5 essentials for the first 72 hours of disaster response

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Damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, in the Philippines. © UNOCHA/Jose Reyna

When a country is hit by a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, a tropical storm or flooding, two things are certain: chaos will reign and coordination is key. The first 72 hours after a disaster are crucial; response must begin during that time to save lives. Here are five things that the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) — the UN’s emergency coordination organization —aims to get right within, and prior to, the first 72 hours.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

The real work starts before the first 72 hours of a crisis. To put it simply, the more we prepare beforehand, the better our response will be. Before a crisis hits at-risk countries, we build relationships and develop coordination plans with local and federal Governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society and private sector partners. We collect useful data on the most likely high-impact hazards facing the country, and on the most vulnerable people and where they are located. We maintain lists of potential staff positions required for any response, and we have a pre-identified pool of qualified, trained staff ready to deploy once a Government officially requests our assistance.

Preparedness is vital, but early response to a trigger warning can be equally effective. Early response is not always easy, as international funding systems are not always set up for it, but all humanitarian actors are trying to move in this direction. For instance, in Ethiopia, early warning indicators pointed to an emerging drought, worsening livestock health and increasing hunger levels. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) released US$18.5 million for early response to this potential crisis. In 2015 in Sri Lanka, the Start Network, which coordinates response among 42 of its NGO members and their partners, anticipated heavy flooding, having consulted forecast warnings and reservoir levels. It released funding to prepare communities before the flooding occurred.

Deploy skilled staff

Within hours of being asked to respond to an emergency, OCHA deploys skilled staff. These people include staff from regional offices and staff on “surge”, which means they are ready to deploy to an emergency at short notice. They also include specialized emergency response teams, such as UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team members, who have undergone rigorous training and simulation exercises to prepare for the difficulties ahead.

“We simulate emergency conditions so people get a sense of what an emergency will be like,” says Stefania Trassari, UNDAC’s Africa focal point. “Our message to staff is: be mentally prepared to deploy. Be flexible. Keep a positive attitude but prepare for the worst. Find out as much as you can ahead of time if you are not familiar with the context. And do not forget the important things that you will need to keep yourself healthy and safe, be it malaria pills or your driver’s licence.”

“Do not forget the important things that you will need to keep yourself healthy and safe, be it malaria pills or your driver’s licence.”

Know the context

In the first hours of a response, OCHA needs to identify and work with partners, including the Government and all members of the Humanitarian Country Team, to assess the impact of the disaster. In these exercises, we build a shared picture of where the most severe impacts are, how many people are likely to be affected and how many are in critical need. Once we have the basics, we can develop a more detailed picture of sector-by-sector needs and priorities using a variety of tools, such as household surveys, focus groups and social media. This is also the right time to implement two-way communication systems with affected people through call-back centres or message boards, for example, so that we can monitor how well we are serving them.

Assess response capacity

We aim to be as local as possible and as international as necessary. This means we respond only if our presence results in a faster, bigger and better-quality response. Getting this right involves understanding the existing response capacity in the country and region. OCHA focuses on finding out the response capacity of Governments and partners. Where are the available stockpiles in the country, the region and internationally? What are the major supply routes and pipelines for aid? Are markets functioning and will a cash-based response work? What is the digital connectivity of the affected people? What supplies can we source in-country and in-region, and what do we need to get from the outside? What are the logistics like — good roads? Is there a functioning port? What barriers or bottlenecks will we face? How will we coordinate the assistance? Is there a national disaster management agency and how will we work with it? (This is work that we will also have done in the preparedness stage.) Given most of the response comes from local responders in the first hours and days following an emergency, the Start Network also puts a particular emphasis on assessing and strengthening the community’s response capacity.

Mobilize funding and plan operations

In a sudden emergency, OCHA will ideally release an inter-agency flash appeal within 24 to 72 hours. Likewise, CERF aims to provide initial funding within 72 hours of a crisis. Governments, donors and NGOs are all under immense pressure to make funding decisions within hours. If we do not communicate these decisions very quickly, we lose our edge. Next we build an operational response plan that outlines which people need to receive specific goods and services and in what combinations. The head of each sector, e.g., health, food security, and water and sanitation, will develop an inter-agency operational plan informed by community members.

Humanitarian agencies will set up reporting mechanisms at this stage to track how, where and when assistance is delivered and how needs are changing. This means we can identify gaps or duplication. In this first three-day period, we also develop our advocacy messages, pushing for the humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality to guide all approaches to response.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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