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Hard lessons from natural disasters

By Cde Jeroboam Shaanika
Natural disasters whenever they occur, always present a challenge because they disrupt the normal way of life. In the past we have witness the magnitude of the disruptions to our way of life. The 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake which killed between 230,210 - 280,000 people in sixteen countries in Asia and east Africa is still fresh in our memories, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans so too the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. It is very important to note that calamities are not invited; they strike when least expected, even though sometimes, they occur as a result of human activities and behaviours. All Natural disasters have one thing in common;

they threaten our very existence and pose a serious challenge to our way of life. Suffice it to say adequate preparation is the best way to mitigate natural disasters or misfortunes. Whether natural disasters are signpost warnings about the ever increasing climate change or they are just a continuation of Mother Nature harvesting herself, the fact remains, they cannot be completely ignored. The striking question every human, as an intelligent being ought to ask is what useful lessons can we learn from the aftermath of natural disasters? There are plenty lessons and conclusion to draw from every aftermath of any disaster. These lessons are associated with preparations before disaster strike and response to such natural disasters. Response to natural disasters is always a difficult task, especially in situations where no prior preparations were made.

It is almost an impossible task just like searching for a needle at the bottom of the ocean or on the sand beach. However, with proper planning, even the impossible becomes possible. Resources mobilization is very crucial to the success of aftermath efforts. The Economist of November 3rd 2012 entitled 'Wild is the wind' points out that the "storm showed American crisis management at its best, yet raised questions about longterm planning". The point the Economist highlights is that proper planning: immediate, medium and long term are intertwined, because ignoring long-term planning will be at the nation's perils. Lessons from the past show that infrastructures are more vulnerable if not adequately upgraded to meet the condition of the time.

There is a need to realign disaster response to national security in order to have coherent strategic direction as well as clear and distinguishable objectives. The plan should include, organizations, structures and process that guide decision making, budgeting, planning and implementation of every aspect human safety. After all, national security is not in the abstract, but a concern for human security and the ability of the nation to assert its continuity and survival.

The key test before a natural disaster strikes is how the authorities are able to successfully raise the awareness of the community about the destructive nature of disasters and plan, well in advance, to minimize the impact on our normal way of life. Natural disasters are not identical; they come in different forms such as: hurricanes/ typhoons; forest fires, earth quakes, droughts, tsunami, flooding etc. As such they all require different strategies and responses. Every country therefore, must put a system in place, based on vulnerability assessment and test it frequently through simulation exercises, to awaken the often sleeping human instinct about the consequences of natural disasters. Human complacency before disaster strikes is often a challenge authority has to deal with.

As Stephen Hawking cautions, "the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." Through complacent approach, people assume they already know, hence they become dismissive of early warnings and useful safety tips. The latest lessons to be learnt from Hurricane Sandy, the monster storm of nearly 900 miles, which swept from the Caribbean to the east coast of the United States and some parts of Canada, are obvious and complacency also played its part.

Hurricane Sandy was not the first disaster to wreak havoc to the normal way of human life, but it gained significance because of the images and the interest it has generated. It would be inaccurate to assume that other disasters have not attracted the interest at the time of their occurrence, but there is an exception in the sense that it is still fresh in our memories.

The disasters mentioned in preceding paragraphs all generated attention, only that New Yorkers for example watched them on TV from the comfort zone of their living rooms. This time they themselves became subject of discussions around the world. Hurricane Sandy left a trail of destruction from the Caribbean to the United States as it hammered the East Coast of the US particularly New York and New Jersey with high winds and a record-breaking storm surge. Even though it left the countries it passed through severely wounded, in the east coast of the United States before it made a landfall, it was already downgraded to a tropical storm. New York which is known as "the city that never sleeps" was totally silenced by Sandy. For instance, the New York Stock Exchange, the symbol of American capitalism, which since 1888 has never been closed for weather related reasons, could not open for two days. New York was brought to a standstill with bridges closed, tunnels and subways flooded; mobility became one of the aftermath challenges. New York's LaGuardia and JFK airports were closed due to extreme flooding and washed away debris that found the way into the runway. Similarly, the United Nations Headquarters, the icon of international multilateral diplomacy and symbol of world peace, was also not spared by Sandy.

