A medical doctor with more than 20 years experience in the humanitarian field, Dr Krishnan is Plan International’s Head of DIsaster Response
Thousands have fled New Orleans as Hurricane Isaac continues to lash the US State of Louisiana. For many, Isaac has brought back memories of hurricane Katrina which devastated the coastal town exactly seven years ago. Hurricanes can level a vast landscape and cause death and destruction. Even the mightiest nations and their people can feel helpless before the sheer force of nature.
Isaac will put to test the effectiveness of $14.5 billion invested in improved flood defence systems in New Orleans. Techno-engineering solutions are vital, but equally important is investing in communities - communities bear the first impact of disaster and must be prepared to offer the first response.
You can’t stop a hurricane. But you can stop a hurricane from becoming a humanitarian crisis. During the weekend, Isaac – which until then was still a tropical storm, left a trail of destruction in the Caribbean nations of Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba.
Isaac left 19 people dead in Haiti alone – a tragic loss of human life but far less than was feared. A low death toll in Haiti can be attributed to two main factors. One, of course, is the fact that Isaac did not gather further strength to become a hurricane and instead remained a tropical storm during its passage through the islands. Secondly, and more importantly, early warning systems, evacuation of people to safer places and swift response by humanitarian actors helped save lives.
The declaration of a state of emergency by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and US President Barak Obama has helped to alert and prepare the people and administration of Louisiana for hurricane Isaac. I can only imagine the anxiety of people there. I recall listening to testimonies of human suffering as well as resilience of survivors during a visit to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Saving lives in a potential disaster situation is not rocket science. Early warning and early action always save lives. Cuba’s better investments and commitments on disaster risk reduction and preparedness have demonstrated this well - a good example for developing nations to follow.
Children living in a development centre in Haiti run by Plan told staff that the tropical storm Issac brought back the memories of 2010 earthquake. This is normal for disaster survivors. Some children I met in Japan during Plan’s work with the multiple disaster survivors in and around Sendai after 2011 tsunami refused to flush toilets as it brought back the memories of tsunami waves. Memories of disasters last a long time – often with a debilitating impact on children.
After a disaster, physical recovery is usually faster if the economy is stronger, as with Japan. But, when the economy is weak and health care systems are nonexistent, dealing with the impact of disasters on survivors’ minds needs better attention from the government and humanitarian actors. The IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee) guidelines on mental health and psychosocial support in emergencies make a strong case for integrating emotional care and psychosocial support in all emergency response programmes.
I have been a regular visitor to Haiti, mostly for humanitarian work in disaster situations. It strikes me that either the Haitians are recovering from one disaster or preparing for the next one. When you talk to children, two messages come out very clear: the impact of repeated disasters is testing their resilience, but for a small group, disaster risk reduction initiatives have boosted their confidence to deal with future situations. For example, during the weekend the national TV broadcast Plan’s awareness messages on protection of children in emergency situations. These messages during anxious moments are extremely useful and help prepare communities for various emerging scenarios.
As much as they are among the most vulnerable during disaster situations, children can also play an active role in reducing the impact of disasters. A child-centred approach has been a key element of Plan’s disaster preparedness and risk reduction work.
During the 2011 Japan tsunami, there were several countries that were put on alert. Children in communities in countries where Plan works were at the forefront of moving people to safety and participated in mobilising communities.
The potential to use schools and children as catalysts for a resilient community is significant. It is essential that basics of disaster preparedness and risk reduction should be taught as a skill for life in schools and must become part of curriculum. Putting children and schools at the forefront will be vital in preparing the next generation for disasters.