Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Housing in Humanitarian Crises

Providing interim / transitional shelter post-disaster is a challenge, one where the demands for materials often outweigh the local supply. In unique circumstances, like the case of the tsunami that hit American Samoa in 2009, there wasn't enough building material on the island to address the shelter needs of the impacted communities. And while ordering more wasn't a problem, the multi-week lag from order to delivery due to American Samoa's unique geography, caused significant delays in getting people back into their homes. The point being that providing shelter following an event remains one of the greatest challenges to those in response and recovery, regardless of how straight-forward it may seem.

While the idiosyncrasies that affected the speed of recovery in American Samoa are unique to its geography, the challenges shelter represents post-disaster are not. Finding a shelter solution that's cheap, readily available, culturally appropriate, easy to put together, durable, can quickly be distributed, and can withstand the elements, are only a small set of obstacles that need to be overcome when figuring out how to get people out of camps and back to their communities.

The pressure to quickly implement a solution coupled with an organizational need to be "doing" while creating "impact," are part of the reason some shelter solutions fall short of their intended goals. A great example of this was witnessed when an International NGO implemented a shelter program in Haiti in 2010/2011. Shelters were distributed throughout the community but rarely used because they had no ventilation, the tarp walls provided no security, and they didn't come with doors. What seemed like a slam dunk on paper failed to gain any traction with the people it was intended to help.

Due to the host of requirements structures need to fulfill, hitting the mark can be exceedingly difficult when it comes to shelter following an event. That doesn't mean however that there isn't a shortage of innovative ideas that try to meet as many of the requirements as possible.

One such idea belongs to the I-BEAM architecture and design, with their pallet structure concept:
While a great many challenges stand in the way of this concept making it to the front lines, it's one of
the ideas that I find interesting. For case studies on shelter designs following conflict and natural disaster check out:, a great resource for examining a wealth of case history regarding shelter in dynamic environments.

While the magic shelter bullet remains an elusive ideal that many organizations covet, there isn't a shortfall of innovative ideas to spur the next round of implementation...if concept design intrigues you, I would suggest looking into Architecture for humanity and their book Design like you Give a Damn, where you will find no shortage of unique perspectives on post-disaster housing solutions.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Resilient Communities Training

The RAND Corporation is a think tank that covers a wide range of initiatives including a center focused on Catastrophic Risk Management and Compensation. Essentially there are a lot of smart people thinking about and writing about resilience and other topics related to disasters, similar to the conceptual focus and outputs of the Commons Lab at the Wilson Center. Interesting reading when you've got the time...but with the Holidays, who has any to spare?

I did, sort of. When perusing the RAND site for gift ideas I came upon an online training that covers some foundational elements and best practices associated with building resilient communities. After spending about 5-10 mins clicking, I believe the RAND resilience training to be worthwhile as a primer for those looking for resources to share on resilience both from an individual/household as well as an organizational perspective. A great idea for that emergency manager or community-based nonprofit visionary looking to take the bull by the horns.

If you give it a look, I would be interested in any feedback as I'm pulling together resources for a training I'm putting together.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The True Costs of Disasters

A great video about the "true" costs of disasters, economic losses, and what's perpetuating this cycle of loss.

For those interested in a more thorough can find the report here:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It means nothing unless people act.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Typhoon exposed limits of Warning System." In the article it talked about a new LIDR system that will replace the existing Doppler radar system in the Philippines used to do the same thing: forecast an incoming storm, but do so with added bells and whistles that will enhance early warning capabilities.

I find it strange that in the midst of ongoing recovery efforts, the government continues to invest in advanced weather forecasting technology, as if it were a limitation of technology that caused the loss of life and not a failure of the framework designed to prevent it. From everything that I've read and from the reports that have come out, the warnings weren't the problem. Days in advance of Yolanda making landfall, there were warnings from the government and PAGASA indicating that this wasn't going to be your average storm, and implored that people respond by evacuating. While the article acknowledges that community action based on the forecasts is needed, it feels like the upgrade to the LIDR system is spending money and resource on addressing something that wasn't broken to begin with, while failing to acknowledge where the real vulnerability lies--in connecting with and empowering communities to take action once information is known.

How is it that a country that averages 20 typhoons a year not know "the drill"? Leading up to Sandy's landfall, people didn't leave because they didn't believe the warnings would match the dire reality forecasted. After communities weather 1,2...or 20 storms, complacency, or hubris can affect their attitude towards the real danger these storms represent. However, it wasn't until I saw this video report from the Wall Street Journal that a new aspect of why people didn't heed to warnings as they should have came to light. As part of the warnings that came from PAGASA, the term "storm surge" was used to describe the tsunami-like wall of water that did so much of the damage; something many Filipino's didn't fully understand. One gentleman in the video goes as far as to call the term "english" and ignored the reality it represented.

While I have no doubt that confusion and unfamiliar terminology surrounding the most deadly aspect of Yolanda's impact played a role in the massive loss of life, I wonder why, given the history Filipino's have with enduring typhoons and the dangers they represent, more widespread proactive action wasn't taken as a precautionary measure.

As recovery gets underway, many are looking to understand where the breakdown occurred and why more action wasn't taken at the local level. If warnings were issued, and a storied history of Category 5 Typhoon's hitting the Philippines known, with Typhoon Bopha hitting last December, why wasn't more done to move people out of harm's way? And why is a technological upgrade seen as a move that will help mitigate loss of life when the reason people failed to leave had more to do with protection of personal property than skepticism surrounding Yolanda's forecasted impact?

Technology is a tool. Higher resolution maps are great, early warnings with higher probabilities on storm impacts and locations are even better; however (insert broken record here) if the people who stand the most to gain (i.e. not die) from the information that these newfangled systems provide are not paying attention or don't care, then you might as well not have any warning system at all. The problem hasn't been the ability to forecast a storm--it's been communicating it in such a way that generates action and interest amongst the people who it will impact.

