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.”


“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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Need, Give, Good: On Philanthropy, Due Diligence, Trends & an Idea Whose Time as Come (link suite overview)

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Giving has never been easier, nor need greater. Leveraging donations for impact, how more can be less and the promise of social enterprise

“Need, Give, Good” – New suite of links on

According to a new study by Network for Good and True Sense Marketing, 20% of all online giving takes place in the last 48 hours of the year. So get out your laptops and cell phones, it’s time to dig into your cyber pockets and spread some love around.

There are plenty of ways to do it, too. This year’s digital darling, Groupon, has teamed up with crowdfunded microfinance pioneer Kiva to make your philanthropy dollars go further: 40% further. The coupon site is selling $25 donations for $15, with Groupon and its sponsors making up  the $10 difference up to $500,000, Kiva isn’t out a dime. The deal ends, along with 2010, on December 31.

Groupon competitor, Living Social, has a somewhat more complicated offer going with Global Giving, involving percentages of sales, a processing fee, benefiting five charities in Canada, the U.K. and Australia. Today it the last day, so we should know son how well it worked out.

No matter how you send in your dollars (credit card, text, check or “old timey* coin in a kettle), be sure to use Charity Navigator to make sure an organization is as worthy as its cause.

There are plenty of worthy causes, too. But if you’re stuck, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has a few suggestions for lesser-known groups that could use some help (btw, no holiday required—give early, give often…).


“Philanthrocapitalism” co-author Mark Bishop predicts 2011 will be “a year when aid is privatized more than we’ve ever seen it before.” Whether that turns out to be good or not remains to be seen. But the trend got a big boost with Warren Buffet and Bill & Melinda Gates’ “Giving Pledge,” a clever non-binding bit of billionaire peer-pressure designed to buck the “tax breaks for the wealthiest 2%” mentality of Washington D.C. Although the pledge calls for the mega-rich to donate half their wealth during their lifetimes, or immediately thereafter, the realities of how much actual cash that boils down to on an annual basis and where the money goes may prove disappointing to some.

Meanwhile, continued global economic gloom, coupled with a pricey uptick in natural disasters, means that governments slashing domestic budgets will have less available for foreign aid just as the need has never been greater. This is already a huge problem. UN appeals often fall short of their goals. In 2010, the UN asked for a record $5 billion for natural disasters, but received only 60%, a still record $3 billion (the Haitian earthquake and Pakistan flood were each billion dollar-plus catastrophes). A few country-specific appeals failed to generate any donor-country response at all.

Consultant Lucy Bernholz turns her crystal ball on the next decade. Along with the consensus favorites—text-giving will replace credit card donations, better coordination for disaster relief and a shift toward “impact investing”—she sees data analysis and visualization becoming key skills for philanthropists, while gaming and game pedagogy become a mainstream tool for problem solving.


In only 9 years, Acumen Fund has gone from a glimmer in CEO Jacqueline Novogratz’ eye to a social enterprise powerhouse: $50 million-plus worth of “slow capital” invested in companies based in India, Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The “leverage” effect tops $200 million. Tens of thousands of new jobs have been created, along with new business sectors serving millions of people. The learning curve has been as steep as the growth curve, with Acumen literally writing the book on how this sort of thing is done. Today, there are nearly 200 social enterprise funds, by Novogratz’ count.

In 2011, the U.S. State department will host SOCAP@State, a conference described as “the Clinton Global Initiative meets It Takes a Village.” Clearly, social enterprise is an approach whose time is now.


Additional links include:
  • and more!

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* Here at TrackerNews, we are big fans of Maria Popova’s stunning work at Brain Pickings always worth a read. Although the term “old timey” is one of the lesser gifts of her writings, we have come to adore it.