flooding when somebody is sleeping there. So we’re talking about the number of ways that the communities can look at housing, especially in high-impact areas, to see about reducing the consequences of disasters.

So for tornado current areas, the question of having emergency shelter in the home should be considered in the planning effort. In terms of the community support for emergency response organizations, looking within health departments or fire departments or emergency departments. Having that social infrastructure in place beforehand is far better than having to invent the system afterwards. So adequate support for those organizations is part of what the communities can do to help prepare for disasters.

But also note that there is under FEMA, the National Disaster Recovery Plan, the framework for that extends from the federal government outward to all communities and there is a process by which communities can do their planning and an organized process so that the people involved with this, be they within government, or private citizens or business people or nonprofit organizations have a framework for addressing the things that could happen if there is a disaster. And folks who have a particular interest in the housing safety and human safety issues can contribute to the development of local disaster recovery plans.

So, that’s interesting that you are talking about kind of the collaboration between HUD and FEMA and CDC and all these agencies in that interagency approach. That kind of ties well into my next question. If another disaster like Hurricane Sandy were to happen again would HUD react any differently? What kind of new partnerships have been formed to rebuild resilient communities?

I think we would have learned from not only the Sandy lessons, but also we’ve learned from the Katrina lessons and other disasters that have happened in the past. We are better able to coordinate with our federal partners and our state and local government stake-holders than we were previously. So, what we could do is take our efforts to collaborate with other agencies and apply that in a much faster way than we could previously.

One of the things that we also have done is recognize the difference in how people communicate. There was a time when everybody had a landline and we didn’t even call it that. It was just “the phone” because there wasn’t anything else. And, so now, with mobile communications and then smartphones, we have a new way of getting information out to people. We have built applications that provide tips on rebuilding homes in a healthy manner after disasters. And, that is available, again, through that healthy homes website: hud.gov/healthyhomes. So, this is certainly something that we are encouraging people to do — especially, professional health and environmental professionals to let people know about the apps that are out there.

Yes. That’s really fascinating. And finally, Dr. Friedman, our Get Ready campaign focuses on preparation as you talked about for disasters and hazards.  So, ultimately to put this in terms that the general public can easily understand and digest, what advice can you give to our audience, both the public health professionals but more so the general public to help foster disaster resiliency in communities around the country is something that is on the table from the beginning and not something that is being reacted to?

I think it’s important that people get engaged in the governmental process. We all know that this can be a complicated one but there is so much that is happening among disaster management agencies and there are local agencies that are undertaking these efforts. So, I would encourage the public health professionals to reach out to their partners within government. That helps the partners in government, as well, by finding out who the informed and knowledgeable stakeholders are within the public health community locally, building on their skills.

One of the issues that comes up is what kind of funding what kind of assistance is there and the healthy homes funding within HUD is not exclusively for the disaster environment. It is broader. But as I was indicating at the beginning, preparedness is essential. If homes are prepared adequately, then they are going to be much better in the post disaster environment. The federal issue, in terms of the level of support for the upcoming budget and there’s an issue that we are seeing in our office which is that we have requested a certain level of funding and right now, in terms of the development of the fiscal year 2016 budget the House has provided for a much lower level of funding.

And, the numbers are $120 million requested, for our office, with $75 million as what the House has voted so far to approve. This translates into several thousand homes that are not going to be treated for lead based paint hazards; for the asthma generating health hazards. And this has an effect therefore, on the ability of the homes to respond well when there is a physical disaster occurring.
So, we translate something very abstract, the federal budget, into what homes are going to be encountering in a disaster is a realistic consequence of more limited funding. There is, of course, a public participation role in that discussion and I encourage people to exercise their democratic rights in terms of being able to comment on the implications of the budget.

Certainly there are arguments to be made that there’s not much money. So, cuts need to be made and that voice needs to be heard. The consequences of the cuts: that voice needs to be heard. So, that is something that people can do, in terms of planning for the future, in terms of disasters.

Dr. Friedman, thanks so much with taking the time to speak with me and all of APHA and our Get Ready campaign about the importance of housing preparedness for all Americans. Thanks again, Dr. Friedman.

And I thank you and I thank APHA.