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Better Approaches Needed for Rapid Rehousing after Disasters

Published 08/27/2015 by Global Communities

Better Approaches Needed for Rapid Rehousing after Disasters
By Joan Mooney
This story originally appeared in Urban Land Magazine.

One of more than 6,100 temporary shelters built in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
When the Red Cross came to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, 1.5 million people were living in 1,500 camps. They needed temporary shelter as quickly as possible.
More than 6,100 temporary shelters were built, and 5,026 of those were upgraded to permanent shelter with the addition of cement. More than 5,400 families received rental and relocation grants. Helping coordinate the reconstruction was Achala Navarante, head of the Haiti Assistance Program for the American Red Cross, one of three speakers at a recent panel titled “Sheltering Lives,” a discussion of efforts to help communities rebuild after a natural disaster, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
The temporary shelters and upgrades in Haiti worked fairly well. But the new houses built in greenfield developments were not successful. Most of the homes had no water and were far away from jobs and other people. Sometimes, the title to the land was unclear. The experience reinforced an idea gaining credence in humanitarian work: Aid projects are much more successful if they work with the local community instead of imposing design plans from the outside.
In talking with residents of local communities after a natural disaster, aid workers have learned another important lesson: Even if people have lost their home, housing may not be their first priority.
“We need an approach focused on all aspects of reconstruction, rather than just providing shelter,” said Kelly Furlani, humanitarian assistance specialist at Global Communities. Often, people whose homes were destroyed want to stay with relatives or friends and don’t need temporary shelters. The role of the relief agencies can be to support the host families. Or there may be unfinished buildings in the area that families can rent. The aid organization can help finish them or make them habitable.
Survivors are the first responders after a natural disaster, said Mario Flores, director of disaster response field operations at Habitat for Humanity. Often, before aid workers arrive, residents collect and salvage material and build their own temporary shelters.
“They need roads, schools—things they can’t build themselves,” said Flores. “They can build their own houses.”
As urbanization spreads, natural disasters are increasingly happening in urban areas. That means “the unit is not the household anymore,” said Flores. “We need to look at the entire neighborhood, by block, by city.”
It is a much more integrated approach than the one currently used by aid groups. Shelter, environment, and food security should be considered together, not as separate sectors.
A successful example of this method is the LAMIKA program in a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, said Navarante. The name is an acronym in Creole for “A Better Life in My Neighborhood.” The area suffered huge losses in the earthquake, and redevelopment was based on community engagement and a master plan.

According to Mario Flores, director of disaster response field operations at Habitat for Humanity, workers in Pakistan erecting homes after the 2013 earthquake built lighter structures because the heavy beams used before had fallen onto people inside the houses and killed many.
Aid groups worked simultaneously on programs for residents’ health, livelihoods, economic development, and shelter. They built roads, pedestrian paths, and solar-powered streetlights—a way of getting around the unreliable power grid. Houses were rebuilt and reinforced instead of built new, to save money for other, more pressing needs.
“It’s not just housing that gets people to a place, it’s the fact of having my own neighborhood,” Navarante said.
Housing that will work for the residents requires close coordination with the community in what Flores calls “participatory design.” In Global Communities’ relief work, “we engaged a lot of local engineers, local architects,” said Furlani. “We tried to find out: what types of designs are they used to? How can we help improve the designs they’re used to?”
One mantra of relief workers helping with post-disaster shelter is “build back better.” The improved shelter should take local conditions into account. In Pakistan, for example, workers erecting homes after the 2013 earthquake built lighter structures because the heavy beams used before had fallen onto people inside the houses and killed many, said Flores. In Nicaragua, a house was built on stilts to prevent flooding, with cross-bracing in the foundation pillars to withstand high winds.
Even transitional shelters should be safer. A post-earthquake house in Haiti was built with hurricane strapping. Designers found that cut tree branches sliced and put crosswise on houses increase earthquake resistance by 45 percent, Flores said.
One approach that has not worked, however, is relocation.
“Most relocation programs have been a disaster,” said Flores. “[Residents are] in a place for a reason. Some were relocated 15 to 25 kilometers (9 to 15 mi) away, and that creates a second crisis.” Now, aid agencies work to keep people close to their jobs and the people they know. The aid workers examine the site, introduce elements of mitigation for future disasters, and build retaining walls as needed.
Working with the local community and rebuilding rather than creating new construction, along with the increasing urbanization of disasters, make the post-disaster recovery process more sustainable—but also much harder.
“The complexity of this challenge will multiply significantly,” said Flores.