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.