Posts Tagged ‘Disaster Relief’

Survivors collect water from a broken water pipe in an area devastated by Typhoon Haiyan on November 12, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines. Four days after the Typhoon Haiyan devastated the region many have nothing left, they are without food or power and most lost their homes. Around 10,000 people are feared dead in the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year. Photo: Dondi Tawatao, Getty Images

Survivors collect water from a broken water pipe in an area devastated by Typhoon Haiyan on November 12, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines. Four days after the Typhoon Haiyan devastated the region many have nothing left, they are without food or power and most lost their homes. Around 10,000 people are feared dead in the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year. Photo: Dondi Tawatao, Getty Images

By Dr. Jarrod Goentzel, Director of the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab

After Super Typhoon Haiyan struck, I saw several images, videos, and anecdotes that made my gut ache. People in crowded clinics waiting for medicine to arrive, others congregating around scarce water pipes filling containers for family and friends, and saddest of all, survivors mournfully searching through makeshift morgues to identify loved ones.

During a massive disaster response, news reporters always find these stories that sadden me…and frustrate me. Inevitably, journalists ask affected people why the government and aid agencies cannot coordinate the response to meet the dire needs of victims. Interviewees usually do not know why the response is slow, but they rightly assert that the problem needs to be solved.  Reporters then find their way to the airport to find aid items – some of which may have helped the people they just interviewed – sitting on the tarmac. They ask airport officials and aid agencies why more goods are not being moved to the disaster area quicker. The response is that the situation is very dynamic and complex.

The picture is complete for the news articles and broadcasts about the disaster: needy residents are unable to understand why aid is slow, and officials are not able to clearly explain why.

Leaving the story at that point is what frustrates me. Having worked actively with humanitarian organizations on logistics for over ten years now, I know the good work that is done after these tragic situations to explain where and why aid was too slow. I see the passion of aid workers who are just as frustrated as the affected residents that the system does not work better. They identify issues and propose solutions. Then I see the incremental progress implemented during the next big disaster. The cluster approach1 proposed after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami has been implemented and improved over the years.

We need both narratives during a disaster – those tracking the unmet needs and those following the coordinated response efforts . There are good sources of information about how the system is working and how many people are being served during a crisis. I have listed several of my usual sources below (note that they do have a logistics angle). These sources may be a bit dry – they are aimed to disseminate facts to other responders, not stories for the public – but they provide the information for the media consumer who is left asking: what is being done for that needy survivor Anderson Cooper just interviewed?

I also want reporters to continue finding the people whose needs are not being met appropriately (as long as their planes do not block the flow of any essential commodities). Although frustrating to me in isolation, these stories identify the service gaps in order to focus the response efforts and mobilize the resources we need to find solutions.

The aid community is just as motivated by the sad stories as the public. And they are just as frustrated when the complex system of humanitarian response does not do enough. Aid workers and the concerned public need to continue following both storylines and demanding improvements.

Information Sources for Typhoon Haiyan

Philippines National Government
http://www.ndrrmc.gov.ph – the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Center (NDRRMC) leads the response efforts for the Philippine government; frequent and lengthy situation reports track the impact (with several large tables of numbers), the national emergency response management efforts, and international humanitarian assistance

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and sector clusters
http://www.unocha.org/crisis/typhoonhaiyan and http://philippines.humanitarianresponse.info – portals with links to each of the clusters where you find more details about that sector; a key document is the Typhoon Haiyan Action Plan (12 Nov 2013), which lists the strategic objectives and key projects, with their funding requirements, for over 20 organizations

International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
http://www.ifrc.org/en/publications-and-reports/appeals – archive with early information bulletins; the appeal (12 Nov 2013) outlining actions planned to meet the immediate needs of the people affected and support the Philippine Red Cross in delivering humanitarian assistance; operation updates to track the progress of activities

http://reliefweb.int/disaster/tc-2013-000139-phl – an independent portal that archives documents spanning various organizations

Logistics Cluster
http://logcluster.org/ops/phl13a – portal with various documents and maps describing logistics efforts; meeting minutes and situation reports offer the best overall picture of efforts to move critical supplies; the Concept of Operations outlines the coordination mechanisms (among response organizations and with government, military, etc.), information management (e.g. customs, local transporters, infrastructure status), and common services (e.g. transportation, warehousing) to fill identified gaps in logistics capacity

http://fts.unocha.org – tracks donations made toward the UN OCHA Typhoon Haiyan Action Plan; note some donors have portals with their own situation reports and assistance efforts.


1 The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners, established the cluster approach for inter-agency coordination around focus areas such as shelter, nutrition, health, logistics, etc. For more information see http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/iasc.


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By Julia Moline

When you read an article or hear a story or see firsthand how hard it is to manage information after a disaster, it’s tempting to think that if only we had the right systems, all of our problems would go away. Technology can achieve amazing things. We can use aerial imagery to allocate response teams; we can trace tweets to find people trapped in a building; we can share information with people all over the world over computers and mobile devices. So why can’t we make this work?

The first hindrance is money, which can be a large barrier for non-profits. There are also number of issues that technology itself cannot address. These challenges are especially pronounced in areas that bring a lot of different kinds of responding groups together, including anywhere voluntary aid meets government response.

1. Different groups need systems for different reasons. In-kind donations management is a good example of this—it makes sense to have a single system that allows donors, beneficiaries, and decision-makers to see what’s needed and what’s available. Systems like the National Donations Management Network are built to help meet various needs through selective user access, multiple data filters, and custom reports. But as the system continually expands to meet more needs, it becomes less intuitive for the average user.