In Mississippi and Louisiana, people didn't leave when Katrina was bearing down because they didn't believe it was going to be as bad as the forecasts warned. In Galveston when Ike hit, people didn't believe that the island would be all but washed away. In New York, people heeded the warning when Irene blew ashore and when Sandy came, pushing a significant storm surge, people stayed and payed the price. In each of those instances we knew; we knew because history told us, the Army Corps of engineers warned us, and because modern day meteorology showed us where, when, and how severe. To continue to say that advances in severe weather forecasting are mitigating the loss of life and helping people be better prepared, at least where Typhoons and Hurricanes are concerned, is a load of crap. The technology currently used to forecast is sufficient, it's the ability of those whose responsibility it is to turn that information into action at a community level is where the challenge lies. While it's easy to point the finger, I recognize that motivating any large group of people to act is no small task...but when you have history, science, and the blunt trauma of reality on your side...I have to believe that more can and should be done.

Advanced systems and fancier graphics are great but when the dust settles and it's up to friends, neighbors, and search and rescue teams to shoulder the grim burden of counting the dead, the flashy 3D modeling doesn't mean a thing.

If disaster preparedness and risk reduction initiatives can't take hold in the Philippines, a country continually rocked by Earthquakes, Volcanic eruptions, and Typhoons...why would Anytown, USA devote one dollar more than was absolutely necessary to Preparedness if they haven't experienced a disaster in recent memory?

The unfortunate circumstances that have brought us to this moment are tragic...but lets not let this opportunity to champion the preparedness cause slip through our fingers. We need to be able to point to a success be able to show the value in investing in education programs and Disaster Risk Reduction, if there is any hope of it taking hold in vulnerable communities around the world, especially those in our backyards.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Black Friday & Cyber Monday

Over the weekend I was greeted with headlines of Black Friday violence; parking lot stabbings, retail worker beatings, and strangers fighting over material goods, all in the name of the holiday "spirit." Under any circumstance this type of behavior is appalling but when set against the backdrop of the last few months of disasters, it takes on a new dimension of materialism and sadness. And while the rest of the world goes about their business giving little thought to the flooding, tornadoes, and hurricanes we experience, a similar sentiment seems to permeate our attitudes about the things happening outside our boarders.

According to a Pew Research survey, Typhoon Yolanda has drawn less interest from the American public than previous disasters and as such is making the generation of donations difficult. The Haiti Earthquake, Indian Ocean Tsunami, and the Japan Earthquake & Tsunami all garnered greater attention and donations than Typhoon Yolanda did in the first weeks following the event. With the understanding that there is never a good time for a disaster to strike, and that there will always be competition for attention in our news cycles, one would think that the build up and subsequent aftermath of an event of the magnitude that struck the Philippines would demand significant attention and support, but that perception isn't matching reality. Why?

Are we fatigued? Are we tired of hearing about the misery caused by so many storms of increasing strength and frequency? If all the reports on climate change prove to be accurate, then the scenario that's unfolding in the Philippines is the tip of the iceberg. With added international pressure to address the impacts of our new climate reality seemingly falling on deaf ears, what will an increase in severe weather events mean on our ability to cope with them? The general trend is that fewer people are being killed in storms of increasing magnitude, but the economic impacts are skyrocketing because of the push to develop areas that remain vulnerable. So the fallout requiring financial support is increasing, while the ability for us to handle it and empathize comes into question.

Haiti is but a distant memory for most, almost 4 years later and the light that shined on the corruption and bureaucracy that strangled aid from making an impact has faded, and while I wish it were different, that's the reality. The Philippines have weathered a significant country-changing event. It is far too soon to let it slip between the cracks of black friday and cyber monday sales. This is a time of year for reflection and giving of thanks for the friends and family we have...please don't forget about those who have lost everything as a result of something beyond their control. Understand that the work of recovery is slow, requiring time, attention, and money, fickle things that are affected by outside influences, especially at this time of year.

While there are needs within our boarders, individuals and families who are dealing with disasters of their own...remember that for many, either at home or abroad, the luxury of 'want' will be overshadowed by the reality of 'need' for some time to come. For those of you out there working to aid in the recovery of impacted communities, thank you. Your tireless efforts are needed and appreciated. And for the rest of us who have to sit on the sidelines, please don't let the events that have impacted lives in: Illinois, Indiana, Syria, the Sahel, DRC, CAR, the Philippines, India, Colorado, or any other community around the world be overtaken by the glut of sales and holiday weirdness that grips our country every year.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Leaving Communities Behind in Recovery

We have all the tools we could possible want, we have the deepest wells from which to pull lessons learned and best practices from to avoid repeating mistakes previously made, we are united in our desire to help communities get back on track following disasters, and we are a relatively close knit community of why is it so hard to get it together when we turn on the response machine?

As the kinks get worked out of supply chains and aid streams into areas that continue to have great need, I sense a groundhogs day scenario emerging in communities in the Philippines.

After speaking with colleagues on the ground in Tacloban, the situation that's been described sounds strikingly similar to what many Haitians felt disenfranchised by or disconnected to following the earthquake in 2010. The correlation between Haiti, the Philippines, and the aid mechanism setup is that instead of communities being viewed as active participants in the process, by providing a needed voice in determining how best to distribute aid dollars, they are viewed as victims in need of saving, as recipients of aid only. With the understanding that taking a community of tens of thousands and synthesizing their wants and needs down is the role of the political structure, this article in Foreign Policy about corruption in the Filipino political system is reason to look for an alternative way to give voice to the network of community-based nonprofits and informal community leaders during the recovery process.

Remember that sweet graphic of the cluster wheel of excellence, the one that highlights the clusters at work? Well I went back and did a little reading, and while it wasn't even close to thorough (so please correct me if I'm off base), I didn't read anything that suggested that integration of a local voice in the coordination structure was a priority. There was mention of working through regional and country offices to aid in the warning of an eminent disaster, or on select mitigation projects, but in a post-disaster setting, there is little that indicates any efforts should be made to be inclusive of local populations in how aid should be allocated to reshape and rebuild their communities.

This disconnect is a problem.

And while the premise that the very constituents the coordination mechanism is setup to advocate for are the one's being excluded feels Shakespearean it's so tragic...shades of this disconnect can also be found in the communities working to recover from disasters in the US. While community-based entities are a much stronger force within domestic disaster response and recovery...there are still challenges with integrating the voices of those recovering into post-disaster activities while setting and managing their expectations.

