The Days, Years After: Recovering from Bigger, Badder Disasters

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Link suite overview: on recovering from disasters; the lessons of Irene, Joplin, Fukushima, Pakistan flood, Queensland flood, Christchurch quakes, Haiti quakes, Katrina; collateral damage and eco-smart design as insurance

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It has been a banner year for disasters in the US with  a record-breaking 10 “billion-dollar-plus” knock-out punches, and still four months to go. So far: massive blizzards, epic floods, murderous tornadoes and one staggeringly large, coast-shredding hurricane. As  a grace note, an earthquake on an previously unknown fault in Virginia put cracks in the Washington monument—a wound as disturbing symbolically as structurally.

Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.

Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).

The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly.  As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.

It made a difference. People got out of harm’s way. Although the death toll has now climbed into mid-forties, with likely a few thousand more injured, an estimated 65 million people felt some part of Irene’s fury. Most stayed safe, which is remarkable.

Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.

The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.

It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.

There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.

Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.

Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”

IN RECOVERY

“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.

  • Political gridlock (Japan) can be just as devastating as corruption (Haiti) in slowing recovery
  • Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)

On a more encouraging note, all sorts of new and better tools for  mapping, clean-up, construction and communication have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, all made accessible, and some made possible, by the web.

Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.

Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.

Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.

Additional highlights of the link suite include:

… and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

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Germs, Soap & Water: Link Suite Overview

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At TrackerNews, we tend to shy away from issues that have “days” as almost a sure mark that the cause, however noble, is all but lost. Awareness is whipped to fever pitch, followed almost inevitably by a “what do we do now?” hang-over, and an ADD sprint onto the next issue du jour. But World Toilet Day (Nov. 19) caught—and kept—our attention. So much so, we used it as the fulcrum of one the largest link suites ever on the aggregator.  —Ed.

“Germs, Soap & Water” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

It is as basic—and necessary—as breathing. And, just like breathing, one of the first things we need to be able to do on our own: We poop. But what begins as a triumph of living, quickly devolves into daily problem with deadly implications. Human poop is a happy home for at least 50 pathogens, including cholera, the latest of Haiti’s cascading list of immeasurable woes.

At some point each day, each one of the now more than 6 billion people on that planet will need to “take a moment,” “go to the powder room,” or “be right back.”  For one in six, however, there is no “powder room,” or even a bucket into which to “do one’s business.”  A full third don’t have access to a clean bathroom. Instead, they do as nature designed, find a place to squat and simply “go”—or, in the jargon of the sanitation experts, perform “open defecation” (OD).

It is messy, smelly, wildly dangerous in terms of public health, and dicey in terms of personal safety. Women and children are especially vulnerable to attack and rape. No safety, privacy or dignity.

Journalist Rose George, author of “The Big Necessity” and an expert on the issue, notes that only a small fraction of development funds spent on water projects goes toward sanitation. Yet to seriously move the dial on global public health, safe toilets and hand-washing with soap are required as well. According to one, oft-quoted stat, one child dies every 15 seconds from largely preventable diarrheal diseases. Hand-washing with soap alone can reduce the tally by more than half.

Which is why Clean the World (CTW), a two-year-old charity that steam-cleans partially-used hotel soaps for distribution in poor countries, is one of the best, cheapest, smartest public health efforts to come along in some time. At 50 cents a bar, soap in Haiti is a luxury. Free soap is a literal life-saver. Think of it as a kind of bed-net against germs.

Likewise, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) delivers dramatic results for almost no cost, using a combination of shock, peer-pressure and incentives to stamp out OD. Villagers are graphically shown how excreta and germs get into water and food via dirty hands, shoes, feet. Not only are latrines quickly built, but a combination of fines and rewards ensure they’re used.

INNOVATION, HISTORY, CULTURE & ART

At TrackerNews, we never met a stray fact we didn’t like and bathrooms, it turns out, are full of them. Consider the latest breakthrough in TP tech: the tubeless toilet paper roll. The center is hexagonal—a biomimicked bee hive cell—which is a particularly strong shape that easily fits over a roller. Not only is every sheet usable, but if the design were to be widely adopted, one that could keep an estimated 17 billion-with-a-“b” cardboard tubes out of landfills annually, just in the U.S.

Although the basic design of the flush toilet hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years, the variety and sheer spectacularness of loo-design has been nothing short of breathtaking. From Golden Plunger award-winners to “Toilets of the World” (book & website), the variations on the theme are inspirational.

