New disasters challenge response

BY GEORGE PIPER | NY | October 9, 1998

The aftermath of a strong El Niņo and a vulnerable population living in disaster-prone areas are making 1998 a busy year for

disaster response organizations.

One faith-based organization has already set a record for the most disasters it responded to in one year, and there's still two

months left in 1998. Weather officials are attributing record rainfalls and high incidents of tornadoes on the worst El Niņo since

the 1982-83 season.

And while officials at Church World Service can't do anything about the weather, the agency is implementing plans to

coordinate its response efforts while striving toward reducing the impact of future storms.

"We are looking at the more vulnerable people," said Bob Arnold, CWS associate director. "It's the combination of vulnerability

and natural events that make for disasters."

Hurricane Georges' path through the Caribbean and the Southeast United States last month marked the 28th time this year

Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) has responded to a natural disaster -- the most since the agency began keeping stats about 10

years ago, said Gil Furst, LDR director.

The challenge for denominations that respond to such disasters is keeping the story fresh for donors and volunteers, Furst

noted. The mainstream media does a good job placing reporters in raincoats on the beach when the hurricane approaches, he

said, but even the $2 billion in losses that Hurricane Georges caused in Puerto Rico was no longer news after a few days.

"People want to be helpful, and they will if we keep (the disaster story) in front of them," he said.

Fueling the disasters is the effect of what weather officials are calling a 100-year El Niņo that saw areas nationwide set 100-year

marks for rainfall and temperature.

"To get really anomalous events, you need to change the atmospheric conditions a lot," said Ants Leetmaa, director of the

Climate Prediction Center.

During the first four months of 1998 as the El Niņo ran its course, heavy rainfall and ice storms hit the country, especially in the

northeast. As La Nina began, strong jet streams through the country's midsection translated into drought and extreme heat for

the south and southeast.

Climatology is still trying to study how El Niņo affects weather patterns, but Leetmaa said scientists are slowly developing

methods that may be able to predict where large storms will hit. But for now, the weather community is joining the public in

blaming its bad weather on El Nino.

Whereas hurricane activity typically declines during an El Niņo phase (there were seven named storms and three hurricanes in

1997), the ensuing La Nina returns the storm season to normal. Tropical Storm Lisa became the 12th named storm of 1998 (six

have been hurricanes), surpassing earlier predictions of only 10 named storms. And earlier this year four hurricanes -- Georges,

Ivan, Jeanne and Karl -- churned simultaneously in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time since 1892.

In a practical sense, resources are limited and faith-based organizations must develop creative ways to stretch the money,

products and services it provides when disaster strikes, said Arnold. The theory and vision behind disaster response, though,

focuses on mitigation and disaster response reduction.

In the real-world response and in the planning stage, Arnold sees both strategies beginning to succeed. Disaster response

facilitators now regularly meet with CWS resources management team to discuss disaster threats and contingency plans.

CWS has been active the past two to three years restructuring itself toward what Arnold calls a teamwork approach. The task

facing CWS is to see that no one in the religious community "sits out" a disaster. The organization's disaster response facilitators

and consultants are helping denominations take lead roles in disasters while bringing the interfaith community together.

That sense of teamwork is heightened in major federally declared disasters, and churches working alone can't do all the relief by

themselves, Arnold added.

"We're looking more and more at what we call efficient utilization of resources to make sure the denominations are not tripping

over each other in disasters," he said.

Poverty, "wrong-headed" development and environmental degradation play role in putting people in harm's way, said Arnold.

Mitigation can be an effective tool in limiting damage caused by natural disasters.

He points to Hurricane Georges as an example. In the Dominican Republic, inadequate housing inhabited by many of that

nation's poor, contributed heavily to scores of deaths and thousands of homeless. In nearby Puerto Rico, where the trend has

been toward constructing concrete homes that withstand storms, the human toll was substantially less. And in St. Croix, where

hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Marilyn (1995) left few buildings standing, mitigation efforts to improve the building code left little

structural damage.

A CWS mitigation taskforce started in 1997 is developing the church's position in helping its communities understand and

implement mitigation practices.

"What churches do most in mitigation is in the public policy and advocacy role," Arnold said. This can include urging

government officials to look at development and engineering issues so that cities and towns can avoid putting people in

situations that lead to expensive disaster relief and recovery.

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