Hurricane Relief Efforts Often Misguided, Harmful

July 29, 1998

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Misguided hurricane relief efforts in the Caribbean often have done more harm than good, according to authors of a new book.

Dr. Philip Berke, associate professor of land use and environmental planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that while the motivations of the givers are honorable, emergency relief responses often do not support the concept of sustainable development and sometimes even subvert it.

"Population growth, increased urbanization, shortages of low-cost, low-risk land and economic hardships are the primary root of vulnerability to natural hazards in the Caribbean," said Berke, who is based in the department of city and regional planning. "People are often forced to live on marginal lands, like floodplains, steep ravines or overcrowded, hazard-prone sites.

Berke is co-author of "After the Hurricane," published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. The book lists underdevelopment, environmental degradation and rapidly expanding populations as factors that hurt the ability of developing countries to cope with natural hazards.

Berke and co-author Timothy Beatley of the University of Virginia collected data for the book on the Caribbean islands of Antigua, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Jamaica. He said the lessons learned in the Caribbean could apply to most developing countries.

"Though the rate of major natural hazardous events has not increased, the magnitude of losses is rising throughout the world, particularly in developing countries," Berke said.

"Estimates indicate that annual losses from hurricanes and floods in developing countries have risen two to three times faster than in developed countries since 1970. While annual death rates have gone down in developed countries, they are climbing in developing countries."

When Hurricane Gilbert struck Jamaica in 1988, the island's lack of preparation became evident. With sustained winds of 80 miles per hour, lasting over nine hours, and gusts reaching 140 miles per hour, losses were dramatic, according to the book. Nearly 20 percent of the housing for the entire nation was destroyed, leaving 45 dead and 400,000 of the estimated 2.5 million inhabitants homeless. Damage was estimated at more than a billion dollars.

With research support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the former United Nations Disaster Relief Organization, the authors looked at opportunities during the recovery period for local organizations to make lasting contributions to social, economic and physical development. Many of these opportunities were lost, they found.

"The dominant approach of aid and recovery programs emphasizes short-term relief, with little linkage to long-range development concerns; local roles and capacities; and diverse social, economic and cultural conditions," Berke said. "It presumes that people in disaster stricken areas are helpless without aid; they are seen as having limited capacity either to cope with losses or to participate effectively in recovery initiatives."

The book's authors say disasters and development should be viewed as closely connected. They found aid to be best used in building and supporting local organizations that can be effective in sustainable development initiatives that endure long after disasters strike.

"We found cases where such initiatives not only reduced long-term vulnerability and helped to distribute aid equitably, but also reinforced local capacity to resolve long-standing development problems such as deficient housing for the poor, deforestation practices and deteriorated or nonexistent public infrastructure (water, sewer and roads)," Berke said.

"This approach assumes that aid recipients become active participants rather than poor, helpless victims," he said. "Through sound recovery planning, disaster stricken communities can be empowered to control resources and undertake self-directed development initiatives."

Berke said he would like to see more students studying disaster recovery. "This is a problem way beyond the attention given to it," he said.

By Bret Johnson

Note: Berke can be reached at 919-962-4765.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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