As an economic development expert, I have written about and been an advisor on disaster relief. Now that there is a major disaster close to home and very much in the news, it might be a good idea to outline some basic principles of disaster intervention. Ironically, since the effects of Hurricane Katrina are so close at hand for us in Houston, many of the established rules of intervention — which hinge on recognizing the distinction between local knowledge and the desire by distant donors to grant assisitance — can be violated, but it is still important to know the general rules.
Once the first phase of a disaster passes, intervention is best left to the professionals, who establish the framework for relief efforts. If citizen help is needed, those involved in relief will call for it. Monitor the news coverage, including the scroll along the bottom of the screen, for calls for volunteers to staff relief centers. They will likely provide phone numbers or a location to which to report. If you call to volunteer, know as much as possible about what is needed and what you are capable of providing. A limited number of operators and phone lines have to handle as many calls as possible. Kind words and sympathy are always appreciated, but keep them short so that the operator can take the next call. Remember that congestion — of both vehicles and communication — is a critical factor in relief efforts.
If no request for help is broadcast, as a last resort, identify a qualified relief agency and call and offer help, but again be brief. Often, an address will be given where checks can be mailed in. Including a supportive cover note is thoughtful, but keep it brief. Act so as to minimize congestion and maximize help.
Sending the Right Sort of Aid
A tragedy is compounded when people with the best intentions attempt acts of kindness that are either wasted or may even be harmful. The professionals will know what supplies are needed and generally will know where to get them if they do not have them at hand. What they do not have, relief organizations are able to acquire in bulk, and they can assure the safety or efficacy of what they are delivering. This is important for temperature-sensitive medications and for antibiotics which will be needed with the virtually inevitable outbreak of disease that follows from the breakdown of sanitation systems and the greater vulnerability of a weakened population. For those recovering from the dehydration of diarrhea, something as simple and inexpensive as oral rehydration salts (a combination of sugar, salt, and an electrolyte) can save lives. The list of specialized necessities that are part of the everyday life is virtually endless.
Even if the relief organizations do not know exactly what is needed, they will send in a needs assessment team. This may seem bureaucratic, but it is important to not only get the right aid but to get it in the right sequence — such as getting equipment to unload a transport at a remote airport prior to sending the relief goods themselves. Sending the wrong relief goods can cause more harm than help. Major relief agencies will have on hand or have access to important technologies, from sniffer dogs and specialized earthquake equipment to diesel generators and water purification systems. All this reinforces the simple proposition that what relief agencies need most is money to acquire what goods they need and make use of what they have.
In rich or poor countries, assessments on what is needed are basic if aid is to be effective. The relief teams need to know that certain kinds of medicines will be needed, such as vaccines and antibiotics. The injured will be cut and bruised and more susceptible to infection. Lack of adequate food and water further increases their susceptibility to disease. The breakdown of sanitation systems — whether in Africa and Asia or in Louisiana and Mississippi — raises the specter of disease epidemics, and it is important not only to have medication on hand but to have the right medication. It is very important to act the first few days of the disaster, before disease has a chance to take root. Even better is to make use of technologies of early identification, such as satellites tracking a storm or early warning systems forecasting crop failures, so as to facilitate evacuation when necessary and to have the right intervention technologies in place for immediate response before the need arises. Satellite technologies tracking typhoons have allowed a country such as India to organize coastal evacuations that have saved countless lives over the last decade.
Wealth and Technology Are the Best Defenses
Mobile phones are improving people’s lives all over the world in many ways, as they facilitate communication and economic advancement. They will also increasingly play a role in saving lives. We have already seen instances in the aftermath of a major earthquake where trapped victims have been able to guide rescuers to extract them from the rubble. The residents of one coastal village in India were saved from the Tsunami when a former resident called them from Singapore to warn them of the impending disaster. There are undoubtedly many more instances about which we have not heard where mobile phone technology has saved lives. When a Tsunami warning system is in place for the Indian Ocean as it is now for the Pacific Ocean, mobile phones will undoubtedly play a major role in disseminating the warning.