I'm sure there are a great number of examples of community-led initiatives that address this challenge, the one that seems to have had great success in the face of significant destruction is Joplin's Citizen Advisory Recovery Team (CART). The damage caused by the Joplin Tornado provided a unique opportunity to re-imagine what their community could be, and CART provided a conduit for community voices to be heard within the planning and development process. While community-based entities are the backbone of connecting unmet homeowner needs with available resources throughout long term recovery, the ability to capture and articulate a communities collective wants and desires and have them be accounted for in land use planning, zoning considerations, and development ideas is unique.

As the aid machine starts churning out grants to organizations playing needed roles in the provision of immediate aid to communities in the Philippines, let's not forget the people for which that aid was donated on behalf of and the role they should have in how it's used. What I'm suggesting isn't easy, and the responsibility of inclusion shouldn't rest solely on responding organizations, but a concerted effort should be made to ensure that starting now the representation in attendance at cluster meetings reflect the communities being served.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Buying Cleopatra

The island of Sardinia suffered a significant rain event Tuesday when close to 20" of rain fell in roughly 90 minutes. This event has claimed the lives of 17 people and ongoing damage assessments indicate the town of Olbia has received much of the damage with 9' of standing water in some spots.

While any event that takes lives and negatively impacts communities is a tragedy, I was interested to read in this Al Jazeera article, that Cyclone Cleopatra was not in fact a Cyclone, but a deep low pressure system. So how did it achieve cyclone status and who gave it the name 'Cleopatra?'

While I don't know who was the first to incorrectly attach the term "cyclone" to this weather system, I do know more about who named it. Since 2002 our friends at the The Institute of Meteorology at the Free Institute in Berlin have been allowing the general public to name the weather systems across Europe. When funding for the institutes continuous weather observation was cut to 8 hours per day, volunteers picked up the slack for the other 16. In response to this donations flooded in and the "Adopt a Vortex" program began.

But before you get too excited, the price for having your name associated with those sunny days will cost you 299 Euro or roughly $'s a bit cheaper for a low front. Still interested? Of course you are! Because when your weather system is baptized (their term, not mine) and runs its course, you'll receive a "Abschlusspaket, which is German for "Abschlusspaket." This "Abschlusspaket" will contain a certificate with the date of your system, it's life story, and some weather maps.

Just imagine if the dynamic weather wonder duo of Alexandra Steele and the cyborg weather phenom Jim Cantore were to continually reference the high pressure system you purchased as it brought sunshine and good weather to a portion of the country. While I don't see it happening, if someone starts a petition...sign me up.
Abschlusspaket not included

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Donde esta el Baño?

Yesterday was World Toilet Day; I know this because I, like the rest of the world participated in a parade calling attention to this issue...and I'm lying. Between the Tornadoes in the US, the monsoonal rains in Sardinia, and the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Philippines, this slipped through the cracks.

the best children's book ever created
As the books title indicates...everyone does in fact poop, where this book really falls short though is in addressing the fact that today roughly 2.5 Billion (with a 'B') people do not have access to a clean and safe toilet. Even more shocking is that 1 in 3 people do not have access to a toilet period. 

Think about that. Then ask yourself how many times a day you use a toilet? I couldn't tell you because a toilet is a part of the scenery, something taken for granted...yet 2.5 Billion people don't have that luxury. 

When you think about it in those terms, and realize that so many people don't have the opportunity to do their business in a civilized and sanitary way...then the fact that World Toilet Day got the shaft is kind of a big deal.

And here's the impossibly maddening reality regarding this human's 100% solvable. It's not as if new toilet designs are needed or a case needs to be made as to why this is important. If you're still not convinced that more should be done...may I suggest you take a roll of toilet paper next time you have the urge and get an outdoor experience and then see how you feel.

Finally there's an issue impacting billions of people and we have the tools to fix it...we just need the will to make it happen. For more information go to  

you said it skeptical Haitian child...

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

International Disaster Response is a cluster...

The Philippines, an archipelago comprised of 7,000+ islands, is a paradise where the warmth and friendliness of the Filipino people make it a top travel destination. When Yolanda mowed her way across the island chain and it became apparent that it was going to be an event requiring significant humanitarian response, aid organizations put out appeals for donations and sent in assessment teams to figure out how best to provide their special brand of assistance.

With the overwhelming need created by the Typhoon, coordinated response remains a top priority. But how do you coordinate that many moving parts? In the U.S., coordination is a consistent challenge faced by federal, state, local, and community-based response structures. Internationally, aid organizations, foreign and domestic military assistance, and agencies representing the alphabet soup of UN agencies also need to be taken into account on top of everything else. With millions affected, thousands dead, and hundreds of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed across multiple island communities, where do you begin, how do you begin, and who's in charge?

The international humanitarian aid community has something that we in the United States do not--something that helps alleviate a lot of the guesswork around how the response will be shaped so that the focus can be on the provision of aid to those in need. On the premise of improving humanitarian response in emergencies, the United Nations (UN) created the IASC (the InterAgency Standing Committee), and in 2005 the Cluster System for coordination in humanitarian emergencies was adopted. The cluster system provides a scalable and replicable way for handling the delicate dance of leadership and coordination based around functional needs in response operations.

Cluster Overview

The thematic focus of the cluster system alleviates confusion around roles and responsibilities and makes it easier to highlight competency within a specific response function. While clusters aid in the dissemination and consumption of operational data, they also create unique funding opportunities. Because of the way the cluster system is structured, pooled funds managed by the UN are available to help support humanitarian operations and are oftentimes granted through the cluster system:
Because complex humanitarian emergencies require so many aid organizations working together, a system to coordinate their activities is needed without limiting their independence. The Cluster System, for any faults it may have, is a system that has the buy-in needed and the ability to fill the most critical of role's--coordination that enables a stronger and more cohesive response.

