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Disaster responses provide painful, useful lessons

Buildings in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, collapsed in the earthquake. A report from humanitarian groups urges giving local residents short-term work like clearing rubble.

United Nations

Buildings in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, collapsed in the earthquake. A report from humanitarian groups urges giving local residents short-term work like clearing rubble.

Haiti is just the latest in a series of countries — Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, China and India — to be struck by a major earthquake in recent years. But lessons learned from other quakes could help the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation emerge in better shape than before.

"The Chinese term for disaster is two characters — crisis and opportunity — and many people have to see the actual extent of exposure before they are willing to make changes,'' says Louise Comfort, an expert on disaster response at the University of Pittsburgh. "After the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, it was so terrible people realized they were better working together than fighting one another.''

Aceh, Indonesia — then wracked by civil war — is now largely at peace and 127,000 homes have been rebuilt to tough new standards.

As horrific as conditions are, Haiti is fortunate to be just 800 miles from the United States and its vast civilian and military resources. Within a day of Tuesday's quake, supplies were on their way as American teams set up a temporary control tower at the Port-Au-Prince airport to handle the crush of humanitarian flights.

Unlike other recent earthquakes, this one struck a nation's capital, damaging or destroying what few government resources there were. The inability of Haiti's government to respond puts a huge burden on international agencies, which must get food, medicine and other aid to victims despite blocked roads and widespread power outages.

"We need to do the first things first, get through the first two weeks,'' said former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti. "And there has to be very close coordination between the United States military and any other military assets we have.''

In coming days, aid workers might also heed a report by ALNAP, a consortium of humanitarian organizations, titled, "Learning From Earthquake Relief and Recovery Operations."

Lesson one

Don't prolong the relief phase, the immediate aftermath of a quake when the goal is to save lives and reduce suffering.

After the Indonesian disaster, economic recovery was delayed because even people who had jobs stopped going to work and instead stood in line "each day to sign up for different items from different donors,'' the report says.

In contrast, a well-run relief effort can end fairly quickly. Within 24 hours of the 2003 Iranian quake, all of the homeless had been sheltered in 70,000 tents.

Lesson two

Don't overstate the risk of disease. Despite a popular perception, outbreaks of cholera and other communicable diseases are rare after disasters.

"The problem with basing actions on myths is that resources that could be better used for dealing with real problems are frittered away on imaginary ones,'' the report says. Although there was no confirmed case of cholera in Aceh, an immunization campaign targeted 160,000 people with expensive oral vaccines.

Lesson three

Give cash to local people for short-term work like clearing rubble. As shown by the pancaked structures in Port-au-Prince, earthquakes create huge amounts of rubble that must be cleared before rebuilding starts. The debris often contains materials that can be used for temporary shelter or salvaged for resale, like wiring.

Cash-for-work programs are controversial. Critics say they undercut traditions of volunteer communal labor, such as neighbors repairing or rebuilding homes. But as the 2006 quake in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, demonstrated, "cash has not only proved to be the most flexible form of assistance, but it has also had a significant impact on the recovery of the local economy,'' researchers found.

Lesson four

Restoring livelihoods is the key to recovery, but is also hard to do right.

After the 2004 Indonesian quake and tsunami, aid groups concentrated on getting new boats instead of repairing damaged ones so fishermen could quickly get back to sea. That decision had another negative consequence: So many people got boats, there weren't enough crew members for larger ships that were able to go beyond over-fished coastal waters.

In Bam, Iran, aid groups gave irrigation for orchards a low priority, devoting resources to shelter, schools and drinking water. But survivors gave irrigation the highest priority because they feared losing their date and citrus trees.

In general, victims "constantly emphasized the need to restore livelihoods rather than receive relief and expressed some frustration that outsiders did not listen to them on this,'' the report says.

Lesson five

Don't rebuild vulnerability. Any new construction should be designed and built to resist major hazards — in Haiti's case, hurricanes as well earthquakes. Indonesia and Pakistan upgraded their building codes in high-risk areas after disaster struck.

The report warns that recovery from earthquakes often takes longer than anticipated; in Aceh, "temporary'' shelters were still going up 18 months after the quake and tsunami. And disaster response is "no magic bullet'' for undoing the corruption, poor governance, underdevelopment and social inequalities that make places like Haiti so vulnerable to catastrophe in the first place.

But earthquakes can bring about positive changes, especially if the local population is integrally involved in the recovery. The weeks and months after a quake are also the prime time to stress community preparedness for the next disaster because most survivors are rescued by friends and neighbors, not organized teams.

Outsiders, though, sometimes overlook what locals manage to do under extreme conditions.

In the 2001 Gujarat, India, quake, "while thousands were pulled from the rubble by neighbors and local officials, the (British) media focused on the 69-strong British team that rescued just seven people,'' the report notes.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

Disaster responses provide painful, useful lessons 01/14/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 10:37am]
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