Historically, many more people have died in the aftermath of disasters than during them. In recent times, the professionalism of the relief providers and the generosity of citizens have decreased post-disaster death tolls around the world. The effectiveness of modern disaster intervention of all kinds can be measured in terms of numbers of lives lost. The top five worst droughts were all before 1943, and the top seven worst floods and worst earthquakes were all before 1950. Or stated differently: of the thirty worst tragedies (ten in each of the categories just mentioned), only three were after 1980. The five worst tragedies claimed over a million lives each (totaling over 12.5 million lives lost) and all were before 1960, even though the world’s population was smaller and one might intuitively have expected smaller casualty counts. Modern science and technology have not totally sheltered us from nature’s fury but have given us greater means to respond. Nevertheless, whether from better warning systems, improved construction, or greater access to relief technology, people in developed countries are far less at risk than those in poorer countries. The statistical difference is often in the range of a factor of ten.
Economic development has historically been the best defense against death and natural disasters and still is. However, it does appear that in some places, partiucularly coastal areas, development has too often been careless, ignoring potential harm until it is too late. After every major tragedy, those societies that can afford it institute major changes, from funding more research on prevention to improving building standards for protection against fire or collapse. We should continue to research and debate ways to minimize the impact of potentially harmful natural phenomena — and the debate should be framed in terms of what is economically and technologically feasible, not in terms of returning to some never-existed harmony with nature.
Money Is the Most Efficient Contribution
Money allows agencies to release supplies that are stored for the next disaster knowing that they can be replenished. Given the immediacy of a disaster, it may seem obvious that we should use all accessible resources, but that may not be the way to save the most lives. For example, a relief agency operating in a poor country may have a child survival program feeding children. Their local warehouse may have the food that is needed but be unable to release it without causing problems later down the line. They know that releasing supplies may cost more lives tomorrow than are saved today. The food may be available today, though, if it can be replenished by future shipments. That takes money.
One cannot repeat too often that unless a request is made to the contrary, money is always a safe way to help — often the best way and sometimes the only way for a concerned citizen to pitch in. Even in the United States, with all of our affluence, major relief agencies will soon have to monitor and possibly restrict their efforts lest the cupboard be bare when the next hurricane or other disaster strikes.
In the aftermath of a devastating summer earthquake in Central America in the mid-1970s, relief food aid was sent. It turns out that the crops in the field were relatively undamaged, but various structures including those housing farm implements were severely damaged. The provision of food aid dramatically lowered the price of food in the marketplace, making it uneconomic for farmers to harvest their crops, leading to a reduction in planting the following year. Though it may be counterintuitive, in this case the best way to feed those in need would have been to provide construction materials and farm implements, while possibly buying food in the local market for those who could not afford it.
A primary rule of disaster aid for citizens wishing to assist is: do not collect and distribute commodities unless they are specifically requested by qualified relief agencies. Items gathered too often end up collecting dust in a warehouse when transportation into the effected area is clogged, and the goods themselves may not warrant the cost of transportation even as the congestion decreases. Normally, sending food and clothing is misguided, as it takes too long to get there, and most of it ends up sitting in a warehouse somewhere. We in Houston can violate this basic rule of intervention in the case of Katrina, though, as these are items urgently needed by a refugee population that is literally in our midst. As I write, ad hoc groups have been springing up all over the city to gather supplies to assist those in need. However freelance this activity may be in its initial phase, one can reasonably assume it will eventually be guided through organized channels, both for effective delivery and for fairness. Even a highly perishable item like ice cream could be made available by a creamery, or fresh fruit by a supermarket chain, but delivery to a site such as the Astrodome would have to be overseen by officials so that, for example, all the children got ice cream, lest the delivery bring discontent among those visibly left out.
The media response to disaster for decades has been a call for food, clothing, and blankets, which were to be collected and sent to the effected region. A decade ago, I had an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle (August 14, 1994) in which I made the case against collecting and attempting to send commodities and argued instead for sending money. Even though I was merely relating what aid agencies had learned over the previous two decades from their mistakes, the idea of simply giving money was still novel and even radical to some and not fully accepted. After singing that one note for decades, I can change my tune during Houston’s initial response to Katrina refugees, but I will still sing the importance of what we have learned about what to do and what not to do.
Thomas R. DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Council on Science and Health. He has extensive overseas experience as development economist and advisor to donor organizations and developing countries. His recent publications include: Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, The Environment, Our Natural Resources, and Modern Technology, and Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment.