Analyzing the Importance of Community Engagement During Emergencies in Puerto Rico

Oct 2, 2023 | Community Engagement Core, PROTECT Research, PROTECT Team

A recent paper led by Community Engagement Core (CEC) trainee Irene Lafarga Previdi in collaboration with other members of the CEC illustrates and analyzes how PROTECT and the Center for Collaborative Research in Health Disparities (CCRHD) – RCMI Program (RCMI) were able to support community members following major disasters and emergencies in Puerto Rico. The outreach efforts the core used and the impact of those efforts illustrate the valuable support community focused research projects can provide to communities, especially those close to Superfund sites, during disaster recovery.

CEC members from PROTECT and CCRHD-RCMI often collaborate on community engagement efforts following emergencies in Puerto Rico. Their work during the response phase starts with emails or calls to community members, research participants, and health organizations in the area to assess immediate needs. After CEC members have identified and gained an understanding of needs throughout the community, they classify the needs into the categories of materials, educational resources, service referrals, or collaborations. They are then able to take this organized information to coordinate delivery of support in a timely and effective manner.

This paper looks at the community engagement work done following emergencies between 2018 and 2022, which included the Zika epidemics, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, various earthquakes, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Through analysis of these responses, researchers identified several lessons about how to best perform community engagement following disasters, which will be used to inform future recovery efforts. They found that it is important to identify the actual needs of the community by consulting directly with community members and organizations. This makes it important for research centers and projects to establish relationships with their community before emergencies begin. Strong relationships improve trust and communication with the community, which in turn makes it easier to understand the needs of individuals, and facilitates the implementation of support.

Members of the CEC prepare hurricane relief packages.

The analysis also identified the steps groups like PROTECT and CCRHD-RCMI can take during the preparedness phase of an emergency that improve response phase work. Research projects and centers can provide educational information and seminars to their study participants and community members about likely disasters. They can also evaluate the current resources for community members and the current support infrastructure in place, as well as provide emergency training to team members so that they can better provide support for the community following disasters. Projects and centers can also develop their own instruments to evaluate their community engagement work surrounding emergencies so that they can understand the impact of their work and what can be done to make it stronger.

PROTECT and CCRHD-RCMI, like most research projects and centers, were not established with the priorities of emergency preparedness and recovery. However, because of their interaction with local organizations and community members who are near Superfund sites, they take on a responsibility to provide support following disasters in Puerto Rico. Community members have personal and emotional investments in recovery following emergencies, so these more local support systems and networks can provide more comfort than government or external aid. Community engagement and collaboration from PROTECT and CCRHD-RCMI have proven to be critical for emergency recovery at a local level, and analyses like the one presented in this paper help show CEC members how they can make their efforts even more effective.