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Disarming Disasters Before They Strike

By Kim Pozniak and Sara A. Fajardo

Amy Hilleboe has worked on Catholic Relief Services' emergency response and disaster preparedness programs since 1993. She spends most of her time designing and carrying out programs that help communities prepare for and respond to disasters. CRS recognizes the importance of investing in emergency preparedness. Although it is hard to quantify, estimates are that every dollar spent on preparedness saves between three and seven dollars in disaster response. Most importantly, emergency preparedness saves countless lives.

Amy Hilleboe

Amy Hilleboe with women at Jalozai Camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2005. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

Kim Pozniak and Sara A. Fajardo:
What is disaster risk reduction?
Amy Hilleboe:

It's recognizing that people live in disaster-prone or high-risk areas and working with communities on ways to lessen the impact of a disaster. Here in the United States, we begin raising awareness and preparing for emergencies when we are very young.

Depending on the region, we learn what to do in the event of an earthquake, a hurricane or a tornado. From a very young age, we are taught in our schools and through television to feel the door when a fire breaks out, to get under a desk in the event of an earthquake, or to stop-drop-and-roll if our clothes catch fire.

This isn't the case in the developing world. It isn't something that is part of people's education.

Part of Catholic Relief Services' mission is to help communities develop an emergency plan so that they can make decisions that help lessen the devastation brought on by natural disasters.

When disaster strikes, there are people who have the resources to simply pack up and leave, while those who don't are stuck to weather out the storm. CRS begins the disaster risk reduction process by recognizing that people do have mechanisms to respond to an emergency. We help communities to craft response plans that involve everyone. We work with them to understand the nature of the disaster, to organize a collective response, and to create early warning systems and evacuation routes.

Pozniak and Fajardo:
Why did CRS see a need to include disaster risk reduction as part of our humanitarian aid efforts?
Hilleboe:

About 10 to 15 years ago, we started looking more at people's capacities and what they can do for themselves. We realized that it would be more powerful if communities strengthened their own disaster planning systems and put them into place to protect themselves rather than wait for us to respond to disasters after they've taken place.

We also recognized that we needed to protect the inroads we'd achieved in reducing poverty, and include contingency planning to help lessen the damage caused by a disaster. A disaster that takes only minutes to strike can take years for communities to recover from.

For example, if we put in a water system during the dry season, placing it where it seems most logical, near the community, we may not be taking into account that the area might be flooded when the rains begin. Eventually, when the flood hits, the well would be rendered useless. If it's an open well, the water is contaminated. If it's a submerged pump, people can't access it and would have no water supply.

There is actually a very simple solution to the flood problem: Rather than placing the water pump right at ground level, we elevate it by creating a tall cement base with steps so that when it floods, the water supply remains above flood levels, keeping it safe and accessible. CRS does this with latrines as well, so they don't have to be completely rebuilt after a flood.

Pozniak and Fajardo:
How does CRS decide where disaster risk reduction work might be necessary?
Hilleboe:

We do something called "risk mapping," and look for vulnerable areas that repeatedly have been hit by natural disasters. These communities haven't had the time to recover from past disasters before they have to deal with the next one. If we don't take into account these natural phenomena, any work we accomplish might be eradicated before the next monsoon, hurricane or flood hits. The community can't progress rapidly because it has to constantly rebuild rather than move forward.

Pozniak and Fajardo:
Does CRS tailor its approach for each community?
Hilleboe:

Yes, we do. It's the community that takes charge. This approach takes longer because we are not doing it for them. Instead, we help them draft their own emergency plans. We work at developing the capacity of the whole community.

Often, it's the natural leaders who come forward, but in order for this to work, CRS has to have full participation of the community. That means women, people with disabilities and children. Each group has different needs. Children, for example, have really expressed concerns about missing school, so we try to help the community put a plan in place to designate a new location for classes in the event the school is flooded.

We also link communities with their country's emergency preparedness and response office and help them understand the role of government in disaster management. In an area in India, for example, there was a river embankment that was being eroded, causing the river to encroach on the villages. This made these communities more susceptible to flooding. They didn't know that they could ask their government for help. With our guidance, members of the affected community approached their officials and were able to get the assistance they needed to reinforce the embankment, stop the erosion and prevent further flooding.

Kim Pozniak is a CRS communications officer covering U.S. Operations. Sara A. Fajardo is a CRS communications officer covering Latin America and the Caribbean. Both are based in Baltimore, MD.

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