Friday, January 15, 2010

Classic Disaster Response in Haiti and what can be done

Haiti and the unfolding response strategy demonstrate how little we have learnt after decades of dealing with disasters. It is my understanding that the Prime Minister of Dominica, who is also the current chair of CARICOM, Hon. Roosevelt Skerrit is on his way to Haiti. His visit, I understand will be short but he along with the former Minister of Education and Foreign Minister, Vince Henderson are probably in my estimation, the best disaster coordinators that I know. However, given the magnitude of the quake and the context in Haiti, one can expect logistics problems. Tierney (2007) noted "how people die during disasters is an indication of how they lived." what has worked so far in Haiti, it the determination and effort of local people in mounting the rescue effort. Often with bare hands, simple tools, patience and tenacity, they have been able to rescue many. High tech equipment, technology and experts and all those gadgets often tooted as tools for recovery are nowhere near present. It is local people, ordinary people who are now making the difference in Haiti.

Despite the assurance that assessors were evaluating the situation, they were unable to recognize that the airport was too small, the port was damage and has to find alternatives and the roads were impassible. No amount of manuals can make a difference here and it is this situations that make people cynical about disaster education and its ability to make a difference. In any case, the Haitian context is what is essential and disaster management should be designed within this context: the poverty, inadequate infrastructure, little expertise, inadequate organizational and institutional support.

Disaster recovery is the function of local people and local organization and the Haitian case is proving that. This is even more so when no one can reach the disaster site from the outside. Dominica's experience of using local disaster management committees in each community with responsibility for shelter management, local relief and reporting with central government and related disaster organization - the red cross, public utilities, media, taking on a coordinating role. The media has demonstrated that they are essential assets for relief mobilization and distribution as well. However, Dominica's experience has been with hurricanes which can be forecast and preparation made. The devastation can be just as tragic as Dominica discovered with Hurricane David In 1979. A system of local village councils also assist in organizing for disasters.

We need heavy equipment to clear roads, choppers to air lift food. local food centers can be manned by FAO and other UN Agencies who know the place well; the Red Cross to coordinate the list of missing they have wide experience in that area and providing emergency supplies; the church has years of experience in feeding large groups of people: the Adventist Relief Agency (ADRA) who are working in Haiti are excellent at Emergency shelter construction; the army are tent experts, they live in those all the time: UNICEF and Save the Children also in Haiti are best with children providing emergency education and supplies and support. Those kind will need PSTD intervention. Doctors without borders are world renowned to know their roles. Both the Dominica Electricity Company and LIME Telecoms in Dominica as well have tremendous experience in the restoration of electrical and telecoms infrastructure. They worked in Grenada after Ivan and in Montserrat at the Soufirere volcano; LIME moved it's cables underground to protect them after the use of community health workers, and local fist aids can be used to stabilise the injured.

However, the first three days of chaos is expected can be reduced significantly if locals - community organization is fostered because this is what is essential when cultural protections collapse. Neighbors know where people are, what their conditions are. Again Dominica is fortunate because of its health care system. a cadre of health and medical persons are located within each community. Haiti's poverty is a serious drawback in this case but there are some structures in place that can be used as I mentioned.

What is instructive here is how the very structures to be used for response and relief crumble during disasters and that it is local people, ordinary people who are presently making the difference, not only in direct help but how after almost 72 hours, they have been able to conduct themselves; their tenacity, attitude and patience; I supposed forged out of centuries of hardship and pains maybe. These are the protections in which we need to invest because Haiti shows that irrespective of the context this is what works in those critical hours. It can also work in the long term. Research in children, learning and chronic natural disaster will demonstrate how this can be done on a sustained level using intergenerational approach and the establish system of education.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti, I'm sorry

A West Indian Calypsonian penned and sang a heart touching song "Haiti, I'm Sorry." This song captured the historical struggles of a people and whose daily existence seem to have reached its nadir with this 7.0 quake that has rocked and totally devastated the country. Haiti is and has been a fragile state. Coups, poverty and poor infrastructure and institutions have marked the governance and organiscape of the the nation. Today as the extent and impact of the Haitian earthquake unfolds, its become clear that this is a perfect disaster. A classical lesson in disasters that no graduate level course could teach. My hope is that all students of disaster are paying close attention.

