Disaster response and families served -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Disaster response and families served

By Mario Flores

Every year, on average, some 275 disaster events occur around the world, many of which affect shelter and housing. Also, at any given time, some 20 complex humanitarian emergencies generated by war and conflict create displacements of large populations. Disasters and conflicts are part of the reality many Habitat for Humanity entities face or will face in the future. In both rapid onset emergencies (such as those created by earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis) and slow developing ones (such as drought or civil unrest), the immediate and long-term effects on people, housing and shelter are often significant. A disaster or conflict can lead to an increased demand for housing, placing additional strain on already burdened housing systems for the poor.

Though the effects of disasters and conflicts are horrible, they represent an opportunity for program expansion, strategic positioning and increased visibility within the communities, regions and countries where HFH entities serve. Recent experiences in responding to disasters have allowed us to see the enormous potential to reach out to expanded target groups. At the same time, this is fertile ground to apply innovative approaches and program components that can sustain significant growth in the number of families served in a relatively short time, using program methodologies such as:

  • Community-based disaster response that includes transitional shelter/housing, shelter kits and other program components oriented to keep families in their own communities and out of temporary, cramped and unhealthy shelter camps.
  • Habitat Resource Centers (HRCs) that provide materials, services, skills training and resources to support families engaged in self-construction or repair of their disaster-affected house.
  • Alternative approaches such as core houses, house repair programs and accelerated construction of new housing.

These and other program methodologies are suitable for direct implementation by an HFH entity or external implementing organization with Habitat providing technical expertise, funding or both. When there is no Habitat presence in a particular area or when the scale of the disaster overwhelms the capacity of the local HFH entity, or when a nontraditional methodological approach is required, an external implementing organization can provide valuable assistance. Rather than just counting “houses,” tracking the total number of families served with these program methodologies provides a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of Habitat’s initiatives in responding to disasters.

HFHI’s new policy on families served and the metric for disaster response is both a challenge and an invitation for Habitat for Humanity to respond in a variety of ways according to the context, size of the disaster, availability of partners and needs of the community.

The article on HFH Romania’s response to the Danube River flooding (page ) illustrates how innovative approaches to disaster response can work. Other examples include:

Pakistan: Transitional shelter program

After the earthquake in October 2005, with a sense of urgency to help those affected survive the harsh winter, Habitat implemented a transitional shelter program to keep families in their communities and avoid displacement. The shelter solution consisted of a tubular structure with a corrugated sheet cover that was easy to set up. Habitat also established a Habitat Resource Center (HRC), providing sawmill services to transform timber logs into roof rafters for permanent homes. Habitat for Humanity was able to respond with a viable solution and sustain a stronger presence in Pakistan. Overall, in less than two years, HFH Pakistan went from a fledgling organization seeking registration to an operational organization that has served nearly 3,000 earthquake-affected families.

U.S. Gulf Coast: Home repairs implemented through partnership

As part of the response to Hurricane Katrina, Habitat partnered with Church World Service (CWS) to provide home repair assistance to 600 families. Under the partnership terms, Habitat provided funding and program monitoring while CWS implemented the repair process. Family selection and case work were conducted by local Long-term Recovery Committees and the repair work was implemented by various disaster services groups and communions under the CWS umbrella, engaging hundreds of volunteers. With Habitat affiliates in the Gulf concentrated on new house construction, the HFHI-CWS partnership has allowed for quick expansion and outreach to serve additional hurricane-affected families.

El Salvador: Accelerated construction program

In December 2006, a seismic swarm in the western part of the country left hundreds of houses damaged. HFH El Salvador set up a quick response to assist nearly 100 families with new housing. The program included a differentiated subsidy component ranging from 10 percent to 60 percent. By accelerating the start of the program (26 new houses had been completed as of April 2007), families have been able to resume their lives and avoid displacement to temporary shelter camps.

Lebanon: Habitat Resource Centers and community-based approach

The armed conflict in the summer of 2006 led to additional housing needs and new opportunities to serve. A project is now in place to serve 1,500 families whose houses were damaged or destroyed. The program involves local nongovernmental and community-based organizations to ensure community involvement and participation. With the help of their partners, HFH has established HRCs to offer technical assistance and training for families to repair their own homes, volunteer mobilization to assist with reconstruction, and vouchers or cash disbursements that enable qualified families to purchase materials for core house construction or repairs.

As Habitat for Humanity travels the road to expansion and implementation of new ways of accounting for our work, a holistic and context-appropriate approach to developing these program methodologies is a matter to consider, especially for HFH entities located in disaster-prone areas. Being prepared to implement a menu of services for disaster-affected families (new housing, core houses, transitional housing, repairs, technical services, skills training, shelter kits) is the best strategy to expand program outreach and serve more and more families in need.

Mario Flores is director of Disaster Response at HFHI.