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Disaster Relief Response: How Can It be Improved?

Watch a video of the panel here.

In this information age, images, video, and news about natural disasters come quickly. Homes destroyed. Infrastructure abolished. Residents left without food or shelter.

Then, after nearly every disaster, comes the news that relief efforts and reconstruction haven’t gone as planned.  So how can relief workers be most effective?

Listen to the needs of the people on the ground. That was the message driven home by a panel on disaster response and reconstruction on Thursday as part of the Dean’s Seminar Series. The event, entitled “Cracking Open Disaster Response and Reconstruction: Lessons Learned,” included Carolyn Baer, deputy director of Northwestern University’s Center for Global Health; Ron Sherman of Hagerty Consulting and a former FEMA deputy federal coordinating officer; and Karen Smilowitz, associate professor of industrial engineering and management science at Northwestern University.

The discussion was moderated by Brooke Jarrett, a graduate student in environmental engineering, who showed clips of her documentary Escuchen, which reflects on post-disaster Peru.  (The film will be screened April 6 at 4 p.m. in room LR5 in Tech.)

Sherman told of one post-disaster situation in which a state, destroyed by tornados, decided the first team on the scene should be a veterinary medical assistance team. That was before they began to provide food, water, or even search and rescue teams for humans.

“To this day it’s a black eye for them,” he said.

Baer, too, has seen her share of bungles among NGOs while working in refugee camps in Africa. Oftentimes aid workers come in and impose what they think the needs should be. Donors, too, have their own agenda about who or what should be served. But relief efforts must incorporate the wants and needs of the community, and must incorporate their existing infrastructure and policies.

“Then there is a real ownership that the community can have,” she said.

For her part, Smilowitz is creating models for last-mile relief distribution that can help drivers choose routes and allocate inventory once supplies have been delivered. While every disaster is different, she said, there can be underlying models that can be tweaked to fit different needs. Creating those models is difficult, however, since data collection isn’t a top priority immediately after a disaster strikes.

“That’s really a challenge from a research perspective,” she said.

Getting those supplies to the right people can also be a challenge, panelists said. Often the most vulnerable victims after a disaster are people who need social services.

“Their safety net is gone,” Sherman said. That was a lesson hard learned: after Hurricane Katrina, he said, officials realized they did not have a good network to connect with vulnerable populations.

When asked how relief workers knew when their jobs were done, Baer said, “I don’t have an example of when the work was done.” Northwestern doctors pulled out of Haiti six months after the earthquake, when Haitian doctors and nurses had reintegrated back into hospitals.

Sherman said his only experience of “being done” happened when a town ruined by a tornado held meetings to determine what goals they would have to meet — everyone had a home again — for reconstruction to be over. That happened 12 months after the disaster.

So what can average citizens do when a disaster strikes? If it is beyond their own community, they should check to find the highest-rated nonprofits to donate to. They shouldn’t, however, organize drives for clothing or food — that will not likely make it to the victims.

“Donate cash, not stuff,” Sherman said.

Those who want to volunteer should be ready to provide specific skills — in the wake of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Northwestern doctors who wanted to go help out were told relief workers only needed anesthesiologists, orthopedic surgeons, and emergency room doctors. Those who don’t have the skills needed can also help by being prepared for their own disaster: Sherman recommends everyone visit to develop a preparedness plan.

“Think about continuity of operations for your life,” he said.