The Haitian case exposes the weakness of mainstream theories of disaster and approaches to emergency management. Any centralized management apparatus is worthless because communication and transportation have become victims of the disaster. Those have collapse. Telecommunications and any other technology gadgets long the bastion of mainstream disaster management have also collapsed. It is local people relying on their knowledge, skills and attitudes that are making a different in Haiti in that 36hour windows that is considered the most critical. Whatever emergency plans and organizations exists, it seems no one is consulting or referring to them. Theories of disaster should be congruent with the response approaches and recommendations. The need to remove protection from the infrastructural, technological and economic domains to the social and cultural domains that is knowledge,skills and attitudes. This would necessitate a philosophical shift in our thinking and the organizations that promote and fund disaster research and practice.

David Alexander (2000) in his excellent blog on "Disaster Planning and Emergency Management," argued for emergency planning and management, that focused on culture and context. Given the theories are "road maps" for practice, theories that focuses on culture and context have to be developed.

While a 7.0 quake by any imagination is huge, by Haiti's, its catastrophic. The poverty, poor infrastructure, weak management, poor environmental practices, weak governance under normal conditions are disastrous. California had a 6.9 quake a few week ago but with little damage. The disaster is not in the trigger. It is in the culture and context. In the case of Haiti, the quake was just a trigger and pictures fed on television are merely, the results or symptoms of the disaster. The disaster is in the collapse of the social and cultural protections - the knowledge, skills and attitudes that is necessary to get citizens to make informed decision in every day life conscious of the risk and vulnerability. Those have to be learnt in systematic and sustained ways and has to be pervasive to address this widespread collapse. The widespread extent of that destruction and collapse is a clear indication of the pervasive nature of what the issues are and the cultural and social elements inherent in that pervasiveness are assumed.

Change can be attained through a systematic process of transmitting the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to make decisions around the persistent threat of earthquakes and hurricanes. This requires shifts in disaster management - from institutional focus to community focus, from a centralized to a decentralized approach. This may not suffice now. Relief and human suffering has to be alleviated but the future demands that new approach that responds to or at best captures the culture and context notions of David Alexander.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I missed the President of the United States report on the findings of the investigation following the Christmas Day attempted bombing of the Northwestern Flight. However, I listened to Messrs Brenan, Gibbs and Napolitano's press conference on the findings and strategies for response. As I did, a number of things come to mind. The first being the need to guard against solving the wrong problems. Dunn (1997) identified what he described as Type III error in which one arrives at the false conclusion that the estimated boundaries of a problem approximates the true boundary of the problem. He offers several benchmarks for establishing congruence between those boundaries. The second being the fact that the flight emerged out of the United States as an indication that terrorist may be finding it increasingly difficult to launch attacks from US soil - a possibility that the measures being taken within the United States are effective. The third things can be seen as two important aspects of the shift in terror tactics - the use of non- middle eastern, Muslims to launch attacks and to do so from outside the US. That third thing having been highlighted at the press conference. These three things have to be central to the response and approach. The press conference appear to focus strategy on the United States - new machines, more K-9 officers, sharing of intelligence. While there is the need to ensure greater supervision and decisive action to be taken within the public service arms involved in national security, there is a need to ensure that those avenues for attacks available outside of the United States are policed if not curtailed.

Returning to the question of problem boundaries, adequate analysis of the problem is required to identify as nearly as possible its true boundary that is, it causes, not its symptoms must be the focus of responses.

Another critical aspects of that approach is to develop "a culture of disaster aversion" - a mental and cognitive shift in understanding and accepting the risks and vulnerabilities and adopting matched attitudes and skills to diffuse. In means a systematic inculcation or transmission of the Knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to respond to disasters or at best threats of disasters. The reaction of the passengers on that Christmas Day flight is an example of the the kind of attitude that is required. It must extend to all citizens on airplanes, in airports, in queues, on trains, on buses, in schools, in neighborhoods. As much as we may not want to be suspicious of our neighbours and friends. Often it is they who have the greatest opportunities to do us harm. We all must be come disaster intelligent. This means refusing to remain silent in the face of suspicion, and confronting when breaches are recognized whether with respect to security or regulations.

In addition, there must be open and outright condemnation of these Al Kaeda attacks by mainstream Islam. It is these condemnations that will assist in serving as a signal to the young and unsuspecting adherents and would be recruits. The silence of mainstream Islam on these attacks continue to be troubling.