While every system has its proponents and detractors, the fact that there's a unified system to point to is a big accomplishment. Domestically, emergency support functions (ESFs) would be the mechanism that plays a role most similar to that of the clusters, but unfortunately I think that the cluster system succeeds in combining the focus of ESFs with the coordinative function of a VOAD.

Coordination will always present a challenge to governments, municipalities, donors, and any other moving component involved in the disaster response machine. For whatever faults it may have, I applaud the IASC for endorsing the cluster system and for the organizations who operate within it's framework...I look forward to seeing all the good it can do in expediting a coordinated response to the communities struggling in the aftermath of Yolanda.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A way forward for the Philippines

You can only look at so many images of flattened homes and decimated communities or hit the refresh button so many times for updated information on damage estimates before it gets too macabre. While finding fault in this is hard, as I find infographics to be a useful and engaging tool for communicating information, the slick packaging of human misery doesn't feel appropriate at this juncture. I realize the inherent hypocrisy in this sentiment given that my last post praised the Filipino government for quickly publishing quantifiable data on the storms impacts, and it's precisely that information that makes communication pieces like this one possible...but what can I say, I'm fickle.

So instead of waiting for updated stats to tell me what I already know, that this is a major humanitarian crisis, I began to think about how the Mid-Atlantic region would fair if a storm like Yolanda were to hit. The tale of the tape shows that Sandy was a Cat 1 storm with sustained winds of 75mph, and Yolanda a Cat 4/5 with sustained winds of 150 mph with gusts over 170mph. But the damage in the Mid-Atlantic wasn't due to the winds, it was due to the storm surge; Sandy brought a surge of roughly 10ft to coastal communities and went inland for distances measured in blocks. Yolanda's surge was thought to be between 15-20ft and in some cases wiped whole island communities off the map. Drawing these comparisons doesn't change the reality millions of people in the Philippines or the mid-Atlantic region are facing, but it does help by providing perspective. And while far from scientific, the below image is what Yolanda would look like if it made landfall along the eastern seaboard--covering roughly 1200 miles while Sandy's diameter was approx. 950 miles.

Credit: Derek Medlin / Google Earth
So what's being done? If you go by the media's account, aid is slow to arrive and there is confusion on the ground. Some articles go as far as to chastise aid agencies for not learning from past events: The Haiti Earthquake or The Japan Quake/Tsunami. Articles alluding to the fact that response agencies are fumbling the ball resulting in delays in the disbursement of aid began as frustrations amongst survivors reached a fever pitch. What is often overlooked is that it's day 5 following a major event with a significant impact not only on the fabric of communities, but on the infrastructure that allows those communities to function on a daily basis. When that infrastructure is disrupted, its restoration and the delivery of aid that follows will take longer than a business week to bring online.

In addition to the push to reconnect supply chains that will facilitate the flow of aid, OCHA has created an action plan, with objectives, goals, dollar requirements, and lead agencies charged with making it happen. So I guess if you come up with a comprehensive plan to begin to bring order to the chaos, you get a pass and can publish infographics whenever you want.

The plan is based on the cluster system being implemented and while the plan will undoubtedly go through revisions, it's nice to read about a way forward, about a plan to deal with the monumental effort of bringing normalcy back to these impacted communities. I hope that the issuing of this plan marks a turning point in the reporting on the event and that news agencies will choose to dig a little deeper and find stories that highlight a way forward rather than to rehash the horrible tragedy that's already happened.
Learning from the past is how we avoid having history repeat itself, but now is not the time for finger pointing or assigning blame. Now is the time to use the resources available to ensure that no further loss of life occurs while laying the foundation for a response to an event that will take years to fully recover from.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Quantifying Damage - Response by Numbers

Credit: Noel Celis / AFP / Getty Images

What is there to say that hasn't already been said? A tragedy has befallen the Philippines archipelago, as of 6am Monday 11/11/13 the NDRRMC is reporting:

  • 255 Individuals have died | 71 Injured | 38 Missing
  • 9,679,059 Persons Affected
  • 23,190 Homes impacted (13,473 destroyed | 9,717 damaged)

A greater level of detail can be found here:

And while the statistic that 10,000 lives have possibly been lost is dominating headlines, the fact remains that you can point to a document that several federal agencies stand behind with a concrete number 4 days after an event of historic proportions that says otherwise.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), the Dept. of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Dept. of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the rest of the agencies that populate these reports are an example of the power timely information can have following an event. While the numbers are in flux as this is an ongoing humanitarian emergency, the information that has been made available is very detailed and provides insight that many response organizations are not used to having at this stage. Usually emergency response is typified by a vacuum of reliable information…Day 4 of response to Yolanda seems to be bucking that trend with agencies providing a comprehensive level of information on a range of aspects central to response and aiding in the creation of situational awareness.

Situational Awareness is key to decision-making and resource allocation and its absence is one of the issues that is repeatedly brought up when emergency management and nonprofits talk about the how to enhance response and early recovery operations. Situational awareness is dictated by how quickly information is funneled up from the ground to create a picture of how events have impacted an area. The detailed information coming from heavily impacted provinces in the Philippines has and continues to be incredible. And while numbers help to give a snapshot of what's going on, it's breaking that information down into data that aid organizations can use that remains illusive. 

With the understanding that numbers aren't representative of the whole story, imagine if counties could produce detailed situation reports days following an event and how that could impact response efforts. At it stands, unless a disaster is federally declared prior to and event or while it's ongoing, gathering the necessary information to support a federal declaration request can take weeks. If municipalities had the ability to compile comprehensive damage information similar to what’s coming out of the Philippines, the speed at which a Governor could submit a declaration request could be considerably shortened and ultimately expedite the delivery of federal aid when applicable.

While numbers can tell you that 90% of the structures in a community have have been destroyed, they can't tell you how best to go about cleaning up or rebuilding a sense of community. For all the advances in technology that create greater efficiencies in communications, coordination, and reporting, the work done to clean up and build back following a disaster remains firmly on the shoulders of people.

In lieu of being on the ground, I hope that aid will begin to flow quickly to the areas of greatest need and those who need help receive it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Act Now, Save Later

In my last post I quoted a figure that for every $1 spent on preparedness, $5 would be saved in recovery. In exploring this simple yet profound relationship that so clearly illustrates the value of investing in preparedness, I came across a campaign recently launched by UNDP called "Act Now, Save Later."