2. Database skills are not a given. The people who respond to disasters range from extremely tech-savvy grassroots organizations like Occupy Sandy to retired first responders with decades of field experience but little knowledge of technical systems. Most of the government and aid workers who get involved fall somewhere in the middle, so they need training (or instructions) on how to use a new technology or database. Often the system only goes part of the way toward accomplishing their tasks. Without the skills or the confidence to make the system work for them, aid workers often resort to simpler systems or even manual methods.

3. Frustrations with systems lead people to develop workarounds. In a high-pressure response environment, you only have time to do the minimum to get your job done. So spending time entering data or trying to run a report seems like a waste. Instead, you start printing out the individual records you need and handwriting your notes. Or, you don’t completely give up on the database, but you start to enter your information in the comments field instead of trying to track down all of the places you’re supposed enter data. Or, you just pick up the phone and have a conversation with someone. So you get your task done right now, but when your shift is up, the next person doesn’t know where you logged everything. And when his shift is up, you don’t know where his stuff is. You want to fall back on the system, but by this point, its information is outdated, and you have to figure out who has the information you need.

4. Sometimes, people just don’t want to share. Organizations can be territorial or suspicious of each other’s ulterior motives. It can be unclear who is responsible for keeping certain information up to date. And sometimes, people just don’t get along (especially when the environment is tense and the stakes high). So even when a system has the capacity to collect and synthesize data from a lot of different sources, some people might not want to use it, because they don’t want to grant others access. If enough users start to feel this way and stop using the database, it will no longer hold enough information to make it worth others’ time.

That is not to say that we should give up on developing technological systems for response. On the contrary: we have an obligation to continue to develop and improve our systems so that we’re best able to respond to disasters. But to do so without recognizing these challenges would be a waste of technology and a failure of development. We must develop systems with an emphasis on user-friendliness and intuitiveness, implement data management goals into planning programs, and make a concerted effort to train responders on basic data management principles.

Technology alone isn’t going to “fix” emergency management. But if we’re deliberate about making technology a part of the way we prepare for disasters, we can go a long way toward a more efficient, effective response.

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By Julia Moline

When a house floods, it doesn’t just fill with water; there’s dirt, household chemicals, and, often, raw sewage in the mix. In the response world, this toxic brew is known as muck. To clean a flooded home, it’s not just a matter of getting the actual muck out, though.  You have to remove all damaged furniture and finishes, clean all surfaces, and dry everything out to prevent mold growth. On top of all of that, you have to document damage for insurance purposes.

In an event like Superstorm Sandy, which had such widespread impacts, muck outs are a case study in the challenges of disaster response and recovery. They are deeply personal and a challenge of scale, at once slow going and a race against time.

I spent a few days working with the New York City Donations Coordination Team in the aftermath of Sandy. Coming in looking to learn something about how response works, and with a background in flood mitigation and flood damage-resistant materials, I was fascinated by muck out coordination efforts. It was becoming clear that muck outs would be the next major need, particularly as a cold front approached and shelter space began to run low. As coordination proceeded, I noticed four themes emerging that spoke to larger challenges of emergency management in general.

1. Government-NGO coordination. The real work of rebuilding can’t happen until homes are clean and dry, but the government doesn’t have the resources to muck out each of the tens of thousands of flooded homes.  Formal partnerships with VOAD groups1 can help provide the needed assistance; a number of those have the resources and experience to help with large-scale muck out operations. Groups such as Team Rubicon and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief have experience from previous floods and understand what’s needed. Local organizations with access to large numbers of volunteers can be additional resources, even though they may lack training and experience. This convergence of organizations and resources presents an opportunity and challenge that, if managed well, can lead to a successful and empowering response.  Managed poorly, it can lead to duplication of efforts, disenfranchisement, and, worst of all, inability to help disaster victims. 

2. Rapid action, the right way. After a disaster, you try to act as quickly as possible to get life back to normal. With muck outs, however, up-front speed might not always translate to time savings or better results in the long run. It’s tempting to skip some of these steps, or to only take the first step of getting the muck out of the house. If a house isn’t allowed to dry fully before reconstruction begins, moisture can lead to long-term mold problems that can require years and thousands of dollars to fix. If damage is not documented, the insurance reimbursement process can be prolonged. Doing these things all at once can save a lot of time and money. It’s more important to take the time needed to do the job right, rather than focusing on doing the job fast.

3. Data collection and situational awareness. To ensure that every area in need is covered, to avoid duplication of efforts, and to provide necessary follow up with homeowners, tracking and mapping is a critical step in a coordinated muck out effort. Because no single organization has the capacity to meet all of the needs, mapping also helps to ensure that each area is covered. Still, few organizations can spare the people to canvas needs and collect enough information to create a meaningful, complete dataset, and this is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.

4. Supplies and logistics. Having the people to do muck outs isn’t enough; cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment (gloves, goggles, etc), hammers and other tools are needed in bulk. Although volunteer efforts and donations are necessarily managed separately, close coordination is required to make sure that volunteers have the resources they need to do what they show up to do.

These four themes are common to all areas of disaster response and boil down to a few key elements: personnel, process, plans, and products. Each of these elements must be present for a successful response. When failures in response occur, looking for improvements in each key area can help to improve response. For instance, a map of affected areas will do no good if there is no coordination among government and not-for-profit organizations. Truckloads of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies will not solve anything if there is no way to get those supplies to muck out volunteers. And thorough action plans will not be successful if there is no mechanism for training and information sharing.

New York City is one of the best-equipped cities in the world for such large-scale coordination challenges, and will hopefully be able to learn and improve its own processes. As Sandy recovery continues for the months to come and winter approaches, we are sure to see new relationships forming, new information flows, and innovative data collection and tracking techniques.

1Link to: http://www.nvoad.org/

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