After a disaster, it is important for city residents, local government, businesses and non-governmental organizations to resume normal activities and to participate in reconstruction efforts. In the rush to re-build, however, local officials and citizens must understand why the damage occurred and then consider how to reduce the city’s vulnerability to the next disaster. Population density, ecological imbalance and inappropriate construction are creating more urban areas that are increasingly vulnerable to disasters. To make improvements in the quality of life of urban dwellers that will not be swept away in a storm, development must be linked to creating a higher level of disaster resistance. This means adapting the built environment such as retrofitting schools, health facilities and critical community systems and infrastructure to withstand the impacts of disasters. However, it also means changes to improve the social, economical and environmental factors that can affect a community’s vulnerability to the impact of hazards.
Programming for Post-disaster Reconstruction
Mapping damage from hazards will help a city understand its vulnerabilities and improve its rapid response system. Documenting man-made contributions to the hazard can help avert the occurrence of new hazards or reduce the city’s vulnerability. For example, in Naga City, Philippines, land use mapping after floods showed that changes in land use decimated catchment areas and caused siltation of the waterways, which increased the risk of flooding. Similarly, cities can use the information to develop or refine a database of buildings and infrastructure most at risk, helping to identify first priorities for retrofitting.
Building Disaster Resistant Communities
The rebuilding by individual homeowners and businesses after a disaster will begin informally as soon as it becomes feasible. Since much of the construction will be “non-engineered”, builders can incorporate earthquake resistant technologies during this stage if they receive the necessary training or at least made aware of stronger building materials and safer designs and clearly understand why it is important to rebuild stronger and smarter. Offering design services for free to owner-builders has proven to be effective in rebuilding after earthquakes in India. Coupled with better education on improved building techniques there also needs to be the implementation of stronger building codes and the subsequent enforcement of those codes. Along with enforcement, penalties need to be implemented by local government for individuals, businesses and developers that do not comply with safety standards and building codes. Cities can also take steps to reduce the vulnerability of critical community infrastructure by requiring and implementing the better design of roads and transportation systems, health facilities, and electric, water and gas lines.
Having a clear and fair compensation policy for those who have been impacted or displaced by a disaster will allow people to focus on rebuilding their future, instead of dwelling on their losses. Procedures should be clear about how victims become eligible; persons should know if they are included in the final enumeration of benefits and they should receive information on their entitlements and opportunities to rebuild their lives for the long-term. When governments promise more than they can deliver, the compensation process can become stalled and then the chances for recovery and economic growth can also become stalled.
For example, in more than a decade after a devastating earthquake hit Gyumri, Armenia, families are still living in “domics” – railcars and other temporary structures – or in public buildings such as schools and libraries. While some lucky families received new housing before the demise of the Soviet Union, most are still facing a long and unclear waiting list as the newly independent republic did not have an adequate amount of resources to construct new housing for all of the earthquake survivors. A new earthquake zone recovery strategy being implemented with the help of USAID provides housing certificates with which families living in domics can purchase housing in the private real estate market. The method of certificate distribution strategically clears important public spaces of domics and enables the recovery of open space and to attract businesses to the area.
Resuscitating the Economy
Resuming economic activity is vital for physical survival and for helping people to heal emotionally following a disaster. Compensation packages are one way to jump-start the economy after a disaster. Most compensation money will go to local businesses involved in reconstruction activity. Another way to assist the economy and alleviate poverty is to introduce temporary programs that allow citizens to assist in the reconstruction of their communities. These can provide the important resources that will help resuscitate economies that are already weak, but significantly weakened by the disaster event. Workfare projects can involve cleanup efforts, housing reconstruction, and/or rebuilding the social and community infrastructure destroyed or damaged in the disaster event. Although the critical economic structures such as banks, stores and other businesses may have been destroyed in the disaster, the city should encourage them to continue carrying on business through housing them in public buildings and/or temporary structures. This is important since people will need to access cash and other materials resources soon after the disaster event.
The loss of social infrastructure can be as devastating as the physical hardships suffered by survivors. Suicides of older people rose dramatically following the Kobe earthquake in Japan. Beyond offering the services of social workers to help survivors deal with the emotional trauma of a disaster, a community that can become involved in their own reconstruction programs can have a positive psychological effect on the community as a whole. The community will also be more willing to contribute their time and resources to the reconstruction efforts if they are able to participate in preparing the reconstruction programs. Stakeholders to involve in the reconstruction efforts can include financial institutions, cultural institutions, NGOs, developers, the business community, and citizens. It is also important to involve all aspects of the community including women and other less represented sectors of the community so that all interests in the community are represented and the reconstruction of the community can be holistic.
During reconstruction, the community can become proactive in reducing their susceptibility to hazards by taking notice of how the built and natural environment interacts. In Latin America and the Caribbean the death toll and economic damage due to landslides and floods have decreased considerably thanks to initiatives that were undertaken in the wake of serious hurricanes such as Hurricane Mitch in 1999. Municipalities, universities, the private sector and community groups created reforestation and plant cover projects to stabilize hillsides and improved drainage systems and waterways by removing impediments and structures in the flood zones. In some cases, these investments are even generating income through work programs, alternative development and harvesting and tourism programs. Communities can also work together to reduce their susceptibility to hazards by putting in place self-monitoring mechanisms to ensure that unsafe building practices and other dangerous behaviors are stopped.
Much of the huge loss of life from a disaster can be attributed to people living in makeshift homes on land not appropriate for such structures. To reduce vulnerability in the future, cities must relocate people away from land that is vulnerable to disasters and ensure that new families do not create informal settlements. Often old historic districts have structures that have been built unsafely and too close together, increasing the susceptibility to collapse in a disaster. Safety considerations during the reconstruction phase invariably will call for better designed housing and infrastructure to protect citizens and allow communities to be more resistant to disasters. In relocation programs a balance needs to be struck to design compensation packages that attempt to make available sites that are roughly comparable to their previous dwellings (in terms of location, social infrastructure and access to jobs and services) but are less vulnerable to disaster risk, while also allowing flexibility in letting the families choose where to live.