The campaign cites startling statistics in an effort to raise awareness around the economic and human costs of disasters. 

UNDP's strong focus on preparedness is further reinforced by their involvement in advancing the Millennium Development Goals. The below report was released in 2010 and details the impacts disasters are having in both economic terms and the ability of the international development community to meet the 2015 deadline set for the MDGs.

While the focus on preparedness is nothing new, the reporting done and economic benefits outlined reinforce the need for continued focus from both the international and domestic aid communities.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Future of Long Term Recovery

Last week marked the 1 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the mid-Atlantic region. These large scale events offer an opportunity that many communities aren't afforded, an exact quantification of progress, a cataloguing of what's been done, and a questioning of what has not. Many smaller events, like the flooding in Texas or the recent blizzard in North Dakota are examples of disasters that strike, but that won't necessarily be revisited by our collective consciousness--they are blips that quickly fade into the noise of the 24 hour news cycle. While larger events like: the Haiti Earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and the Japanese Earthquake/Tsunami too will fade in time, their anniversaries are opportunities to refocus attention at the less straightforward side of disasters--Long Term Recovery.

Long Term Recovery as a topic for general discussion is one that doesn't get much attention even though it's a process that all communities impacted by an event must go through; partially because Long Term Recovery (LTR) isn't sexy, but more because it's incredibly intricate and difficult to distill into easily digestible stories. Last week there were countless articles asking why more hasn't been done, and whether the progress that has been made is the right direction to be headed in. And while it's great that attention is being paid to the recovery of communities that have largely fallen out of the spotlight, I'm not convinced that it's a viable way to impact the national dialogue on improving what's being done.
Recovery Continuum, NDRF:

And therein lies the challenge--how do you change the recovery paradigm? How do you impact what's being done? In the world of response, both short term and intermediate, the loop from start to finish is anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. This quick lifecycle makes it easier to try new things and track their relative success or failure. With Long Term Recovery, the identification of best practices and the integration of their revisions are different because LTR operates on timelines measured in years, not months. In addition to LTR's duration, there is no clearly identified "finish" line, what a completed recovery for one community looks like may not necessarily coincide with that of another. This discrepancy creates additional challenges when trying to compare the impacts of programming carried over from one LTR response to another.

In recognition of these challenges, FEMA issued a report spanning 7 years of Long Term Recovery, from 2004-2011. This report was created in an effort to provide guidance and a baseline from which to codify best practices implemented during the LTR timeframe. While shorter than many federal documents, clocking in at 69 pages, it's a long read that can be difficult to dig into if you're not a) interested in the subject or b) in the midst of navigating LTR.

So, LTR is tough to improve upon because it operates on a timeline that makes reviewing successful best practices and evolving them difficult, and the federal reporting to aid in that process isn't written for the audience it would benefit the most. So the question do you influence Long Term Recovery?
The best way to positively influence the recovery paradigm is to take the nuggets of wisdom compiled from previous events and integrate them into preparedness planning and frameworks (I realize that isn't groundbreaking). In working with communities that have gone through the paces of early recovery and are faced with the dramatic slowing of progress as LTR gets off the ground, people have generally said the same thing, that they wish they knew then what they know now. While papers have been written on the challenges of creating preparedness messaging that resonates with communities that creates action, the disconnect that exists between words and action in this realm is surprising given the facts:

In light of the above information and the fact that it's nothing many of us haven't been aware of for some time, why is making progress in the one area of the disaster lifecycle where it matters most, seemingly impossible? With so many organizations and state agencies out there who focus on building community resilience as a part of their mission, coupled with the availability of federal funding and the beginnings of a call for elected officials to become better versed in the language of emergency response, who would've thought that gaining ground in this area would be such a fight?

Nonprofit response and recovery plays catch up, always starting after the event has done the damage. Any efficiencies gained on the reactive side of the disaster spectrum would be welcome, but I believe there is near universal agreement that the opportunities exist within the realm of preparedness. So if history has illustrated the need, science tells us that the future is going to bring more of the same or worse, math backs up the economics of investing in preparedness, and the government has said that the focus should be on building community resilience--what exactly is holding things up?

The future of LTR doesn't exist in a new program or refinement of its model. The future exists in finding the political will to fund what we already know, and give communities a chance to implement changes before the articles written commemorating the next event that irrevocably altered the fabric of a community, are about them.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Shock Troops of Disaster

While I finish the last piece in the Sandy Anniversary Trilogy, I thought I would share a 10 minute video on the impacts of the Long Island Express Hurricane of 1938. There's lots of great footage of the storm's impacts and how a region recovered before there was National VOAD, FEMA, or NOAA. While essentially a WPA promotional video, it does a great job of capturing some of the tremendous impacts the hurricane had on communities across Long Island and New England.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Nonprofits and Long Term Recovery

Volunteers and nonprofit organizations have an undeniable impact on expediting a community's recovery in a post-disaster timeframe. The depth of experience and resource brought to bear by voluntary organizations can have a significant impact on the speed at which recovery progresses in communities on the mend. Volunteers and the nonprofit organizations that exist to support their activities are cornerstones of recovery efforts; from cooking and distributing meals and doing the physical work of mucking, gutting, and debris removal, to disaster case management and repair and rebuild work, nonprofit resources provide continuity as a community transitions from response into long-term recovery (LTR). Key to leveraging those resources however, comes with better understanding the types of challenges nonprofits face in sustaining LTR efforts.

Before looking at these unique challenges, one needs to understand the role nonprofits have as recovery plays out. To put it simply, they are the one's who provide the resource: human, material, financial, and experiential that guide and drive the long-term recovery process. In partnership with residents and local officials, nonprofits can be a wealth of insight to help steer Long Term Recovery Committees. And yet, even with all the responsibility that falls to local and national nonprofits to advocate and move the needle in a positive direction day after day, there are challenges. Because nonprofits rely on the goodwill of the communities they serve, after a point in time as a community tries to re-establish a new normal, some of that goodwill can be eroded.
  1. Progress is powered by people. Response is dominated by the spontaneity of volunteers proactively addressing unmet community needs. What usually starts as an overwhelming crush of interest quickly dwindles. Because nonprofits rely on a volunteers, their ability to sustain operations 6-12 months down the road can be compromised when the flow of volunteers has been reduced to a trickle. The changing seasons, competition for people's time, and a lack of media attention highlighting the needs can make generating interest a challenge. When nonprofits don't have a consistent workforce it causes delays in returning people to their homes.
  2. You've gotta have skills. One of the reasons so many people get involved in early recovery activities is because many of the problems that need solving require hands--lots of hands. However, when it comes to replacing floor joists, installing subfloors, hanging sheetrock, or mudding and taping, the number of hands needed drops drastically, and the hands you do need have to know what they're doing. Given that getting general volunteers is challenging, getting one's who could conceivably be getting paid for doing the same thing is even more difficult. Nonprofits need skills, the more volunteers with construction-related skills means helping more people on a shorter timeline.
  3. Vetting the need. One of the biggest departures from early recovery work that is central to long term recovery is being able to vet need. With so many pots of money that homeowners can apply for in addition to Federal dollars and any insurance money they may have received, doing the homework to understand a homeowners financial situation is key. Ensuring that those who are being helped with voluntary resources aren't able to afford a contractor is central to maintaining the integrity of long term recovery and to keeping the peace within the community. Communities with high concentrations of people who work in the trades (contractors, etc) raise concerns that nonprofits can "steal" potential work. Being able to confidently say that the homes nonprofits work on don't have the financial means to afford a professional contractor is important, however collecting the necessary information to say that takes time.
  4. Housing. While nonprofits work to put roofs back over the heads of individuals and families who lost them, there is a concern that they themselves may not have a place to live. As normalcy returns, one of the costs that becomes less palatable is having an organization reside your basement or annex building. During the response phase, civic organizations and the faith-based community are all too happy to help bring resources in, but what worked in the weeks following the event can create challenges when host sites want their space back to resume their full scope of programming months down the road.
In our society of instant gratification where faster and more efficient are the order of the day things, even as complex and involved as rebuilding neighborhoods, take "too" long because they operate on a timeline and scale outside everyday expectations. Unless a community has had the unfortunate luck of suffering through multiple events in a short period of time, residents have no frame of reference to create a shared understanding of what recovery means for them beyond what is reported in the media. Given the challenges associated with getting the public to take initial steps in personal preparedness, trying to educate them about the nuance of long-term recovery would be time wasted. However, I believe that city officials and cadres of local civic leaders should be educated on timelines and long term recovery expectations because they are the one's who will ultimately be leading these efforts when the time comes.

In 2012 there were 112 federally declared disasters, in 2013 there have been 90 so far. Each of those events encompasses multiple communities, communities going through the same process and experiencing the same frustrations as those recovering from Sandy. One would think that given how often the model of Long Term Recovery is employed that it would be perfected, and you would be incorrect. While there are commonalities in recovery that apply to all communities and disasters, because each community has different needs, priorities, people, and a vision for how they want to rebuild, means that each recovery will be different. Like everything about disasters, nothing is easy, but thankfully there are nonprofits who continue to work in partnership with communities to ensure that those who need help can get it. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Human Resilience

We talk about a community’s ability to cope with and recover from disasters in terms of resilience, but for the most part fail to extend the definition to include how to better mentally and emotionally prepare the people who will be affected. Disaster impacts are quantified by physical damage done to homes, infrastructure, and the total economic losses that result. While these factors are central in determining the severity of an event, it’s a sterile way of classifying the scope of something that exacts a heavy human toll.

According to a Gallup poll, the clinical diagnosis of depression in zip codes heavily affected by Sandy increased by 25% in the weeks following the storm. This coming at a time when Health and Human Service organizations that remained operational were stretched thin and left to deal with the overwhelming number of storm-related needs. What the poll didn’t measure were the number of individuals who were on medications for a pre-existing mental illness that stopped taking them due to facilities being taken off line, medication being lost in the storm, or not being able to contact their case worker due to lack of power, public transportation outages, and an absence of reliable information. 

In addition to the challenges posed by a lack of medications and reliable information, many substance abuse clinics worried/worry about the rise in abuse and relapses as a result of Sandy-related stresses. But the worry extends beyond substance and drug abuse, PTSD in adults and children, acute stress-related behaviors, flashbacks, hoarding, and a host of other personal mental issues continue to plague the survivors in their ability to recover. 

While organizations like the Staten Island Mental Health Society, Long Island Mental Health Services, and other nonprofit human service organizations have setup support groups, free crisis counseling, and other Sandy-related programming, the scale of the ongoing trauma point to an area needing urgent attention, understanding, and additional resources to adequately ensure support is there for those who need it. 

The greatest challenge facing those who preach preparedness is that there is no way for a person to understand how they will react in the face of an event until they're faced with an event. Training can help, but for the average person, training isn't realistic. Up to this point, check lists like the one put out by the American Psychological Association, the Disaster Distress Hotline, self care, and having a strong network of friends and family have been the promoted best practices to help individuals prepare for post-event psychological trauma. To enhance our knowledge of the short and long term psychological affects natural disasters have on people, the Feinstein Institute was recently awarded a $600,000 grant from the CDC. Over the next 2 years, a study will be conducted aimed at deepening our understanding of how to better prepare people to cope with the impacts of natural weather events that are forecast to become more common. 

