As we enter the height of the Atlantic hurricane season, disaster preparedness is very much on our minds at Catholic Relief Services.
CRS is known for our efficient and effective response to disaster. But a key aspect of emergency response is working with high-risk communities before a disaster so they will be better able to cope when catastrophe strikes.
This kind of disaster preparedness can take several forms. We can help a community reduce their vulnerability by learning from previous disasters, lessons they know well. CRS helps to save lives and livelihoods by working with communities to plan before disaster strikes: developing emergency committees; establishing simple and effective early warning systems; identifying the most vulnerable who will need immediate assistance; defining evacuation routes; and preparing shelters and safe havens.
We saw evidence of successful preparation after Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh last November. After a similar storm in 1991, there were a reported 143,000 deaths. Last year, the number of deaths was reported at about 3,300. Many people said they survived only because there were able to seek refuge in a nearby cyclone shelter. To date, CRS’ partner Caritas Bangladesh has built more than 200 cyclone shelters, which double as schools. There are plans to build more cyclone shelters in disaster-prone communities.
CRS recognizes that villagers naturally become the first responders during a disaster, helping their families and neighbors survive. After a devastating super cyclone hit the state of Orissa in eastern India in 1999, villages worked through organized self-help groups. Women’s groups, originally formed as savings and lending clubs, had planned ahead for the disaster. As a result of their preparation, these women were able to help their neighbors with search and rescue, first aid, and evacuation, along with distribution of food, blankets, medicine and clean water.
CRS expanded on this model of community action by forming hundreds of women’s self-help groups, providing them with disaster-preparedness training and helping them start grain banks so they could collect and store surplus rice for emergency distribution. Communities that are involved in these efforts have reported fewer deaths, more rapid recovery and reduced emergency response costs in subsequent storms.
Another measure that makes emergency response faster, easier and less expensive is to pre-position essential lifesaving supplies. For example, before Hurricane Dean struck the Caribbean in August, we stockpiled supplies and cash, and pre-positioned a CRS emergency expert in Jamaica. In disaster-prone places, we also train local masons and construction workers on how to repair and rebuild structures that are stronger and safer, so that fewer lives are lost and dollars spent the next time.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number and intensity of natural disasters. In the past year, the weather-related disasters we’ve responded to include flooding in East Africa, West Africa, Pakistan, India and Mexico; massive typhoons in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Myanmar; and hurricanes in Central America and the Caribbean. In this context, disaster preparedness will continue to be a vital task-one that will reduce the cost of disaster response, and, most importantly, will save lives.
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