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Additional links include:
  • maps on Haiti’s cholera outbreak
  • night soil: free, cheap, endless supply of fertilizer
  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Rebuilding Haiti: On Trees, Charcoal, Compost and Why Low Tech, Low Cost Answers Could Make the Biggest Difference (& How High-Tech Can Help)

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Haiti Timber Re-Introduction Project (HTRIP)

On the link between environmental health & public health; Rebuilding Haiti from the soil microbes up; A humanitarian aid petri dish; Jared Diamond’s checklist for collapse & Haiti as vision what could be in store for the rest of us; Charcoal cartels, Amy Smith’s better answer & Nicholas Kristof’s compost toilet tour

 

Five years ago, in a move as practical as it was visionary, the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) in Haiti began planting trees – lots of trees – in an effort to mend an ailing landscape.

Small farm plots on hilly terrain had been stripped bare of soil-stabilizing cover (2/3 of the the country is on land that slopes 20% or more). No soil means no food means malnutrition means disease, illness, death.

“Practically every medical problem in Haiti is poverty-related,” notes Dr. Vehnita Suresh, the hospital’s CEO. “The never-ending cycle of deforestation lead(s) to more ecological damage, more compromised farming, more poverty and more hunger. It goes on and on and on.”

Public health and environmental health are so tied together, you simply can’t have the former without the latter. “We can go on giving health-care forever,” says Dr. Suresh, “It would never really touch even the brim of the problem here.”

So they plant trees. The Haiti Timber Re-Introduction Project (HTRIP) has begun to reverse centuries of devastation that literally skinned the country alive, leaving hillsides such as the ones surrounding the Artibonite Valley where the hospital is located barren and bleak.

Documentary on The Haiti Timber Re-Introduction Project, the Hopital Albert Schweitzer's reforestation effort

In the aftermath of the earthquake, reforestation has taken a back seat to the urgency of treating the injured (you can donate directly to support the hospital’s work). But over the long term, any real “Hope for Haiti” means planting trees – literally rebuilding the country from its soil microbes up.

AVOIDING COLLAPSE: LAB HAITI

Haiti has been teetering at brink of breakdown for as long as anyone can remember, but it took the quake to focus  global attention, sparking an unprecedented outpouring of support and a largely spontaneous explosion of technical can-do innovation. From CrisisMappers and Crisis Commons hackers to the collaborative Haiti Rewired network, Twitter hashtag-enabled mash-ups and teams of volunteer architects, engineers, doctors,  veterinarians and other professionals, this has been an all-hands-on-deck emergency.

In a sense, Haiti has become a sort of petri dish for humanitarian action. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If, somehow, this “Exhibit A” for all that Jared Diamond says spells doom for a culture/country’s prospects is rescued from the abyss of complete collapse, the implications go far beyond Haiti.

Haiti, in all its deforested, polluted, cartel-corrupted, disease-riddled impoverishment, is a vision of our planet’s future if we continue to devour natural resources beyond replenishment, downplay the seriousness of climate change, spike efforts at family planning and ignore the integral importance of environmental health. As goes Haiti, so go we all. Continue reading

“TrackerNews: Haiti” – A Special Resources Page

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A special TrackerNews page with news, info and resources relevant to Haitian relief and reconstruction; A prototype “sketch” for a personal aggregation tool; Hi-tech meets What-tech?; Haiti’s legacy

At TrackerNews, we tell stories by collecting and connecting links. Unlike most aggregators  that are driven by by dateline or popularity, we are interested in context, mixing news stories and research papers, conference videos and book sites, archived articles and blog posts from the field. Typically, between 4 and 6 story groups about health (human / animal / eco), humanitarian work and technology are on the site at any given time, setting the stage for the alchemy of cross-disciplinary insight. Eventually, everything ends up in a searchable database. Day by day, link by link, a broadly defined beat becomes a richer archive, a deeper resource.

Very occasionally, major breaking news stories  – a hurricane, disease outbreak, political unrest, climate conference – have taken over the entire site. But the Haitian earthquake stands apart with its mix of staggering devastation, technological hope, massive global response, cascading threats (disease, looting, hurricanes), ecological horror (the fertile skin of  the land has literally been stripped bare from deforestation) and the glimmering potential to right more than three centuries of unspeakable wrongs rooted in the slave trade.

For two weeks, dozens upon dozens of Haiti-related links have coursed through the TrackerNews columns. More have been tweeted via @TrackerNews. Now we have created a special permanent TrackerNews: Haiti resources page.

As is the TrackerNews style, it includes a mix of links to news stories, organization websites, web tools, wiki’s, apps, books, reports, magazines and blogs. It is a work in progress and covers the following categories (to start -more can be added as needed):

  • Aid/Funding
  • Disaster Tech / Mapping / Mobile
  • Earthquakes
  • Food & Agriculture
  • General News (MSM)
  • Haiti
  • Heath: Human / Animal
  • Human Rights
  • Humanitarian Design
  • Light / Power
  • Money / Microfinance
  • Reforestation / Charcoal
  • Shelter / Infrastructure
  • United Nations
  • Water / Sanitation Continue reading