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Dissecting Disaster

Shehzad Noorani

Dissecting Disaster (continued)

The Right Questions

In the course of their research, Center faculty and students find approaches that work. In Indonesia, for example, Robinson and his colleagues continue to measure the effects of emergency aid that followed the tsunami that steamrollered the Aceh region six years ago. 

They found that an NGO program designed to put people back to work cleaning up their neighborhoods in exchange for cash did much to encourage people to return to their ravaged communities, and accounted for 93 percent of their household income, on average, as they put their lives back together.

Specialization within the disaster research field also appears to have value, Robinson adds. “What we’re learning is that if you’re going to measure the effect of an emergency on a household, you use demography to determine a rate of mortality, morbidity or other things,” he says. “For food security in a crisis, you can look to the assessments of nutritionists. The next question is whether there is a set of modules we can use across disasters that would prove effective at measuring response.”

“Our purpose is to analyze the depths of a crisis and point out where the response to it may be lacking,and how it might be improved.” —Gilbert Burnham

The aim of the studies in Indonesia, as well as Haiti and Pakistan, is to find that set of comparative metrics. Investigators asked basic questions: How many people died following a disaster? How many households were affected? How many meals has each household eaten during an average day? How did the catastrophe affect a family’s finances and ability to earn a living?

Using cluster surveys, demography and other tools, scientists mine the surviving population for information that points up when help was made available and when it wasn’t, and whether people feel their needs have been served overall. In Haiti, for example, early results from a January study of households show that people there are greatly disappointed in the quality of relief services.

Others at the Center have continued years-long investigative stretches in war-torn areas, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and seven nations in East Africa that are regularly inundated by floods and landslides. In those countries, their work has led to concrete recommendations. A handful of doctors and public health scientists track disaster and response efforts in Japan, Singapore and South Korea, or examine food aid strategies in South Sudan, or monitor outflows of refugees from starved North Korea into China, or work on ways to improve the health and household economies of Iraqi refugees and displaced people in Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Gaza and the West Bank.

The Center has also helped educate disaster relief workers and planners. The School of Public Health and the Center authored The Johns Hopkins Red Cross Red Crescent Public Health Guide in Emergencies, now in its second edition. An ongoing program—Health Emergencies in Large Populations, or HELP—run by the Bloomberg School in conjunction with the International Federation of the Red Cross, has trained 500 people from a variety of countries and universities in the latest disaster response techniques, as well as in relief planning and handling refugee crises.

Although Kirsch and others will visit disaster-stricken areas right after an event hits, the Center does not function as an emergency responder, notes Gilbert Burnham, MD, PhD, MS, an International Health professor and Center co-director. “Our purpose is to analyze the depths of a crisis and point out where the response to it may be lacking, and how it might be improved,” he says.


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  • rofingi

    indonesia 09/14/2011 02:40:40 PM

    nice news,,,, like this

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