As a stronger emphasis is placed on whole of community response, stronger advocacy will be needed to ensure that human resilience is made a key value and takeaway as a result of Superstorm Sandy. While building codes can uniformly address needed changes to how we protect ourselves, and flood maps will tell us how high to build, resilience in people is a far more dynamic and individualistic challenge, one that will require ongoing thought and resource to ensure that the communities we're working to make stronger can weather the next storm.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Speed of Long Term Recovery

Normandy Beach, NJ   Credit: Jeremy M. Lange
Today marks the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy making its historic landfall in the mid-Atlantic region. There are numerous articles commemorating the event by examining the causes and impacts ranging from meteorological to psychological, in an effort to better understand what’s been done and what’s left to do. Regardless of the cause or reason, each article revolves around the theme that while steps towards recovery have been made, real issues continue to plague families struggling through the recovery gauntlet. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Sandy impacted millions of people, and did incredible damage to infrastructure and the fabric of communities, so where is it written that 364 days later everything has to be fixed? Most articles question the progress, or lack thereof and ask “what’s holding up the recovery process?” While valid, in reading those same articles I ask if anyone has stopped to consider that it may be dubbed “Long” Term Recovery for a reason, and that it could be due to the fact that holistic rehabilitation takes time.

Because recovery is unique to the community impacted, it’s tough to measure progress without benchmarks. And creating generic benchmarks can’t be done because in each community different demographic sets were impacted--differently. All you can do is track what’s been done on a timeline so that in the future you have something to measure against, to create community-specific recovery data that can be the beginnings of benchmark creation. The long-term recovery of a town or county is a herculean task, when you multiply that by the size and population density of Sandy impacted areas, the scale of recovery needed for the mid-Atlantic region borders on Sisyphean.

I don’t bring that up as a scapegoat for broken programs or inefficient bureaucracy, I bring it up because it’s easy to lose sight of the enormity of the task when reading about how “little” has been done. So instead of adding to the cacophony of damning stats and stories of those still battling the federal government for recovery dollars, I choose to look at the two schools of thought that have added to the complexity of the recovery efforts and have helped set its tempo.

The dueling narratives at work in the mid-Atlantic region are not surprising, one focused on speed and the other trying to be more thoughtful in its approach to recovery. What is surprising is how they have the ability to spur progress and what directions that progress takes.

Restore the Shore
The cries that no act of god or mother nature will keep us from our homes are common as a community dusts itself off and sets about putting the pieces of their lives back together. Following Sandy the phrase “restore the shore” was adopted across NJ and could be felt in many other coastal communities as an unofficial mantra. For NJ building back along the shore wasn’t a question, the question was how quickly it could happen. This fixation on speed was amplified by statements committing resources to building back in the midst of early recovery chaos; oftentimes these proclamations of civic hubris are more about political theater than actually implementing recovery programming, but, it fed the mentality that there was no other course than to build it back, and to do so as quickly as possible. Part of the impetus for speed is due to many of the seaside communities relying heavily on tourism to keep their doors open and the boardwalk and other nostalgic throwbacks are what draw people to the shore year after year.

When Moore, OK was struck for the 5th time in just over a decade by an EF-5 tornado, people were throwing walls and trusses together to get on with their lives as soon as they could—just as they always had. However, it was only until some questioned whether repeating the storm/construction cycle that contributed to the loss of life and property was the best course of action, and asked whether changes should be enacted to building codes to mitigate future loss of life and property, did people pump the brakes on recovery. However, in the face of intense pressure, no changes to Moore’s building codes have taken affect, so all those who have rebuilt are not subject to any changes that would make their homes more resilient in the face of the next storm. Build it back and get on with life dictated the tempo in Moore and while I don’t wish a repeat storm, I don’t know what it will take for people to wake up.
Bob Bielk/The Asbury Park Press, via Associated Press
In September of this year the rebuilt boardwalk in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, NJ burned down taking significant sections of commercial property along with it. The cause of the blaze was faulty wiring. Investigators found that wiring that had been completely submerged by the storm surge had not been replaced and was overlooked in the rush to reopen the boardwalk. While the loss of the newly built boardwalk and iconic businesses are tragic, some believe that instead of re-rebuilding a boardwalk that would get washed away in a future storm, maybe this is would be an opportunity to explore options that preserve the shore as an economic driver while also incorporating measures that would mitigate the damage form a future storm of equal or greater magnitude. Those hoping for a pause on construction were disappointed when Governor Christie promised additional recovery dollars to be earmarked for boardwalk construction in an effort to get ready for next year’s summer season.

While getting families back in their homes and re-opening businesses are the foundational elements of community recovery, the above are two higher profile examples of how haste can work against the underlying efforts driving recovery. 

Resilient Communities
The other narrative at play, one that’s not quite as popular as it doesn’t have a catchy slogan is the idea that seaside communities have been given an opportunity to rethink their future. That instead of building back to pre-storm conditions, new construction techniques and approaches to planning can make communities less susceptible to storm surges and high wind events, while fulfilling traditional civic needs. Some, like retired coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey take a stronger stance, urging people to retreat from the coast in advance of what will be stronger storms and rising seas. While Mr. Pilkey may be in the minority, there is a growing call for substantive action on the part of those in charge to restore natural marsh and wetlands. These natural sponges absorb storm surge and many were filled in for property development. Their return would be a natural mitigation measure that would lessen future storm impacts while improving the eco-systems of coastal habitats that help drive tourism. Another well-received natural measure is the creation of dunes to mitigate the impacts of high winds and storm surge. In addition to these natural solutions, there are design contests and other actions tied to the receipt of federal dollars that are trying to shake communities out of the build it back mentality.
Credit: CT Audubon Society
While the resilient approach to reducing impacts of future Sandy-like storms that will be the new normal seem like the only way forward, much of the call for building resilience into recovery has only been talk up to this point.

So how do you measure the speed of recovery? And whose benchmarks are you going to use? These questions are central to how the next 12 months will play out along the mid-Atlantic region. Many homeowners just want the ability to go home and are pushing for dollars to achieve that end, while others worry that the home they go back to will be at risk the next time a storm rumbles up the east coast.

Like most things in disaster response and recovery, there is no clear way forward. It’s up to those entrusted to oversee the process to strike a balance that works in getting people back in their homes while incorporating as many mitigation measures as possible to reduce future storm impacts.

