Phases of Disaster Recovery: Emergency Response for the Long Term

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by Melissa Crutchfield

When disaster strikes a community, its impact dominates the news. Images and accounts of distress fill TV screens and airwaves. If the emergency remains in the news for more than a week or two, it seems like long-term coverage. Generally, though, mass media cover only the first phase of a disaster, whereas the long-term disaster-response work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) unfolds over several phases and can last months or even years. Different agencies may call these phases by different names, but their fundamental elements and contexts are the same.

Each disaster is a unique event that requires careful assessment. And because relief and recovery may take a long time, it is import to create a strategic plan of response to identify and help the most vulnerable and severely affected people. So, in its initial response, UMCOR conducts needs assessments and gathers information as soon as possible to determine the available resources, partners, and assets of the affected communities. In reality, the stages of recovery don’t always follow a neatly defined course or timeline. Yet there are several phases that unfold as communities begin to rebuild their lives after disasters.

Search and Rescue

In general, the initial search and rescue phase can last for hours or even days after the disaster. The time immediately following the event requires a fast response in order to save lives in imminent danger. Within a few days, that phase has usually passed and the work turns toward providing support to the survivors.

However, in the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the search and rescue phase stretched out for weeks. While people were trapped in their houses, surrounded by flood water, many either had some access to food and drinking water or had neighbors who shared their emergency supplies. This enabled survivors to sustain themselves for a longer time before rescuers reached them.

UMCOR does not become involved in rescue operations. Local authorities and trained, professional emergency-response teams do this work.

Emergency Relief

Meeting basic needs simply to keep people alive, the emergency relief phase begins in the immediate aftermath of a disastrous event. People need food, water, shelter, and medicines. Those with severe injuries need urgent medical help. After an initial assessment of the situation and the needs of affected communities, UMCOR works with partners and supports churches that are already on the ground.

Emergency relief can go on for a very long time or can end fairly quickly. It depends on the nature of the emergency and the resources at hand. The length of time it takes to recover depends on the magnitude of the disaster, the preparedness of the country, the vulnerability and accessibility of the affected location, and the resources that are immediately or locally available.

In relatively prosperous countries like Chile or Japan, for example, communities and government structures may be better prepared for emergencies than they are in under-resourced countries like Haiti. In Haiti, the relief phase following the 2010 earthquake lasted for most people well into the second year. It has endured even longer for the many Haitians who were living in vulnerable conditions even before the earthquake struck. For them, securing the basic needs for survival—food, water, shelter, and medical care—was already a day-to-day struggle. By contrast, the emergency relief phase lasted only a few months after the February 2011 earthquake in Chile, because the country, being accustomed to earthquake activity, was better prepared to respond.

In all cases, the relief phase of a disaster transitions into the recovery phase, when systems are in place and people are no longer worried about survival but can turn to rebuilding their lives.

Early Recovery

In recovery, the affected population is in a more stable period of transition. They have a place to get food and water and a temporary or transitional shelter that can withstand wind and rain. They can go about their daily lives, beginning to resume some kind of normal existence. Children go back to school—though their classes may be held in a church, a tent, or some other temporary accommodation. Those affected may not have yet recovered fully, but they have begun to adapt to a “new normal.”

Early recovery can last any number of weeks or months—even years. While the phases from relief to recovery may follow a similar pattern, the timeline for how quickly a particular community follows this path may depend on its initial vulnerability, access to resources, adaptability, and other considerations.

Medium to Long-Term Recovery

During medium to long-term recovery, the work of building permanent physical structures to replace tents, trailers, or plywood houses begins, as does restoration of social structures. As permanent housing is being rebuilt, the social fabric of communities is strengthened. Children are returning to school buildings. Adults have renewed opportunities to improve their livelihoods and restore their family economies. Life is finally beginning to feel stable once more.

Community Development

Community development is a means of improving on the “normal.” Traditionally, this phase is not considered part of emergency response. But development is a priority for UMCOR, and remaining in an area after a disaster provides opportunities for important long-term engagement. Now that the population is back to a relatively stable daily life, we can begin to address some of the root causes of circumstances that pose significant challenges to the community.

Community development is a pillar of UMCOR’s work, whether or not a disaster has occurred. But after years of putting recovery systems in place, those systems can be leveraged to improve people’s lives beyond the point of disaster recovery. Sometimes UMCOR will set up a field office, such as in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake or in Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. Then UMCOR’s global health work, sustainable agriculture and development programs, hunger and poverty programming, livelihood strengthening, and education and empowerment initiatives can take root.

