Study shows response failures

Disaster response worldwide is stunted by something surprisingly simple: failed relationships.

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, D.C. | November 10, 2005

"Really, information sharing is needed so that people understand at each of the levels - the mitigation level, the prevention level, the response level, the reconstruction level."

—Susan Forbes Martin

Disaster response worldwide is stunted by something surprisingly simple: failed relationships.

New research released by Georgetown University shows post-disaster sites are rife with lack of communication and the inability to form truly equal partnerships. And if people don't start thinking about overall disaster management instead of narrowly focusing on disaster response, this trend will continue, said Susan Forbes Martin, who directs Georgetown's program on refugee and humanitarian emergencies.

"I think the principle breakdown is over communications and the inability to work together toward a single, commonly understood goal," said Martin, co-author of a new report on disaster management. "That I'd say would be the first problem we identified."

The study's authors extensively reviewed disaster response and humanitarian activities in Latin America, Africa and Asia. They also held regional workshops in Costa Rica, Kenya, and Thailand where they talked about what it takes to build better coordination during response.

Though the study initially was focused on non-U.S. disasters, the findings have new relevance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said Martin.

Worldwide, there seems to be a hyper-focus on immediate response rather than on disaster mitigation or on long-term recovery, she said. "The second problem we identified is the balance in terms of response - that there's a lot more funding and attention paid to the immediate response, and a lot less paid to disaster prevention and mitigation, or to long-term recovery."

The study also found that many partnerships established between national and local response groups are unequal. National or international groups tend not to communicate well with local players. "They come in, and I think the same analogy applies in terms of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) response relative to local players. There's a tendency for those coming in nationally or internationally to think they know what's best, and then they miss being able to capitalize on the much greater knowledge, usually, of local conditions and local realities."

Why can't disaster responders establish a wider breadth of relationships before disaster strikes? The study calls for increased collaboration among groups involved in disaster management - government agencies, universities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and health facilities. Though NGOs may communicate with each other, and even with government officials, there are far fewer relationships between health care professionals and NGOs, or between NGOs and local residents in disaster-vulnerable areas. What's more, when such relationships are established, they're put together in the wake of a disaster, not before.

Thinking about comprehensive disaster management - not just disaster response - would help make clear that a comprehensive approach to disasters has to start with mitigation and prevention, Martin said. "Really, information sharing is needed so that people understand at each of the levels - the mitigation level, the prevention level, the response level, the reconstruction level."

The U.S. could strengthen its disaster management at all levels, Martin said. "The U.S. has the financial capability to be able to manage a disaster at all levels in a way that's fundamentally different than the countries affected by the tsunami, than in earthquake-stricken Pakistan, than in Central America where mudslides have caused such damage. There are a lot of countries that just don't have the financial wherewithal."

Are there lessons FEMA can learn from international disaster research? Yes, Martin says. "Lessons for FEMA are that building up the institutional capacity of first responders is absolutely essential - that it's too dangerous to rely on outsiders coming in and doing things for local communities. Local communities - whether it's health services, fire, police - they're the ones who can do the most effective mitigation. They are the ones on the scene initially. What FEMA needs to do - as occurs in the international system - is to provide the environment of support, financial resources, and leadership that will allow the first responders to respond."

The study's authors have made four recommendations. First, good disaster managers need to concentrate on all phases of a disaster - from prevention and mitigation to immediate response and long-term reconstruction. Second, there needs to be more information sharing across national boundaries. Third, disaster response organizations need to have more strategic and equal partnerships. Finally - fourth - community members need to be more involved in their own disaster management.

Specifically, the report argues for increased communication and talent-sharing between institutions involved in disaster management through support of training centers, university research and education programs, government agencies, health ministries and NGOs. The authors recommend tactics such as university-sponsored training programs for government officials involved in disaster response, improved healthcare facilities and training of healthcare professionals in disaster response techniques, and development of programs for human resource sharing among NGOs in developing countries.

In addition, the authors note the role of the media in disseminating information and building awareness about potential disasters and risks of violence.

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