In the UN main building, 3 basements were flooded, the temporary plastic protection on the top of the General Assembly Hall building to avoid leaks was removed by hurricane Sandy and the tent at the entrance of the General Assembly Hall building collapsed. As a result of flooding, the UN Headquarters was left without power for three days. Consequently, the ongoing General Assembly Committees deliberations as well as other UN activities were cancelled until 1 November 2012. At Breezy Point in the Queens borough, 110 houses were razed down by the fire from exploding transformers and surging water knocked out backup powers at hospitals in Manhattan.

At several hospitals such as New York University Langone Medical Center, Bellevue Hospital and Beth Israel Medical Center were left without power and patients had to be evacuated, without elevators in use; the responders used stairs guided only by flashlights. New Jersey was more severely devastated, far worse in comparison to New York. The Seaside Heights resort was reduced to debris and twisted irons underwater.

The damages inflicted by Sandy in the United States alone were initially estimated to range from $10 billion to $20 billion, but it could reach $50 billion. In addition to direct damages, there are indirect coast as a result of disruption of economic activities. Extensive damage to infrastructure and buildings in the Northeast of the United States resulted to limited access to critical supplies of gasoline, electricity and clean water up and down the Jersey coastline and in New York City. The two immediate post-storm challenges were the restoration of public transportation and electricity as well getting life back to normalcy.

As the Economist issue put it, "the storm exposed vulnerabilities in the infrastructure of the self-styled capital of the world, which will need to be addressed before an even stronger hurricane blows its way, sooner or later". However, the vulnerability is not restricted to New York City alone, but to all disaster prone and potential disasterprone cities worldwide.

In the Caribbean and Pacific Island nations natural disasters do not only disrupt the normal way of life on yearly basis, but also pose serious security threat to their existence. Some small island nations like Kiribati, where the highest land is no more than two metres above sea level are threatened by rising seas and could completely submerge by 2030. Kiribati is now thinking of several options such as models of a man-made floating island, at cost of about US$2bn or building a series of sea walls, at a cost of nearly $1bn. Another option under consideration is to buy land somewhere and move all 103,000 people there.

Now coming to our situation, what if the destruction of same magnitude wreaks havoc on any of our Namibian coastal cities? Well this assumption may seem highly misplaced, but what happened elsewhere could also happen to us. People in New York were used to watching the images of natural disasters in other far parts of the US or other countries, but were exposed to the rude shock after the tropical storm Sandy hit them. When Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake, on 12 January 2012 New Yorkers probably thoughts it was just another unfortunate tragedy in one of third world countries prone to disasters. However, Mother Nature will throw anything indiscriminately at anyone on her path. In August 2011, Hurricane Irene made a similar land fall in the East Coast of the United States, but did not cause extensive damages.

Just because we have not experience these types of weather patterns, we should not remain indifferent. In Japan following the earthquake off the Pacific coast of T˘hoku on 11 March 2011, a tsunami unleashed waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in Miyako in T˘hoku's Iwate Prefecture causing extensive damages to Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

What if one of our coastal towns was to be hit by a disaster of the same magnitude? Do we have plans to respond and recover in the aftermath? Surely this question cannot and should not escape our mind, thinking that it will be answered for us and not by us. African wisdom cautions, "the fly that refuses sound advice will eventually end up with the coffin in the grave." If we do not want to be going down like the fly which refused to heed to the bag sound, we better start planning and not become victims of complacency. One cannot plan selectively using only best case scenarios and ignore worse case scenarios. The worst case scenario planning teaches useful survival tips that are so often taken for granted in good times. Adequate planning will make us avoid a situation of searching for a dog during the time of darkness.

What are the lessons to be learnt from recurring natural disasters?

There are several lessons to be learnt from every natural disaster. However, it should not be a copy and paste exercise, but a deep look into local vulnerabilities and address them adequately. Authorities at central, regional and local should start making bigger changes and prepare for the consequences of natural disasters and severe weather. Climate change is real and it is high time that people wake up from their slumber and admit that, if we do not change our behaviours, climate will do it on our behalf.

We all have to engage in post mortems and make adequate investments to reduce the impact of future disasters, because every life is worth saving and every human person deserves to lead a normal life. Jeroboam Shaanika is a Namibian civil servant, however, the views expressed here do not reflect that of the Namibian government, but entirely his own.


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