Expanding disaster response -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Expanding disaster response

By Mario Flores

In 2008, for every new home Habitat built, nearly 10 existing houses were destroyed as a consequence of disasters[1].

Disasters caused by vulnerability to natural hazards are holding back progress toward halving poverty and the achievement of other Millennium Development Goals, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Shelter and housing needs created by disasters and conflicts represent a major setback to Habitat’s efforts to eliminate homelessness and poverty housing around the world.

Many Habitat organizations have found that responding after disasters is not enough. It is imperative to tackle vulnerabilities and build resilience within families, communities and settlements if we want to see a different outcome to disasters.

That is why Habitat organizations around the world are taking action to help families and communities with disaster risk reduction initiatives. Habitat organizations, especially those located in disaster-prone areas, have developed innovative approaches that provide more comprehensive and meaningful assistance—before and after disasters— to the families and communities we serve.

In southern Tamil Nadu state in India, Habitat’s community-based disaster risk management initiatives include preparedness training for vulnerable groups, especially women, children and disabled people. Structural mitigation initiatives include retrofitting roofs to make houses resistant to high winds associated with cyclones.

In the Kumsangir area of Tajikistan, Habitat is reinforcing walls of existing houses with improved traditional technologies, such as mulberry twig grids, to reduce earthquake impact.

These strategies for India and Tajikistan are in anticipation of “predictable,” recurrent hazards that are common in those regions. Studies indicate that post-disaster reconstruction can cost seven times as much as disaster risk reduction interventions[2].

When disaster does strike, minimizing displacement of families becomes a top priority.

In Argentina, a Habitat corps of disaster response volunteers is cleaning up and restoring flood-damaged houses, helping families return to their homes from government shelters. In southern Bangladesh, which was devastated by Cyclone Sidr, Habitat’s onsite reconstruction of transitional shelters has accelerated recovery and prevented the disruption of social networks, as it usually happens in forced displacement.

Linking shelter assistance and livelihood support is another key component of a successful intervention.

On the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, severely damaged by Hurricane Felix in 2007, Habitat began building hurricane-resistant core houses using materials recycled and processed by affected Miskito communities, which helped restore livelihood activities and much-needed income opportunities.

Providing for gaps in the value chain of shelter production is another goal in disaster response.

After multiple hurricanes hit Haiti in 2008, Habitat provided technical assistance to the United Nations Shelter Cluster in putting together shelter kits for house reconstruction. Trainees from the Habitat Building and Training Center in the city of Gonaives are being hired as skilled laborers to implement repairs and house retrofits with affected families.

These disaster risk management and response examples—and others presented in detail in this issue of The Forum—represent program approaches and methodologies that will help achieve Habitat’s ultimate goal of eliminating homelessness and poverty housing.

As promising practices are identified, developed and scaled up, the methods become more diverse and innovative. Though the mission remains the same, the high incidence of disasters makes it more urgent now than ever before.

Mario C. Flores is director of disaster response field operations at Habitat for Humanity International. He has a background in civil engineering, human settlements and disaster risk management.


[1] According to data compiled by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) of the University of Louvain (Belgium), some 2.9 million people—roughly 485,000 families—were left homeless by disasters in 2008 (www.emdat.be).

[2] Abramovitz, Janet N., “Unnatural Disasters,” Worldwatch Institute (Paper 158). Washington, D.C. 2001.