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.