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Hope and houses -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Hope and houses

In the aftermath of disasters, Habitat’s response and recovery efforts work to put families on the path to permanent, durable housing.
By Teresa Weaver


Disasters and civil unrest can create unprecedented housing need. A large encampment of people left homeless by the January earthquake in Haiti. Photo by Steffan Hacker


A woman leaves a distribution site in Leogane, Haiti with one version of a Habitat emergency shelter kit. Photo by Ezra Millstein


In the aftermath of a 2008 earthquake in China’s central Sichuan province, Habitat has helped families in the affected areas rebuild.


Further reading:

For a Q&A with James Samuel, Habitat Asia/Pacific’s disaster response manager, read
A Rational Extension of Habitat’s Mission


Working alongside local and international volunteers after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Habitat has helped 23,000 families in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Thailand.


Ana Subramanium and her family lived in a makeshift shack until they partnered with Habitat Sri Lanka.


Habitat affiliates along the U.S. Gulf Coast continue to build houses as part of the organization’s ongoing hurricane recovery efforts in the region.


Habitat has begun a multi-year recovery effort in Haiti, committing to serve 50,000 families over the next five years.


The most devastating disasters can be a brutal testament to the power of nature and the resilience of people.

Killer winds, floodwaters, earthquakes and even civil unrest do not differentiate between the rich and the poor, the most powerful and the most vulnerable. But invariably, the ones who suffer most in a disaster are those who had the least to begin with.

Behind all the devastating statistics in any disaster—lives lost, homes destroyed, livelihoods obliterated—are stories of perseverance and hope.

Ana Subramanium and her family in Sri Lanka are only one of 23,000 families in the region helped by Habitat for Humanity in the wake of the tsunami that struck in December 2004. But one family’s story can speak volumes about the long-term impact of well-planned, well-executed disaster response.

When the tsunami came ashore, the Subramaniums ran for their lives. They didn’t look back as the killer waves demolished nearly 120,000 houses and claimed more than 35,000 lives in Sri Lanka alone. The family’s 250-square-foot hut, made of tin sheets and brick, was washed away.

Ana and her husband made a makeshift shack out of dried coconut leaves on their land, where they lived with their two small children until Habitat Sri Lanka helped them build a 300-square-foot home.

Once the family was secure in a safe, decent home, Ana turned her thoughts to making a living. She pawned her most valuable possession—a gold necklace given to her by her husband on their wedding day—and invested in growing green chilies in the white sandy half-acre next to their house.

Unrelenting rains doomed the first crop, and Ana’s husband suffered a serious illness that left him partially paralyzed. She persevered, and the second crop of green chilies succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. She hired a dozen people from her community to help her pluck the chilies and gave them 10 percent of the harvest in wages, spreading her hard-won good fortune among 12 other families.

One family’s turnaround begins with the construction of a permanent, durable house, and ultimately an entire community is rebuilt.

Urgent and long-term

In the 34-year evolution of Habitat, disaster response has become an increasingly vital component of the organization’s mission to provide simple, decent shelter for people in need.

Since its first foray into disaster response—after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew in the southeastern United States—Habitat has helped provide permanent shelter solutions for survivors of natural disasters and unrest in every corner of the world.

In addition to the 23,000 families served after the Indian Ocean tsunami, more than 2,000 families have been helped by Habitat in the aftermath of 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Also, Habitat has worked with more than 750 families in the Sichuan Province of China after a devastating earthquake in 2008.

Every calamity has increased Habitat’s depth of knowledge and sense of purpose.“What we have learned is that people will only return to a sense of normalcy when they have a place they can call home,” says Habitat CEO Jonathan Reckford.

Disaster response complements Habitat’s core mission of providing shelter solutions, Reckford says. “It amplifies our work, our partnerships and our capacity to serve more families.” After serving tsunami survivors, for example, Habitat’s Asia/Pacific operation became the organization’s largest program. And in the U.S. Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, two affiliates that had been building only a few houses a year were merged to become one of the largest-producing affiliates in the country.

Hope in stages

Because shelter is crucial to the recovery and the well-being of any community—the foundation on which issues such as health, education and the creation of wealth rest—Habitat is a logical, essential player in disaster response.

