Archive for the ‘Disaster Relief’ Category

Dreaming of Oscar Gold

Sunday, February 28th, 2016
Dreaming of Oscar Gold

Dreaming of Oscar Gold

Will you be among the tens of millions of viewers watching the live broadcast of the Academy Awards for Motion Pictures (the “Oscars”) tonight? Apparently, it is not just the actors, directors and film studios dreaming of Oscar gold. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, blogged about an Oscar award going to a movie depicting characters impacted by disasters. They titled the category “The Best Pictures of Resilience”.

I, too, had envisioned a scenario in which a highly entertaining movie could motivate its audience to prepare for disasters. I had blogged about San Andreas, The Movie which had effectively informed its large audience about the severity of earthquakes and the necessary safety measures. I had imagined a sequel to the movie in which the star attempts to rebuild his life, business and community in the aftermath of the disaster as the movie audience learns about the long-term consequences of disasters.

What can we do to make our information about disaster preparedness resonate with audiences in the way that the blockbuster movies do so effectively? I have invested some effort into examining more effective disaster communications. After reading the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, I enrolled in the accompanying course offered by Decker Communications. After being informed by more effective communication strategies, our messages may not be entertaining. But at least they will be memorable.

Assessing the Scale and Impact of Disaster Philanthropy

Friday, November 13th, 2015
Monitoring Disaster Philanthropy

Monitoring Disaster Philanthropy

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has published the second edition of Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy 2015: Data to Drive Decisions along with online tools, including a dashboard and an interactive funding map. The online tools enable users to monitor contributions to support relief by disaster type, disaster assistance strategy and geographic areas impacted. The report and the online tools aim to help donors, government agencies, news media and other stakeholders understand the scale and scope of global disaster-related philanthropy. This information can inform more effective philanthropy by avoiding duplication of efforts and misuse of scarce resources.

According to Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy 2015, a total of $27.6 billion was given in response to disasters and humanitarian crises in 2013. Most of that sum was directed towards immediate response and relief efforts. While the largest share of the total was contributed by government donors and agencies, with the U.S. Federal Emergency Agency alone accounting for $11 billion, the report also found that the largest thousand U.S. foundations awarded $116.9 million, with an additional $60.1 million provided by smaller foundations, public charities, and international foundations. Outside the U.S., aid from the twenty-nine members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee totaled $13.6 billion, while another $2.4 billion was awarded by other donors and multilateral organizations.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy is to be commended for collecting, analyzing and publishing this data, as it informs strategic decision making and may increase the effectiveness of disaster relief aid. However, and this bears repeating, it is a better use of funds to prevent and mitigate disasters than to respond to them. The challenge is that disaster mitigation efforts can be more difficult to assess and donors do not have the same visibility for such efforts as they do for the powerful (and generous) work of providing relief.

Tomorrow is World Humanitarian Day

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
World Humanitarian Day

World Humanitarian Day

Tomorrow is World Humanitarian Day, designated by the United Nations as a day to honor those who provide life-saving assistance to others and those who have lost their lives in the cause of duty. The UN chose August 19 for this purpose, as it is the anniversary date of the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad where twenty-two people lost their lives including the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello. In recent years, the UN has used this date to draw attention to the humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters. The number of people directly affected by natural disasters has risen each year over the past decade, with about 211 million people directly affected last year. Hazards related to extreme weather present new and difficult challenges that demand more flexible solutions and adaptable humanitarian work. I will not be blogging tomorrow, but I wanted to draw attention to this day. Many businesses will acknowledge World Humanitarian Day on their social networking platforms (the hashtag is #SHAREHUMANITY) by recognizing a humanitarian who has made a difference in the world or committing to support specific humanitarian work.

Natural Disasters Displaced Nearly 20 Million People Last Year

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015
Leaving Home

Leaving Home

Since 2008, an average of 26.5 million people have been displaced each year by disasters, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (“NRC”). Last year, 19.3 million people were forced from their homes due to floods, storms, earthquakes and other disasters, slightly below the average for recent years, but still alarmingly high.  The NRC expects the problem to worsen due to the impacts of climate change, but believes that hazard-resilient building construction could significantly ameliorate the problem. The NRC’s research shows that disaster-related displacement is increasing, in part, because of rapidly growing populations in poorly constructed homes in hazard-prone areas.

Asia accounted for nearly 90 percent of the 19.3 million people displaced by 2014, caused by typhoons in China and the Philippines and floods in India. But the risk of being left homeless by disaster is not limited to less developed countries. The largest single case the NRC cited was found in Japan were some 230,000 people are still in temporary shelters following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2002, including people displaced from the area around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plan. In the United States, approximately 40,000 people still need housing assistance following Super Storm Sandy in 2012. And certainly the images of New Orleans residents housed in the Super Dome is seared into our national psyche. The findings of the NRC should motivate greater discussion about how policies to support disaster-resilient housing, including retrofitting aging structures.



