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World disasters trigger complex response

BY DANIEL R. GANGLER | Turkey | April 7, 2000

Disasters of great magnitude happen worldwide. Within the past year alone, cyclones in Mozambique have directly affected some 700,000 people.

Earthquakes in Turkey left tens of thousands homeless. The worst storms to hit in India in 50 years left thousands of people with nothing.

Disaster response and relief organizations continually respond to natural and human-made travesties. International disaster relief can be described as an

eight-step process that includes:

1 - Gathering news and information, 2 - Understanding government roles, 3 - Contacting local staff or partner organizations, 4 - Assessing needs, 5 - Issuing

financial appeals, 6 - Sending goods, 7 - Recruiting volunteers, and 8 - Continuing a long-term response over several months or years.

This process connects disaster survivors with resources, donors, and volunteers. In the eight steps described below, Turkey earthquake relief efforts will be

used to illustrate the long-term response process. Two killer earthquakes struck the country last summer and fall. It is estimated that more than 80 relief

organizations are involved in Turkey today helping the government provide food, clothing, and shelter for 500,000 quake survivors.

Gathering news and information.

Some disasters make headline news; others occur and receive little media coverage or delayed coverage. Effective relief organizations not only follow

headline news, they also seek other disaster-related news sources that enable them to hear about disasters shortly after they happen. Then relief efforts can

begin immediately.

For instance when a devastating earthquake struck northwestern Turkey last August, worldwide news sources kept relief organizations informed of the

disaster. Within a week church groups in Turkey established the Turkey Action Churches Together (T-ACT), the umbrella group for Catholic, Protestant,

and Orthodox churches. T-ACT was in immediate contact with Action Churches Together (ACT), a 75-member church organization that coordinates the

relief efforts of the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation, both based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Disaster relief organizations also rely on news and informational reports from government agencies and secular relief organizations such as the

International Red Cross. Faith-based relief organizations, such as ACT, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Baptist World Relief, Catholic Relief

Services (CRS), Church World Service (CWS), International Aid, Lutheran World Relief, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Mennonite Central Committee,

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, American Jewish Join Distribution Committee, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), and World

Vision monitor the news daily for possible disasters.

"It's impossible for us as a relief organization to plan where a disaster is going to happen," said Nicholas Chakos, field desk officer for the International

Orthodox Christian Charities. The exception might be in cases of political turmoil, like Kosovo," he said. "We'll have an eye on that situation long before the

general public does."

Understanding government roles.

Information about disasters dovetails with an understanding of governments' role in disaster relief. Governments are directly responsible for the relief of

their citizens. For example in Turkey, state government is in charge of every aspect of relief from food and shelter to the distribution of personal hygiene

kits and who resources them.

In the U.S., the Federal Emergency Management Agency works hand-in-hand with state governments to oversee disaster response and relief. But state

governments are responsible for disaster relief. They seek assistance from the federal government and private relief organizations.

Internationally, U.S.-based relief organizations work closely with the United Nations (UN) and the United States Agency for International Development

(USAID). In Kosovo that was a must, since relief was part of peacekeeping efforts which insured security for workers and refugees.

Relief organizations must work hand-in-hand with governments for cooperation, regulation, protection, and transportation.

Contacting local staff or partner organizations.

Just as essential as government support is the cooperation from local faith-based agencies and congregations working together. The most effective

long-term relief efforts are directed by local people who remain in place after emergency relief workers have left. Working in partnership, local relief

coordinators direct their efforts using the assistance of the government and international relief organizations like ACT. International faith-based groups

have established communications links in many countries with "partners" to bridge relief work among government agencies, relief organizations, and local

congregations or groups.

For example, when violence broke out in east Timor, ACT contacted the Australian National Council of Churches and the Dutch Inter Church Aid. "There

are very few countries in the world with which we don't already have a connection," said Tom Hazelwood, disaster response network manager for

UMCOR.

Established international contacts with religious and government organizations -- some that take years -- is key to getting help in times of crises, said

Chakos. "That is how relief organizations can respond to such a diverse scenario of disasters," he said.

