The historical development of public
health: Landmarks in the field
The flood disaster that began on 26 January 1998 in Katherine (Northern Territory) when torrential rains from Cyclone Les caused flooding of the Katherine River was a timely reminder of the lessons we have learnt from the history of public health. What is the first response of public health workers and disaster management authorities when the basic necessities of everyday life—such as clean drinking water from the tap, fresh food and gas or electricity for cooking, basic medical supplies, garbage collection and a functioning sewerage system—become inaccessible? Most residents had no shelter and their possessions disappeared in the floodwaters. When ponds at the sewage farm and those for wastewater at the dairy and abattoir overflowed, ideal conditions were created for an explosion in the mosquito population. Katherine was also cut off from its major supply routes (Hendy 1998).
How did the residents move from survival mode and begin to re-establish their daily lives? The organised response to this disaster revolved around the efforts of many groups and individuals. Community organisations established child care, evacuation centres and counselling; environmental health officers came from across the Northern Territory to help dispose of rotting food, putrefying chickens and other animals, and effluent-soaked fridges; while other public health staff cut short holidays in order to provide assistance. The Australian Defence Force provided air transport to bring in supplies, trucks for distribution and assistance to the medical