Music for Relief

Sunday, April 26th, 2015
Linkin Park Supports Disaster Relief

Linkin Park Supports Disaster Relief

Music for Relief was founded by the band Linkin Park in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Since it began work in 2005, Music for Relief has raised over $7 million for survivors of  disasters including Hurricane Katrina, China’s Wenchuan earthquake, a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, earthquakes in Haiti and Japan in 2010, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. MFR has organized benefit concerts, online auctions, and events with multi-platinum musicians and celebrities to help rebuild and donate supplies to people in need. What is particularly impressive about their efforts are that (1) they are raising awareness and funds for the long-term rather than responding on an ad hoc basis to individual disasters; (2) they are supporting organizations such as Oxfam that have shown to be operationally effective, rather than diverting funds to the costs of building new means of delivering aid; and (3) they are working for proactive measures to reduce disaster risk, as Music for Relief has planted over one million trees to help reduce climate change (and the disaster impacts associated with rising temperatures).

United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon welcomed Linkin Park to the UN headquarters in New York and expressed appreciation for the band’s work in raising awareness and funds for disaster relief in Haiti after that country was struck by a powerful earthquake. I have a guitar in my office signed by Linkin Park from their Carnivores tour as I find it inspiring. As the UN Secretary-General pointed out, the Linkin Park video that was seen by more than nine million people made a powerful contribution to the relief efforts in Haiti. So if you are not familiar with Music for Relief, check it out.

The Devil You Know

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

They Move Slowly

Gulf Coast residents who had complained about the glacial speed with which BP paid claims for losses related to the oil spill now appreciate that everything is relative. Since the federal government has assumed responsibility for the claims payments, the process has slowed down. The extent of the anger over the delays and miscommunications became clear at a meeting last month in Orange Beach, Alabama attended by roughly a thousand small business owners from Alabama and Florida’s Gulf Coast. Mayor Tony Kennon called the meeting which was attended by the federal government’s “claims czar” Kenneth Feinberg. Among the many stories related by small business owners, some common themes emerge.  The first concerns the severe consequences of delayed claims payments.

As we know from our experience in disaster recovery, cash flow is critical to the survival of small businesses. Florida Governor Charlie Crist was correct to criticize the claims process, saying “I think it would be more appropriate for us (the governor and cabinet) to co-sign a letter encouraging increased urgency. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for (some businesses) to be able to hang on. Twenty billion (the sum of money in the BP claims fund) is no small sum of change, but it’s no good unless it’s utilized.”

Consider what delayed payments mean for employment. In most states, the law requires that employees be paid their wages within two weeks of performing their work. Without the cash to pay wages, small businesses have no choice but to lay off staff. They simply cannot run the risks associated with vague promises for claims reimbursement when they have legal obligations to fulfill.

The second key theme relates to our evolving paradigm of economic losses and physical disasters. After 9-11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was unable to come to grips with the consequences of business interruption and income losses to small businesses. Their view was the economic losses correlated with physical damage. But this is an anachronism: certain service-related businesses located in the World Trade Center suffered total losses of property. But because their work was not location-dependent and because they had appropriate backup, they were able to resume operations. Other businesses, slightly more removed from the scene of the disaster, such as restaurants and retail shops, sustained little or no physical damage. But the interruption of convenient access to their businesses caused severe losses in income. Nine years later and our government has made no progress in its understanding of business interruption losses. The administrator of the BP claims fund, Kenneth Feinberg had stated that claims from business not in the immediate proximity of the disaster would not be paid. The problem, of course, is that the entire Gulf Coast tourism industry lost business this summer because of perceptions about the oil spill, even though many of the beaches were free of oil.

The third theme relates to how we compensate losses incurred by businesses with very short operating histories. The Daily Beast reported the story of Keith Brooks who had launched a new web-based business, with committed advertisers on board – until the Deepwater explosion. His claim for business losses was challenged, but finally documented to the satisfaction of the BP adjuster. Then it was turned over to the federal government’s management and the process began all over again. In the first edition of Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses, we presented the example of the Lower Manhattan pizza parlor that opened for its first and last day of business on September 10, 2001. Our startup businesses are the most vulnerable to disasters and yet we need them to resume job growth.

Finally, we need to stop fighting old battles and begin to look forward. In an apparent reference to the 9-11 disaster (in which the famous Dunkin Donuts franchise in Oregon successfully applied for a disaster relief program), Feinberg states that if proximity to the oil spill was not given relevance in the claims process, the claims center would “be inundated with claims from 50 states.” True enough, but is it fair that small businesses in the Gulf Coast states should be punished as fearful government employees made blunders with claims payments in previous disasters?

If there is one lesson from this experience, it is that our inability to learn from our past is becoming increasingly costly, both in human and in financial terms. We need a comprehensive and forward-looking plan for disaster relief programs.

Even the Bureaucrats Don’t Understand Bureaucracy

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
Pushing from Washington to Trenton

Pushing from Washington to Trenton

I must have a perverse sense of humor, but I did see something funny in the recent controversy over New Jersey’s failure to secure $400 million in federal funds from the federal government in connection with the Race to the Top program. The State’s Education Department submitted the figures for the wrong program year, confusing 2011 with 2009, in New Jersey’s grant application, causing a five-point deduction in the state’s application for education stimulus funds. Finger pointing ensued, with educational leaders outraged with the rigid approach that resulted in NJ’s disqualification. NJ Governor Christie created a memorable photo opportunity when he tapped his finger on the 1,000+ pages of the Race to the Top application, highlighting its needless complexity. Of course, both sides missed the point: improving education is the goal, not figuring out how to shuffle funds between Peter and Paul.

