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School & Program Updates

Texas A&M on a Whole Community Approach to Disaster Recovery: Protecting the Public’s Health from Disasters

Texas is highly susceptible to both natural and technological disasters due to the substantial concentration of industrial facilities and extensive coastlines. The combined threats of natural hazards, climate change and coastal population growth has led Dr. Jennifer Horney, interim department head and associate professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics, to research issues related to community resilience.


[Photo: Dr. Jennifer Horney]

Dr. Horney, a disaster preparedness expert, has previously conducted research on multiple public health disasters including Hurricanes Charley, Isabel, Katrina, Wilma and Irene. Following Hurricane Harvey, Dr. Horney will be working with community partners across the region to access the public health impacts of exposure to contaminated floodwaters.

“Resilient communities anticipate and plan for the impacts of future disasters, and as a result, are less impacted,”
Dr. Horney said.

Her research focuses on combining interdisciplinary collaborations, community-engaged research projects and high-impact service learning to help communities achieve resilience. Innovative research that engages communities at all stages – from developing a hypothesis to reporting results – is a key element of Dr. Horney’s work. For example, community partners in Houston, Texas, identified inadequate storm water infrastructure during flooding and hurricanes as a concern. As part of a multidisciplinary award from the National Science Foundation’s Early Concept Grant for Exploratory Research Program, Dr. Horney and others engage with residents to collect citizen science monitoring data at the neighborhood scale. The results of this research will benefit residents and local governments by providing a validated framework for both productive community engagement and data collection.

Recently, Dr. Horney worked with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to use data from the state fire marshal’s office to publish an article on flash flood swift water rescues in Texas. A webinar with the Texas Flash Flood Coalition and the National Weather Service is planned to ensure that research findings are translated to practitioners.

“This study is a first step on the road to better understanding the factors involved in flash flood rescues and paves the way toward interdisciplinary studies aimed at finding better ways to educate the public on flood risks and prepare first responders for the future.”

Dr. Horney leads the health and environment program of the Institute for Sustainable Communities (IfSC) a Texas A&M School of Public Health university-wide initiative supported by the office of the provost and executive vice president and the dean of Texas A&M. The IfSC was developed to promote interdisciplinary collaborations for transformative research to advance community resilience. The health and environment program focuses on the public health impacts of disasters that results from environmental contamination and is supported by funding from the Texas One Gulf Center of Excellence, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences.

Examples of interdisciplinary collaborations include partnering with the Colleges of Geosciences and Engineering to create a mobile application that allows community members to map locations of potential mosquito breeding grounds.

“We work with a number of people involved in community engagement who we’re training on how to use the app,”
Dr. Horney said. “The health departments get some free data, without having to use their own very limited staff resources.” The data collected by citizen scientists can be leveraged by public health agencies to inform mosquito control strategies and activities preventing such outbreaks as Zika and West Nile from occurring.

With support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Texas Sea Grant Program, Dr. Horney is working with partners in the departments of communication and political science to better understand the relationship between community engagement and resilience.

“Findings from public opinion surveys of residents in U.S. Gulf Coast shoreline counties have highlighted potential gaps in preparedness for heatwaves and droughts, which residents rank as the hazard they are most concerned about,” Dr. Horney said.

With funding from the National Academies of Sciences Gulf Research Program, Dr. Horney and investigators in the school’s departments of biostatistics and health policy and management are quantifying the effects of disasters on individuals covered by the Medicare health insurance program. Using longitudinal data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the research team is learning about the impacts that disasters have on the use of home health care and inpatient rehabilitation services, findings that should support improved preparedness of the elderly and the Medicare program.

“All of these projects are helping to improve our ability to do high quality research after disasters and evaluate the effectiveness of the public health system in protecting the public’s health,” Dr. Horney said.

Texas A&M EpiAssist Students Log 3000+ Hours in Service to the State and Aiding with Hurricane Harvey

A critical shortage of trained public health professionals has been well documented in recent years and continues in most states, including Texas. EpiAssist, a service-learning program directed by Dr. Jennifer Horney is helping to address these shortages by providing much needed assistance to health departments statewide. Group members have logged over 3,300 volunteer hours since January 2015.


[Photo: EpiAssist volunteers]

Partnering with the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center, for which Dr. Horney leads the community engagement core, EpiAssist students will be in Houston conducting environmental sampling over the next several weeks. Soil and water samples will be collected in areas identified by community residents as locations for ponding and pooling of debris, as well as in areas adjacent to industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel. Samples will be analyzed at Texas A&M and results will be shared with local and state partners. Post-disaster data will also be compared with pilot data from an environmental vulnerability study conducted by Dr. Horney this Spring in the Manchester neighborhood of East Houston. EpiAssist students worked with community groups to sample air, water, soil, and dust from the homes of residents of the environmental justice neighborhood.

Other recent activities conducted by EpiAssist included a door-to-door survey to assess the prevalence of risk factors for neglected tropical diseases in Brazos County. Regional public health officials from Temple participated as well.

The Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response, or the CASPER method of population-based community surveys, was used to assess the prevalence of risk factors for Chagas, leishmaniasis, dengue, ascariasis, hookworm, trichuriasis, taeniasis/cysticercosis, echinococcosis, paragonimiasis and fascioliasis. The survey included questions on travel, housing quality, and food handling.

The high quality data generated by this CASPER will be immediately useful to local, regional and state health departments in guiding public health interventions, such as mosquito abatement and health education campaigns, to areas with high concentrations of risk factors.

The Texas A&M EpiAssist students were recently highlighted in a video produced by the Galveston County health district following a CASPER conducted in the area.

Video can be viewed here or by using the QR code.