“In the communities where we work, Habitat is an established leader when it comes to shelter,” says Kip Scheidler, Habitat’s senior director of global disaster response. “So when shelter is impacted in such profound ways, time and time again around the world, our staff and volunteers step up—often regardless of how they themselves have been impacted by the disaster—with resilience and an awe-inspiring commitment to Habitat’s mission.”

“It doesn’t change our mission,” says Mario Flores, Habitat’s director of disaster response field operations. “It’s just a different methodology of doing things. You’re still working with people who are excluded from the formal mechanisms of accessing housing. And you’re still trying to create community and demonstrate Habitat’s principles.”

Within two weeks of the Haiti earthquake, for example, Habitat and its partners began distributing emergency shelter kits that included tools to help families cope with immediate housing needs and prepare them for more permanent solutions.

Transitional shelters—simple steel or wood frames covered with heavy tarps—offered a little more protection from the predictable rains and set the stage for the construction of permanent, well-built core houses. In addition to providing immediate aid, Habitat’s early presence at disaster sites is also important for the networking opportunities it provides, putting the organization’s experts in strong positions to help shape overall rebuilding. Habitat is a member, for instance, of the United Nations-sponsored shelter cluster, which helps coordinate all shelter assistance operations at any major disaster.

Because of ongoing disaster response training, Habitat Haiti staff members were as prepared as possible when a series of hurricanes struck in 2008. But the sheer enormity of the 2010 earthquake overwhelmed all protocols in place.

The Haiti earthquake is an extreme example of common issues in disaster recovery. In many developing countries, “people build whatever they can to live however they can,” Flores says. In the absence of building codes, construction regulations or land use plans, poorly built shelters can spring up on steep hillsides or other unsuitable land without proper sanitation or water supply.

Such development typically translates into extremely high fatality rates after a disaster and usually an infrastructure in shambles. Also, many such countries have economies that depend on micro-enterprise, where people’s livelihoods are based at home. If their house is destroyed, so is their capacity to earn a living.

But hope can be found amid any tragedy, even after the most large-scale, landscape-changing disasters. “There is a big opportunity to really change some of the root causes of underdevelopment,” says Flores.

Haiti, for instance, was a complex humanitarian crisis even before the Jan. 12 earthquake. Rebuilding from the rubble up offers daunting challenges and unlimited possibilities. Habitat has made a bold commitment to serve 50,000 families in Haiti over the next five years, providing shelter solutions for an estimated 250,000 people.

Malvin Pagdanganan, logistics and supply chain manager for Habitat’s emergency program response in Haiti, is a veteran of five disaster response teams, but he still struggles to describe the emotional impact of being among the first to see an area in ruins.

“I always know it’s not going to be pleasant,” he says. “I’ve conditioned my mind and put it on a 24/7 work mode. As soon as I get to a disaster site, I immediately start finding ways to build houses.”

The challenges are different at every site. After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Pagdanganan says, the greatest hurdle was securing land for building. After Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, simple logistics were the biggest challenge.

“Just getting around the island villages was difficult, because they were all surrounded by huge rivers,” he says. “We had to bring construction materials by 15-ton boats, which took about six or seven hours from the mainland.”

Ultimately, though, Habitat succeeds at disaster response by focusing on its core competency—building safe, decent houses—and working directly with families in need.

“We see the physical change and the psychological change,” Pagdanganan says. “We learn about who they are and how they live, and we provide alternatives. Having them participate in the solution gives them a sense of value and ownership. People are changed for the better.”

For inspiration, one need only look back to Sri Lanka, where Ana Subramanium now grows green chilies, eggplant, okra and other vegetables on the sandy beaches of Batticaloa. Today, others in the community emulate Ana’s successful farming techniques, using cow dung to fertilize the sand and lock in moisture.

Ana has already earned enough to buy back her pawned necklace and to dig a well in her compound, complete with a fuel pump motor. She has plans to build three additional rooms on her family’s house, including an enclosed bathroom.

“With a good house, good garden, good job, our status in life is improved,” she says.

For a family that had lost everything, now all things are possible.