There is a natural transition from relief to development. But in order to be effective, UMCOR works directly with affected communities to identify priority needs and to determine how and when to become involved. Community development is the phase in which we focus on making daily life better for marginalized or vulnerable communities in which people are surviving but not thriving.

When UMCOR’s response moves into the community development phase, livelihoods, quality of life, and access to education and health care are priorities. UMCOR’s health programs will work with a community to focus on training community health workers—increasing access to basic health care and providing a forum for behavioral change. Livelihood strengthening might involve training a group of women on microfinance and providing them with a seed grant rather than simply a cash hand-out. This phase can take decades.

The community development phase of UMCOR’s work ties into the global Millennium Development Goals: eradicating poverty, providing universal education, and saving the lives of mothers and children from preventable diseases. From UMCOR’s perspective, education and capacity strengthening are core elements in achieving these goals—training and empowering people to take greater ownership of their lives and their environments. The goal is to put communities that have already suffered in a position where, in the event of another disaster or in the face of persistent challenges, they won’t fall back quite as far.

Disaster Risk Reduction

A relatively new paradigm in the relief-to-development continuum is Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). In order for this model to work, community action needs to happen before a disaster strikes. A community needs to reduce its vulnerabilities by taking concrete action and adopting specific behaviors.

Disaster Risk Reduction isn’t only about individuals’ being prepared—knowing where the flashlights are and boarding up the windows. It is about reducing the risks throughout a whole community—removing the hazards that would compound a community’s distress in an emergency.

For example, if a coastal community was at risk of a tsunami, a preparedness measure would be putting a warning system in place. That way, when a siren blared, people would know to evacuate. They would avoid being swept away by the tsunami, though they might have to rebuild their houses after it ended.

If residents rebuilt their houses in the same places, another tsunami could threaten to destroy them again. Many flood zones are like that. So a Disaster Risk Reduction scenario would dissuade people from rebuilding their houses in such a vulnerable location. Risk reduction looks not only at the cost to human life but also at the cost to basic necessities, such as housing or agriculture.

There are measures that any community can take to increase its chances of survival, so that when a disaster inevitably strikes, its impact is not as great. The loss of life, the damage to infrastructure, and the cost to livelihoods can often be greatly reduced.

Disaster preparedness and Disaster Risk Reduction are a big part of UMCOR’s work in the Philippines, which is a disaster-prone country. There are typhoons and flooding every year. UMCOR responds through a permanent full-time office. UMCOR Philippines—directed by Ciony Ayo-Eduarte—has trained volunteers to distribute supplies and coordinate assistance. Then, when recovery is underway, Ciony and her team, working with the many organizations there that UMCOR partners with, do Disaster Risk Reduction training in the communities.

UMCOR sees disaster as an issue of poverty because disasters tend to impact poverty-stricken communities the most. The reason people rebuild their houses along the coastline in poor fishing communities may be because they aren’t able to afford any other option. In the case of underdeveloped communities that are particularly prone to disasters, as in some areas of the Philippines, being in a constant state of risk is closely connected to the cycle of poverty.

Environmental Concerns

UMCOR began Disaster Risk Reduction training internationally a few years ago with people who were volunteering in their own communities. We’ve conducted DRR workshops in countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa. After DRR participants finish their training, they return to their own communities and draw a “Hazard and Resource Map” to share with other residents. It requires community members to take a serious look at what they have in their own backyards that might create risk, as well as what available resources they have that might help mitigate the impact of a disaster. A Hazard and Resource Map is a very useful tool for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Community development—which focuses on livelihoods, the strengthening of capacity, and education—raises general awareness about the hazards in any given situation. This awareness encourages communities around the world to make better choices. That way, when disaster strikes, they can recover more quickly and residents can go back to work and school with less disruption.

Accompanying a community through all the phases of disaster recovery requires a long-term commitment by The United Methodist Church. It is only after the injured have been treated, the hungry fed, and the thirsty provided with clean, potable water that recovery begins. Even long after the rubble-strewn streets have been cleared and houses rebuilt, we may still be called to walk side-by-side with disaster survivors while they make their communities stronger and better prepared for the next calamity in their midst. Through UMCOR, the church accompanies them as they strive to live in God’s abundance, standing strong and hopeful even through times of crisis.

Melissa Crutchfield is the Associate General Secretary for International Development for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. In her previous role, as Assistant General Secretary for International Disaster Response, she coordinated UMCOR’s actions in the wake of natural or human-caused disasters in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America.