But for anyone who has ever been through the process of dealing with federal disaster relief agencies, both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration, it is humorous. The federal government’s interest is in preserving its own bureaucracy, not in aiding disaster relief. You need a PhD in bureaucratese to navigate this opaque system. So to see the state bureaucrats at a disadvantage in dealing with federal bureaucrats brought a smile to my face. Because we are all at a disadvantage in dealing with federal bureaucrats.

Politics Before People

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

The Honorable Geert Visser, consul general for the Netherlands in Houston, gave an interview to the Houston Chronicle in which he revealed that his government extended an official offer of assistance to the U.S. three days after the oil well explosion in the Gulf Coast. The administration wrote back to decline the offer. Now, after nearly two months of an oil gush that is savaging the wildlife and economy of the Gulf Coast states, our government is reconsidering the Dutch offer. No doubt the Dutch are horrified by what they are seeing on the news, as this paralysis and political blame would not be tolerated in the Netherlands, where the government gives an oil company twelve hours to contain a spill. If the oil company’s response is insufficient, the government steps in, assumes control of the cleanup and bills the oil company to ensure that taxpayers are reimbursed.

The Netherlands is certainly experienced with building dikes and managing water, as most of its terrain lies below sea level. The Netherlands had proposed a plan for building sand barriers affording some protection to the vulnerable marshlands. The Dutch were also willing to provide equipment to implement the plan, including ships equipped with oil-skimming booms. But our government got in the way. Dutch ships were prevented from approaching the U.S. coast by an anachronism of maritime law, the Jones Act, which limits access to the U.S. coast to U.S. ships. This week, the federal government allowed for U.S. ships to be equipped with four pairs of the skimming booms delivered from the Netherlands, which should be put in use in the Gulf Coast very soon. Each pair can process 5 million gallons of water daily, removing 20,000 tons of oil and sludge each day that they are in use.

The plan for the sand barriers was enthusiastically endorsed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and tentatively endorsed by the Coast Guard. A Dutch marine contractor has worked out a plan for building 60-mile long sand dikes within three weeks, which plan is opposed by American dredging companies that want to do the work themselves. But they lack the dike-building experience of the Dutch. This, of course, is a sad replay of what occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the U.S. government declined offers of assistance from the German government. The Germans had emergency relief equipment and evacuation plans ready to be deployed, but Washington insisted that it had everything under control. The people of Louisiana are paying a very high price for this silliness.

Adding Insult to Injury in Haiti

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

The only thing more horrifying than the human tragedy in Haiti is the so-called “disaster aid” that compounds the suffering of those who have already lost what little they have. Unfortunately, bureaucracy is the first order of relief efforts. USA Today reports that the U.S. Agency for International Development (part of the U.S. State Department) ordered U.S. soldiers to stop distributing food packages to desperate Haitians. However, the troops continued to give bottled water because they were not forbidden to do so. Sound crazy? Not really. Did you know that counselors of our Small Business Development Centers were forbidden to help their colleagues in the Gulf Coast assist their small business clients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? The U.S. Small Business Administration prevented the counselors from crossing state lines. So many counselors went as unpaid volunteers. Bureaucracies have inflexible rules that get in the way of offering help. But had we acted honorably, the Haitians might not today be in such desperate straits. Tageschau Deutschland is reporting that U.S.-backed governments of developing countries received aid that motivated the relocation of the poor to areas particularly prone to natural hazards. Even worse, a public display of aid assistance may be used to weaken demands to accept more immigrants from Haiti to the U.S. where they would have a credible shot at rebuilding their lives. It is sad, but true, that the poorest are the most vulnerable to disasters, whether in the U.S. or overseas and that relief aid more often than not serves the interests of the donors, not the recipients.

Typhoon Morakot Threatens China

Saturday, August 8th, 2009
Rough Waters in Southeast Asia

Rough Waters in Southeast Asia

We know from our experience with hurricanes in the Gulf Coast the long-term damage that can be wrought on vulnerable populations. But the consequences are even more devastating to developing countries that have fewer social safety nets for victims of natural disasters. This week, the National Disaster Coordinating Council reported that the tier of Typhoon Morakot killed ten people in the Philippines.  Five casualties were tourists and their guides who were swept into the water. The heavy rains were responsible for more than ten landslides that destroyed or damaged close to 30 properties.  The storm then picked up wind speeds of 92 mph and made landfall in Taiwan where it killed two people and left behind 51 inches of rainfall. The forecast calls for the storm to drop another 39 inches of rain on Taiwan.  The damage caused by the heavy rainfall is amplified by the recent drought that left the ground unable to absorb water, such that flooding results.  China is next in the path of Typhoon Morakot. Chinese authorities have already begun evacuating residents of islands along the coastal storm path.  Let’s hope that the storm does not claim any more lives and we should all be prepared to give whatever we can to relief efforts.