Using vulnerability maps to inform local public health policies and climate change adaptation efforts

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that across the globe heat waves will likely become stronger and longer, while heavy precipitation events will become more frequent. In order to make appropriate public health adaptations, local decision makers need tools that aggregate health, weather, and environmental data. By overlaying health and vulnerability metrics on environmental and policy data a local level, officials will better understand the variations between location and risk, thus identifying target communities for interventions.

The Texas Natural Resources Information System (TNRIS) was established in 1968 as a division of the Texas Water Development Board with the mission to provide a “centralized information system incorporating all Texas natural resource data, socioeconomic data related to natural resources, and indexes related to that data that are collected by state agencies or other entities.” After Hurricane Rita in 2005, TNRIS received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to launch a project called the Geospatial Emergency Management Support System (GEMSS), with the goal of creating a geospatial data repository for emergency management.

Through the CDC’s Environmental Public Health Leadership Institute (EPHLI) and the Building Capacity for Integrating Climate Change and Public Health Programs at Local Health Departments Initiative administered through the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), the CDC worked with the City of Austin, Texas to develop a vulnerability assessment tool called the Central Texas Climate Change Environmental Public Health Indicators Tracking Tool (EPHI Tracking Tool) using the GEMSS online GIS platform. In 2010, the City of Austin populated the EPHI Tracking Tool by adding health, vulnerability and policy metrics to GEMSS’ already extensive collection of data describing the natural and built environment. The City’s objective was to target policy-making priorities regarding climate change-related natural hazards and to increase awareness of climate change vulnerability among the general public.

The top two climate change-related natural hazards in Travis County, where Austin is located, were identified as extreme heat and river flooding. To better understand vulnerability related to these hazards, city officials and researchers identified built and natural environment indicators, and socio-economic indicators using local-scale, geocoded data. The baseline health status of the population in relation to these hazards was established using mortality indicators.

Selected indicators were added to the GEMSS database, including vegetative cover, surface temperature, elderly (% of individuals above 65 years of age), population density (number of individuals per square miles), ethnicity, age adjusted diabetes and hypertension mortality rate per 10,000 and age adjusted cardiovascular mortality rate per 10,000. Linking these maps to the GEMSS GIS viewer, the City of Austin increased their situational awareness of extreme heat and river flooding as well as their ability to create locally-appropriate, targeted interventions, such as identifying areas for tree planting programs and considering future land use policies.

In the future, the City of Austin hopes to use the EPHI Tracking Tool to better understand vulnerability to compromised air quality and the impact of increased numbers of hurricane evacuee populations being displaced from the Texas Gulf Coast to Travis County. The ultimate goal is to develop locally-appropriate interventions for each environmental hazard. By mapping health data with environmental data, city officials can assess community health vulnerability related to climate change, guide policies, and adapt interventions that are specific and operational at the local level.

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