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A rational extension of Habitat’s mission -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A rational extension of Habitat’s mission

James Samuel is a disaster response manager for Habitat’s Asia/Pacific area. In his more than four years with Habitat, Samuel has been involved with tsunami and typhoon responses in Asia, three major flood disaster responses in India, and Habitat’s response to an Indonesian earthquake. His previous experience includes major disaster response projects with World Vision, Catholic Relief Services and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

From your experience, why is Habitat so successful at responding to disasters?
Habitat has been successful in responding to disaster because Habitat tries to focus on long-term development of the disaster-affected communities. Habitat responds to disasters from the outset in relief of immediate need, but always focuses on a long-term commitment for a sustainable development.

In the initial stages, our early response includes clean-up, early repair and transitional shelter. As soon as the situation on ground realistically allows, Habitat begins rebuilding damaged houses, and that’s our long-term response—reconstruction. Habitat’s other post-disaster support includes technical and organizational expertise, working with aid agencies, government planners and other groups to provide expertise in shelter construction.

Community-based disaster risk reduction is another major program we undertake. Through the introduction of preparedness and mitigation programs, Habitat offers training on how to protect property and communities from the risk of further destruction.

How does disaster response fit into Habitat’s mission in the area where you work?
Habitat works with local communities, governments and other organizations, but the focus is always on providing permanent housing solutions. In disaster response, we provide shelter solution along with water and sanitation to the communities affected by natural disasters, conflicts and other calamities.

Disaster response is a rational extension of Habitat’s mission, and this allows for broad outreach to transform affected communities. We serve the poor who lack very minimal resources and become an integral part of their recovery. In that context, Habitat’s “hand up” and holistic approach—skill transfer, savings groups, income generation, etc.—plays a vital role in sustainable development. The Habitat house provides stability and continuity for the family to make a leap from subsistence to health and education amid a strong family support system.

Can you describe what it feels like to go into a major disaster area?
I have been to disaster-affected areas immediately—the same day or very next day—and still find it difficult to explain. Disaster brings unexpected and severe disruption to individuals, families and entire communities. That disruption may be temporary and in time recoverable, or it may bring a tragic loss of family, inflicting lifelong physical, emotional and economic hopelessness and decline.

Generally, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster among the poor and severely affected where the family unit remains united, there is more resilience, and the steps to re-establish and secure basic protection from exposure, food and water, and some minimal sanitation seem intuitive to those affected, are immediate, and go without saying.

A mother of six who lost three small children, swept out of her arms in the tsunami just days earlier, eyes and face deeply reddened and bloodshot from days of crying, prepared food for her remaining toddlers, who happily played under the tarp that was all they now had to call a home. Her husband had left for the day to claim the bodies of the three children who died, in anticipation of a mass funeral scheduled to take place in the coming days which they had no ability to attend.

It is a reminder of the depth of human capacity to endure nearly any hardship, to continue and rebuild with reverence, respect and remembrance for those loved ones and a previous life now lost, but to be present in the moment and its needs, not crippled by the burden of memories.

And what is it like to see the long-term effects of rebuilding?
When earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and other horrific disasters strike, Habitat plays an important role in the recovery process. From constructing new homes to designing essential medical clinics and schools, partners and volunteers help rebuild devastated communities.

Natural events become disasters because of the delicate relationships between the natural, human and built environments. Major disasters will always occur in towns and cities in the developing world where resources are limited, people are vulnerable and needs are particularly great.

The long-term effects of rebuilding are manifold. Many of those transformations are subtle or invisible in terms of the secondary or tertiary effects of having a stable, well-built, disaster-resistant home, which can allow for better access to community services, health care, education, savings—and thus the stability to endure and grow. What we have seen in our rebuilding programs is the reestablishment of lives and sustainable livelihoods. Children go to school; families enjoy good health.