Which side makes the most sense to you? 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast -- Sandy Recovery

Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast. In theory this beautifully crafted statement would be the tagline for Long Term Recovery. Unfortunately, the reality that many renters, homeowners, and municipalities face during the Long Term Recovery process can be characterized as anything but ‘smooth’ or ‘fast’. You needn’t look further than any one of the stories that the news media has published in light of Superstorm Sandy’s 1-year anniversary for evidence of this fact. Recovery dollars are delayed; homeowner’s continue to wrangle with FEMA, their insurance companies, and contractors on money owed or how best to proceed in the face of the ever-changing landscape that is Long Term Recovery on a wide scale.
Staten Island, NY - Midland Beach Area (Credit: Natan Dvir/Polaris)
Given the lasting social, financial, and political impacts Sandy has had on the Mid-Atlantic region, one post devoted to understanding where things stand didn’t seem appropriate. With that said, I’m going to spend this week looking at Sandy through a number of different lens and explore:

The speed of Long Term Recovery
Within hours of Sandy’s passing communities were calling to be rebuilt, urging for the expeditious return to pre-Sandy conditions. At the same time though, another narrative surfaced, one with a focus on building back stronger and smarter to create more resilient communities. These opposing views are at odds with one another and have created environments strained by competing interests, which is affecting recovery speed and responsiveness.

The Mental Impacts of Disaster
While much of the impacts of disaster are quantified by the physical damage done to communities, there are mental impacts that disaster brings that don’t get attention because they’re usually silent. The passage of Sandy was a traumatic event, creating, uncovering, and exacerbating mental illness, adding to the strain of an already difficult situation. The mental toll Sandy exacted on families already struggling isn't a story often told, but one that has impacted everyone who went through the storm in some way.

Nonprofits in Long Term Recovery
In the aftermath of response, images of armies of volunteers doing cleanup work, distributing meals, and generally giving everyone a warm fuzzy feeling were everywhere. In the interceding 12 months the volunteer interest has waned, and many of the groups that descended on the mid-Atlantic region have long since packed up and moved on. So, what role do nonprofits play this far into recovery operations? What challenges are they facing? And how is a balance struck between contractors looking for work and Nonprofits providing similar services for free?

The Future of Long Term Recovery
What have we learned, and will we as a collective conscious care when it happens again in a smaller community? Will the pressure be as intense? If every community that experiences a disaster will go through the trials and tribulations of long-term recovery, how can we make them better prepared so that the speed of recovery is no longer a problem?

The Recovery of any community is a complex and drawn out process where competing interests lobby for how recovery dollars should be spent and opposing viewpoints clash over who should be leading the efforts. While the statement: 'slow is smooth and smooth is fast' would be a great way to characterize long term recovery, until communities are stronger and better prepared for dealing with the realities of what recovery entails, they will have to remain an aspirational ideal. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Matt Damon, Defender of the Universe

With so many charities out there it's easy to lose your way, to feel that you truly know who you're giving to and what they're do with your donation.
Source: House of Lies
That's why I'd like to introduce you to Damon's Children. Matt Damon, already known for his work in many philanthropic endeavors, is lending his name, his marksmanship, and his apparent ability to prescribe medicine to children around the world.

No stranger to getting his hands dirty, Mr. Damon has long been a staunch advocate for world health issues. His work in raising awareness around Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene issues was most notably promoted by his refusal to use a toilet. (below)

And while some may view Mr. Damon's tactics as unorthodox, with no clear connection between his unique brand of advocacy and work done on the ground I say, look at that smile, that smile wouldn't lie to you.

I would like to commend him for being so vocal, for being a visionary, and for refusing to stand behind his boyish good looks while fighting for what he believes in.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Surviving a blackout

When the lights went out in NYC for a few hours there were inconveniences for people and losses for business. However, it was only for a few hours and people chalked it up to a once in a lifetime experience.

While many hope that's the case, the aging power grid and books like 'One Second After' point to the potential for a more protracted "lights out" scenario. 

American Blackout is a special that National Geographic will be airing on Oct 27th that explores what a protracted blackout scenario would look like. While I don't know if I'll tune in, I did checkout the interactive website. It breaks down what a 10-day blackout scenario would look like for an individual and I think the format is something that would be interesting to see applied to the broader world of preparedness. It's engaging, interactive, and kept me clicking. 

If you want to kill some time, check it out. 

Do you know of something similar? Leave a comment below, I would like to see what else is out there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Drought, Fire, and Climate Change?

Earlier this year I posted on an unprecedented firestorm that overtook Tasmanian towns in "Fire on the Mountain." What was astounding about that event was the fact that there was nothing anyone could do to "fight" that blaze; the wind, the soaring temperatures, and the aggressive nature of the fire were more than conventional firefighting tactics could handle, and as such, the only thing people could do was to get out of the way and let it burn.

Six days ago what started as fires in the brush and farm lands around the Blue Mountains of New South Wales (NSW), a national park area roughly 60 miles from the heart of downtown Sydney, has mutated into 60 fires with 18 of them uncontained thanks to high winds, high temps, and low humidity. In addition to the environmental factors fanning the flames, the topography of the mountainous area in question and the high density of volatile eucalyptus, or "gasoline trees," are adding to the challenges of keeping an ever expanding fire front under control.
NSW brushfire 10.21.2013             Source: Brisbanetimes
And while all signs point to the an unholy trinity of environmental factors: high heat, low humidity, and high wind for fanning the flames of the current situation, Andy Pitman from the University of New South Wales believes that climate change is the cause of this current emergency and not the coincidental alignment of environmental factors. Pitman asserts that the 2nd warmest winter on record in NSW, part of Australia's warmest 12 month period created the environment in which the fires are thriving and that there is probably a larger link to climate change. Regardless of the root cause, Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons just wants it to end.

Wednesday Morning (AEDT) Rural Fire Service Media Briefing:

So the big question is...if fires have been a way of life in Australia for decades, would it not make sense to create a map based on fire behavior and historical fire data to inform where and how homes are built in the future? Like all large disasters, the cleanup and restoration of areas are often partially subsidized with taxpayer dollars. While you can't predict where a fire will start, I believe there is enough data to inform the designation of high risk areas where it would be likely to spread and why. Based on this information couldn't mapping of "red zones" or off-limit areas be compiled to not only reduce the scope of these destructive events, but to also alleviate some of the taxpayer burden, and reduce the anxiety of living in fear of fire?