Monday, September 3, 2012

Disasters: Don’t wait, just prepare!

Posted by Dr. Unni Krishnan, Head of Disaster Response and Preparedness, Plan International

Flooded streets in Jacmel, Haiti
Thousands have fled New Orleans as Hurricane Isaac continues to lash the US State of Louisiana. For many Isaac has brought back the memories of hurricane Katrina which devastated the coastal town exactly seven years ago.

Hurricanes can level a vast landscape and cause death and destruction. Even the mightiest nations and their people can feel helpless before the sheer force of nature. Latest news reports indicate that dangerous high-speed winds associated with Isaac are sweeping an area the size of the United Kingdom.

Isaac will put to test the effectiveness of $14.5 billion invested in improved flood defense systems in New Orleans. Techno-engineering solutions are vital, but equally important is investing in communities for disasters. Communities bear the first impact of disaster and must be prepared to offer the first response.

Preparedness is key
You can’t stop a hurricane. But you can stop a hurricane from becoming a humanitarian crisis. During the weekend, Isaac – which until then was still a tropical storm, left a trail of destruction in the Caribbean nations of Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba.

Isaac left 19 people dead in Haiti alone – a tragic loss of human life but far less than was feared. A low death toll in Haiti can be attributed to two main factors. One, of course, is the fact that Isaac did not gather further strength to become a hurricane and instead remained a tropical storm during its passage through the island of Hispaniola shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Secondly, and more importantly, early warning systems, evacuation of people to safer places and swift response by humanitarian actors helped save lives. Early warning, early response and better disaster preparedness can help stop a disaster becoming a crisis.

Long-term impact
When it comes to weather systems likes tropical storms and hurricanes there are a combination of factors at work which need to be tackled over a period of time. The storm might have passed, however, the rain and flooding could lead to potential public health crisis including cholera and diarrhea outbreaks. In the case of Haiti, about 400,000 earthquake survivors who are still living in makeshift camps in capital Port-au-Prince are particularly vulnerable.

Global warming has added another dimension to disasters, particularly weather system related scenarios such as floods and hurricanes, by increasing their frequency and ferocity. We need to develop a long-term perspective to break the cycle of impact and devastation when we deal with disasters.

Recovery should be matched in mind
Children living in a development center in Haiti run by Plan told staff that the tropical storm Isaac brought back the memories of 2010 earthquake. This is normal for disaster survivors Memories of disasters last a long time often leaving a debilitating impact on children.

Very often, after the disaster, the physical recovery is faster if the economy is stronger. But, when the economy is weak and health care systems are nonexistent, dealing with the impact of disasters on survivors’ minds needs better attention from the government and humanitarian actors.

I have been a regular visitor to Haiti for past several years, mostly for humanitarian work in disaster situations. It strikes me that either the Haitians are recovering from one disaster or preparing for the next one. When you talk to children two messages come out very clear. One: the impact of repeated disasters is testing their resilience; two: for a small group of people disaster risk reduction initiatives have boosted their confidence to deal with future situations.

Early warning, early action
This time in Haiti the early warning system was activated in advance. It helped people to move to safety and saved lives. We know very well that if warnings don’t reach on time it has a direct impact on the number of casualties. Public broadcasting, radios, mobile phones and two-way communication are life savers.

Saving lives in a potential disaster situation is not rocket science. Early warning and early action always save lives. Cuba’s better investments and commitments on disaster risk reduction and preparedness have demonstrated this well - a good example for developing nations to follow.

Children at the forefront
As much as they are among the most vulnerable during disaster situations, children can also play an active role in reducing the impact of disasters. A child-centered approach has been a key element of Plan’s disaster preparedness and risk reduction work.

Potential to use schools and children as catalysts for a resilient community are great, taking up education and child protection in emergencies should also gain equal priority. Safety, security and education of children often become first casualty in any crisis.

It is therefore essential that basics of disaster preparedness and risk reduction should be taught as a skill for life in schools and must become part of curriculum. Putting children and schools at the forefront will be vital in preparing the next generation for disasters.

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