In Turkey, T-ACT continues to meet local needs with the assistance of ACT, local congregations, and government agencies. When a nursing school at a

university in Bolu was hit hard by the earthquakes destroying its residence halls, T-ACT received funds from ACT as well as other faith-based relief agencies

to have a Turkish company construct 100 winterized tents to house 300 students. Similar types of tents are used in other tent cities across Turkey as well.

ACT, since it is a worldwide coalition of churches, is usually among the first of the faith-based groups to respond to an international disaster. When needed

ACT can send within an hour up to $50,000 to an area in need.

Assessing needs.

Once initial aid has been sent to a disaster area, representation of relief organizations are sent to the disaster site to make an assessment of the needs.

Assessment teams read government, UN, and USAID reports and interview survivors then report what is needed. Their detailed reports lead to financial

appeals and a plan of action to rebuild buildings, feed survivors, and provide for other personal provisions. After assessing needs in Turkey, ACT issued a

37-page report which detailed every way ACT planned to assist in Turkey earthquake relief efforts.

Issuing financial appeals.

Once assessed, disaster relief appeals are made to raise funds for very specific needs. Cash donations more directly benefit survivors than the sending of

supplies, because local economies can directly benefit from purchases made within counties hit by disaster. Many agencies now receive funds direly online

with the use of credit cards.

Sending goods.

Even though it is advantageous for funds to be spent within a country suffering from disaster, certain relief supplies are more appropriate to send into an

area. Often personal hygiene kits, baby layette kits, and cleaning kits are sent in bulk shipments. Many relief organizations operate U.S.-based warehouses

to store kits and other supplies prepared by local congregations.

"Many relief items, especially in a crisis such as Turkey, are needed in such great quantities that it's hard to stock enough," Hazelwood said. UMCOR

maintains a warehouse in Baldwin, LA with stocks of heath kits, blankets, water purification units, and cleaning supplies.

Shipping relief goods is one of the most costly and difficult processes following a disaster. There are costs to ship goods from congregations to warehouses,

costs to repack items, and costs to ship overseas.

When shipping, response organizations also must be mindful of expiration dates for medicines, food spoilage, and cultural appropriateness of donations.

Often the cost of shipping may be donated by civic organizations or offered at discount rates for bulk shipments. The better that supplies are packaged,

labeled, and keeping with specified requests, the more efficient the shipping and handling. Items shipped internationally must be received by an established

local agency or congregation; otherwise they may be stuck at ports of entry where they may be damaged or destroyed.

Hygiene kits and baby layettes were shipped to Bolu, Turkey from CWS because these items were difficult to find in Turkey. The kits were received by

T-ACT and distributed with the assistance of the Turkish military on an as-needed basis.

Recruiting volunteers.

Essential to the second major phase of disaster relief are countless volunteers who give up weeks and sometimes months of their lives so that disaster

survivors have someone to turn to in order to help them regain stability in their shattered lives.

The timing to send in volunteers is critical. If sent too soon after a disaster, volunteers can more of a problem than a help. Relief organizations usually leave

search-and-rescue missions to highly-trained emergency service personnel. If on a disaster site too early, volunteers may get in the way of progress.

Volunteer talents are best exhibited over the long haul during the long-term response.

Continuing a long-term response.

After the emergency vehicles have pulled away, volunteers can be extraordinarily helpful. Not every faith-based relief agency has a place for volunteers to

work within its structure. Those that do have programs for volunteers often employ them for long-term responses.

Recovery from a disaster can take years. During this time, daily life continues for survivors, as volunteers build homes, clinics and schools; dig wells; plant

crops; and take preventative measures so that more survive the next impending disaster.

More than a year after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America, volunteer and mission groups are still helping to rebuild homes in Honduras and

Nicaragua. The same will be true for Turkey, which needs tens of thousands of homes built.

Many faith-based response organizations see their primary task as long-term response to disasters. Leaders of those groups report that the key to the

success of faith-based relief organizations is the networks they have established.

Those networks work best with established partnerships that grow for years before a disaster strikes, because the steps leading to response can be complex

and lengthy.


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