Lessons Learned—Responding to Natural Disasters

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February 5, 2011; Source: The Lancet | The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters counted 373 natural disasters last year. Floods, earthquakes, landslides, and extreme weather conditions killed almost 300,000 people, making "2010 the deadliest year in the past two decades." Not surprisingly, the Haiti earthquake accounted for three-fourths of all deaths due to natural disasters. Earthquakes, floods, and landslides killed over 6,400 people in China and floods in Pakistan killed almost 2,000 people.

One would think with a history of natural disasters year after year, governments would know a lot about the economic impact of disasters, but the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, contends the "understanding [of] the impact of a natural disaster on human lives and livelihoods is limited, which experts believe is why governments are not proactive about disaster risk reduction and mitigation."

This Lancet editorial also decries the lack of "rigorous epidemiological studies or data about the risk factors of death, injury, and disease . . . patterns of mortality – who has died, when (on impact or 5 days later because of a lack of care), and where (inside the house or outside)." Epidemiological information of this sort would "give insights into risk factors that are actionable and help target high-risk groups."

The Lancet charges that "political will, whether it is local municipalities or global donors, can only change if faced with convincing statistics from the field . . . Just stating that the poor are dying is no longer enough." The Lancet's conclusion is worth the attention of all nonprofit disaster relief and reconstruction groups: "Natural disasters will be more frequent in coming years if unplanned urbanisation and environmental degradation continue, and there are increases in weather-related events that include climate change. Treating disasters as singular events with a quick fix is no longer tenable. The future emergency response needs to be better aligned with a longer term perspective – a development perspective, looking at key socioeconomic investments and infrastructure and preparedness and planning for disasters – if more lives are to be saved."

Do the numerous disaster and emergency relief plans devised in the U.S. in the wake of 9/11 and Katrina meet the standard called for by The Lancet?—Rick Cohen

  • Royce Hutson

    There are folks out there doing this. See Kolbe et al., (2010) Mortality, Crime and Access to Basic Needs Before and After the Haiti Earthquake: A random survey of Port-au-Prince households. Medicine, Conflict, & Survival. 26(4). I was part of that team which outlined risk factors for victimization during and after the quake. We have also worked on victimization risk factors during and/or after conflicts in Haiti & South Lebanon.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Royce: Thanks for sharing the information. Maybe you should go online and share this with the Lancet editors.