Friday, January 15, 2010

Problems With Disaster Relief

What's happening right now in Haiti should be a lesson for all of us. Disasters don't happen only in poor, underdeveloped countries. Massive natural catastrophes occur all over the United States. I'll mention just a few.

Remember the historic San Francisco earthquake and fire that virtually destroyed the city and killed an estimated 6,000 people. It brought that whole society to its knees. More recently in the same area the Loma Prieta earthquake caused $6 billion in damage, although the death toll was only 69.

Southern California was hit by a 6.6 earthquake in 1971 that collapsed freeways, destroyed two hospitals, a major dam, and pretty well strangled the population for a time. Then again in 1994, the 6.7 Northridge earthquake clobbered the southland to the tune of $23 billion in damages, 57 deaths and about 12,000 injured. More than 100,000 homes and businesses were damaged.

Remember Hurricane Andrew and the $25 billion in damage that it imposed on Florida and Louisiana? And one that will never leave our memories is Hurricane Katrina that caused $84 billion in devastation, killed nearly 2,000 people, and left folks homeless and hopeless for years afterward.

I bring up those historic disasters as a reminder that Americans are vulnerable to catastrophe right here at home. These events don't take place only in distant lands. And as we analyze what is happening in Haiti in the aftermath of the quake, it's possible to see a common problem with disaster relief no matter where it happens.

The problem I'm referring to is the delivery of relief supplies to the survivors. When the landscape is torn up, whether by an earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, or acts of terrorism, delivering food and water and medical supplies and personnel to distribute all of it becomes an enormous problem. No matter how much stuff is available to relieve the suffering, if you can't get it to the people in need, the disaster only becomes worse.

How can a disaster get worse just because supplies are delayed? What's going on in Haiti right now is an example of what I'm talking about. Survivors are turning from being grateful just to be alive to being angry because there is a delay in the delivery of relief supplies. CNN this morning was broadcasting video footage of clusters of Haitians venting their rage because the government had not yet delivered food and water or other supplies. There are reports of looting and violence, and the problem is only going to get worse.

Relief organizations have begun flowing supplies into the country, but the problem is that the airport and roadways are so broken up that transportation of the goods is going to take a while to get all the way to the people in need. Meanwhile, the folks who are suffering have no idea about the problems being faced by those who are trying to come to their aid. So the anger grows, looting increases, violence evolves into food riots, and delivery of supplies becomes more difficult and dangerous.

One official who was trying to distribute food to a small crowd of about 30 victims quickly ran out of supplies. What he noticed was that young men were pushing the elderly, women and children to the back of the crowd — forcing those who needed help the most to be the least served. That was with only 30 people involved. Imagine what's going to happen when the number is in the hundreds or thousands.

Such is the nature of the aftermath of a disaster. Desperate people do desperate things. They behave in a manner that they probably would not under normal circumstances, pushing each other out of the way to get what they want, mobbing delivery vehicles, stealing and even killing to satisfy their own perceived needs.

So how can you avoid a situation like that?
  • Have your own emergency supply of food, water (and/or water filter), medicines, and other necessities so you don't have to depend on a relief agency. Store these items in a place where you can retrieve them fairly easily even if the building collapses. An out building will present a smaller pile of rubble to dig through than the main building. A portable 72-hour kit is a good place to start, then expand your inventory in case there is a long-term crisis. 
  • Promote this concept among all your friends and family members. The more people who are self-sufficient, the less burden there will be on relief organizations. 
  • Stay away from crowds. Don't become part of the mob, and don't even put yourself in a position to be in their path.

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