What lessons are being learnt from natural disasters?

In the past decade the responses to major natural disasters have been analyzed in hundreds of case studies and examined by experts from a variety of fields. Lessons learnt from these are then tested in subsequent crises and further data is collected. It is essential that the right lessons are learnt. In more recent years people who deliver disaster aid have begun to benefit from data driven decisionmaking, similar to commercial and military procedures.

More people are vulnerable today

Today more people than ever are vulnerable to natural disasters. Population growth and rapid growth of urban populations in developing countries over the last few decades has resulted in increased numbers of people who require help each year as a result of natural hazards such as storms, floods, and earthquakes. More than a billion people now live within 62 miles of an ocean, with over 10 million people being affected by flooding each year. Global climate change now threatens to increase these number significantly in the 21st Century.

Earthquakes are considered even more lethal for those in urban areas of poorer countries, highlighted by events in Port au Prince, Haiti, which claimed the lives of over 200,000 people. There has been a huge growth in the number of people living in poorly constructed urban dwellings in recent decades. Many of these people now live in poorly constructed housing.

Logistical problems in Haiti

The world responded to the Haiti earthquake with one of the biggest international aid efforts ever mounted, with thousands of tons of food, water and medicine being received from across the globe. But the small island of Haiti had a limited infrastructure before the earthquake struck. Physically moving the supplies into the country was extremely difficult with the capital’s port and airport severely damaged. Once they had arrived in Haiti, the task of distribution was even harder, with roads blocks by rubble.

With tens or even hundreds of different groups, charities and NGOs all descending on disaster zones, there is often a lack of coordination between them all. With many groups competing for resources such as food, fuel or transport, often duplicating their efforts which could be put to better use if better coordinated.

What has been learnt from previous disasters

Researchers continuously study relief efforts to learn lessons and find better ways to respond to natural disaster in the future:

    7 December 1988 – Earthquake: Spitak, Armenia
Employ local people Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, but Moscow prohibited residents  from working on rebuilding, causing political tension. Four years later, only 30 per cent of necessary structures were finished.

    17 January 1995 – Earthquake: Kobe, Japan
Communicate better, more often, and more completely A lack of timely and accurate information made it difficult for families to get services they needed. Shelter locations were not well publicised, which delayed relief.

    17 August 1999 – Earthquake: Izmit, Turkey
Rebuild stronger After quakes destroyed unsafe structures, rebuilding started quickly and without proper regulation and building standards. This resulted in further vulnerable construction taking place.

    26 December 2003 – Earthquake: Bam, Iran
Restore law and order quickly refugees from the countryside flooded the city in search of aid, but there was no system to support them. Several days of looting held up distribution of supplies and threatened the recovery.

    26 December 2004 – Tsunami: Indian Ocean multiple countries affected
Basic provisions need to regionally appropriate Taking into account people’s beliefs and cultures.

    29 August 2005 – Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Aid must be delivered quickly There was wide criticism at the speed at which aid reached the affected population.

    8 October 2005 – Earthquake: Kashmir, Pakistan
Medical care needs to be culturally appropriate Few female doctors were deployed to the region and due to strong local beliefs which restrict physical contact between men and female. This limited care available.

    27 May 2006 – Earthquake: Yogyakarta, Java
Prepare Areas where households had received some disaster training were able to deliver aid to others before official help arrived. People in those regions surveyed after the quake indicated that they appreciated such assistance.

Source: Lessons from Aceh (DEC), Organizing Armageddon: what we learned from the Haiti earthquake (WIRED)

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