Disaster Strikes!


new internationalist
issue 222 - August 1991

All for one: Leninakan pulls together to rescue victims of Armenia's 1988 earthquake.
Disaster strikes!
And you are in charge of the relief operation.
But would you make the right decisions?





Immediately you receive news of the disaster you send out an urgent appeal for international medical personnel.

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Through the media you urge people in the West to restrain themselves from collecting and dispatching medicines, clothing and equipment.

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The top priority must be gathering and disposing of dead bodies due to the danger of their causing infectious diseases.

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It is best to house people as close as possible to their own dwellings rather than in settlement camps.

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Food is the top priority after a major disaster in order to avert mass starvation.

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In case of limited food supplies following a disaster, priority should be given to the young and the old.

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When disaster strikes, each individual should take care of their own family and belongings first.

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Your disaster-management role will involve some policing because of the looting and profiteering that always results.

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Even weeks after the disaster you must expect things to be far from back to normal and most major services will still not have been restored.

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The disaster will have focussed the world's attention on the plight of the people you have been helping. You will find it much easier than before to raise the resources to make sure that the next time disaster strikes it does not have such a devastating effect.

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1. Wrong
Local health services are normally able to cope in case of disaster. They have the advantage of speaking the local language and are familiar with the health-service infrastructure. Foreign teams may provide specialized skills and equipment but they have to be housed and fed.

2. Right
Anything will not do. The last thing local disaster-relief teams want is to be occupied with sorting out aid that might prove useful from the inevitable mass that is not. Concerned people in the West should wait to hear exactly what is wanted or simply give money to agencies who already know the territory.

3. Wrong
Bodies do not cause epidemics or transmit diseases during the first 72 hours after death. The top priority must be rescuing and caring for the injured.

4. Right
Keeping people as close as possible to their homes is the best option. Settlement camps should be a last resort since they create problems of their own. International assistance in the form of building materials and tools may be desirable.

5. Wrong
Though earthquakes do not damage crops, droughts, floods and hurricanes do. But if storage and rationing of food have been properly organized, there should not be serious hunger. When international assistance is requested, seeds and tools are often more important than food.

6. Wrong
Careful rationing should be organized so that everyone is fed. Those involved in salvage work and reconstruction (not usually the youngest or oldest) are particularly in need of a regular food supply.

7. Wrong
Team work is the most efficient way of dealing with the aftermath of disaster. Training of teams beforehand so that each person knows their responsibilities is the ideal.

8. Wrong
Sensational media reports sometimes suggest that looting and other forms of selfish behaviour are common following disasters. On the contrary, disaster situations tend to bring out the best in people and solidarity is strengthened.

9. Right
Long after the disaster has disappeared from the news headlines, you will still be coping with its effects. The impact may last years. There is often permanent damage to water supplies and health services; and reconstruction is a costly process.

10. Wrong
Unfortunately the world's (and especially the media's) attention-span is very limited. You might find yourself deluged with useless materials and personnel from abroad in the first few days after the disaster while it is still a news story. But the world will soon lose interest. You will be able to raise some funds for long-term reconstruction, but nothing like what would be needed to stop your community (and especially its poorer members) being as vulnerable to disaster the next time around.



8 or over You have a sound grasp of the complexities of a disaster situation and have thought your way past the most common knee-jerk responses.

4-7 We're afraid we can't offer you a reference as a disaster-management supremo. But at least you're keen to help in the right way.

0-3 Steer well clear of disaster situations - you'd be pretty much of a disaster area yourself.

Adapted from an idea by Dorothy Hoffmann and Gilbert Padey of the World Health Organization.

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