Unusual rainfall in February 2005 affected the Colombian department of Santander causing serious floods and landslides that resulted in death and destruction, in addition to blocked roads that delayed the arrival of aid. The presence of a PAHO/WHO field office in Santander, already working on issues of health and population displacement, made it possible to collaborate with local authorities to minimize the negative impact on health. One of the significant achievements in the wake of this emergency was the timely management of information and the creation of a community-based epidemiological information system. These helped to improve decision making and allowed authorities to take preventive health measures designed to avoid epidemics and outbreaks—neither of which occurred in shelters. A web-based daily report system kept government and United Nations agencies updated and preserved an institutional memory of the operations.
A forum was held last November to consolidate the lessons learned from this event. Participants included coordinators of emergency services in regional hospitals, health response personnel, ministry staff and local and departmental authorities. No longer are emergencies viewed exclusively through a traditional disaster prism (rescue, evacuation, transfer of patients and treatment of the injured), but rather they take a more integrated approach that considers public health and epidemiological elements as part of any emergency.