Past disasters hone future response

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | January 19, 2000


The disasters of 1999 proved two things -- nature's wrath will strike sometimes without warning and an organized, united response will continue to be needed from the faith community.

Worldwide, 1999 may not have been the deadliest year in disasters, but it nonetheless took its toll with an estimated 67,350 fatalities. In Venezuela alone during December flooding, up to 400,000 were left homeless.

In the U.S., the President issued 50 major disaster declarations ranging from a January winter storm in Tennessee to November damage in the U.S. Virgin Islands from Hurricane Lenny.

In between, there were several events keeping government and faith-based officials busy including the May 3 tornadoes, which left 52 dead, most in Oklahoma, and insurance-estimated damage of more than $1 billion.

Flooding, according to the UniSci Daily Java News, typically accounts for the most deaths during the year as was evident with the Venezuela disaster. In the U.S., flooding and overall damage from Hurricane Floyd in September led to 13 disaster declarations.

Stan Hankins, associate director for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, lists this as the top disaster of the year.

"Hurricane Floyd was the worst 1999 disaster of the year because of the number of communities affected," he said. "Damage was inflicted along the eastern seaboard from the Bahamas to New Jersey."

Hurricanes Bret, Dennis, and Irene also visited the U.S., wreaking far less havoc than Hurricane Floyd but still damaging hundreds of homes. There were also summer floods in Nevada, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota as well as a heat wave in the midwest.

And farmers are still suffering from a severe drought in the mid-Atlantic states, where lost crops have caused winter feed shortages and financial strain. An ecumenical coalition, Family Farm Drought Response, has been responding to those needs since September 1999, and a new Web site, Farm Disaster Response, and toll-free help line have been developed as a resource for farmers in that region.

Nature's wrath was felt on the worldwide stage most strongly with three major disasters. The first was an August earthquake in Turkey that killed as many as 17,000. The World Bank estimates damage at $10 billion.

Then a late-October cyclone in India killed up to 10,000. A third disaster was brought to the world stage only recently, when December flooding and landslides in Venezuela killed thousands -- some reports say 20,000-30,000 -- in the South American nation.

But it is the disasters not making headlines that worry some. That's what most worries Bev Abma, of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"(Crisis situations) in "Orissa (India) and Angola affected very many lives, but I feel response was poor because of lack of media awareness and whatever other aspects that make it easier to respond to the Turkeys and Kosovos of our day rather than Asia and Africa," Abma said.

Domestically, she agreed that Floyd probably was the most destructive.

"In the U.S., it seems that Hurricane Floyd left the greatest damage but it also received the largest response. There are a number of more hidden disasters in this country that particularly impact minority groups such as the impact of the fishing industry situation."

Small, largely unreported floods can devastate fishing communities when floodwaters destroy fishing boats and equipment, or sweep away the homes of residents who eke out a living by fishing for food and cash. Migrant farm workers are another population whose suffering often goes unreported when floodwaters wipe out crops and force them to relocate in order to survive.

Agreeing with Abma's international assessment was Johnny Wray of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

"The biggest disaster in 1999 may have been our neglect, inattention, and unawareness of the several forgotten and hidden emergencies in Africa," Wray said. "At least that contributed to making those disasters worse than they should been. I think the figures will show there were more deaths, displaced than even in the more publicized crises like in Kosovo or the Turkey earthquake."

The most logical assumption for the New Year is that new disasters loom.

Chip Groat, U.S. Geological Services director, has a theory he shared with UniSci Daily Java News.

"The cost of natural disasters -- lives lost, homes destroyed, economies disrupted -- has skyrocketed as the world's population has grown, and moved onto areas that are vulnerable to earthquakes, hurricanes, landslides, and other natural hazards."

The warming of the world's climate may present problems also with changes in the weather patterns.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the 1990s were, globally, the warmest decade since instrumental measurement started in the 1860s.

Therefore, more relief challenges are probably a reality for the faith community. The key is how to respond.

"We must work to make our folks more aware of what the church and its partners are doing," Wray said. "Also, we need to do what we can to make our folks more aware of the many places that fall through the media's cracks."

Hankins sees a two-fold approach. "We need completion and use of the Judicatory (regional denominational organizations) Disaster Preparedness and Response Training curriculum currently developed under the Church World Service umbrella," Hankins said. "There needs to be identification of ways that the faith community can be full participants in FEMA's (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Project Impact."

Project Impact is a FEMA initiative that provides grants to help communities mitigate against the effects of disaster.

Maybe the best response, Abma said, can come from the heart.

"The faith community should always be focused on the development and justice issues that leave people less vulnerable to disasters."


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