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Superstorm Sandy: A Reminder of the Importance That Communities Play in Planning and Response

Women's Refugee Commission - Fri, 9 Nov 2012 15:50 GMT
Author: Diana Quick Director Of Communications And Jennifer Schlecht Senior Program Officer Reproductive Health Women S Refugee Commission
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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it is hard not to reflect on human vulnerabilities that transcend borders. The importance of our own communities in preparedness and response efforts come clearly into focus.  Just over a week ago, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record devastated the Caribbean, mid-Atlantic and northeast United States. Regions are still besieged with recovery efforts.

In New York City, a global financial capital, authorities are struggling to get power and heat back to hundreds of thousands of residents. Community efforts driven by volunteers are distributing food, water, clothes and blankets to men, women and children who are facing an altered reality. Residents in New York and New Jersey are being shifted to shelters for protection from yet another environmental challenge—the cold.

Sandy also pummeled the Caribbean. It wrought havoc on Haiti, where hundreds of thousands of people are still living in tent encampments almost three years after the January 2010 earthquake destroyed much of the capital. Flimsy tents collapsed or were flooded, and residents were resettled yet again to more temporary shelters. A feeling of vulnerability is renewed.

The reach of this superstorm was vast, and in all regions affected we can see the important role that neighbors and communities play as a response is mobilized. It is our neighbors who help to protect us and shelter us from further destruction. It is our community that responds first. Together, we are learning that small preparedness efforts have a huge impact during response—the water and flashlights that individuals had on hand, the early warning systems in place that warned residents to stay inside or relocate, the information sharing about evacuation centers. But preparedness is new to many of us, previously unaffected by such natural disasters, and great strides are still needed in order to strengthen a culture of preparedness. Together, we can build our resistance to such disasters—if we allow it to be a priority.

Every year, between 12 million and 50 million people are uprooted by natural disasters, most of them in developing countries. Crises tend to have a disproportionate effect on the poorest and most vulner­able, particularly women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. An astonishing 80 percent of those who died in the 2004 tsunami were women and girls.  Not only do these vulnerable groups face economic and social status disadvantages before a crisis, but they are also less likely to be incorporated in developing early warning systems, in learning basic skills of survival and in understanding how they can stay out of harm’s way.  For those who survive these events, the immediate consequences of a disaster—being uprooted from their homes and communities, facing sexual violence and exploitation, not being able to access health services and losing financial security—can have devastating, long-term consequences.

That’s why the Women's Refugee Commission is working on “disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness.” During the first 72 hours following an emergency, communities are frequently first responders. They need skills, knowledge and coordinated plans in order to effectively reduce harm. We can have a role in building their resilience to such events by helping communities in disaster-prone areas prepare for emergencies and develop local solutions for response. Such actions, put in place before an emergency, can better protect those most at risk, when a disaster strikes.

Superstorm Sandy is a dramatic reminder of the importance of planning for disaster, whether it’s in our own backyard or halfway around the world. 

Read more about our work on disaster risk reduction here.

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