Several weeks ago someone in my family passed away. It came very quickly out of the blue. The person who passed away lived in another state, and my family (wife, children) spent basically the entire summer there, dealing with it. I feel as if I’ve just come off of a three-month hardship deployment.
The whole experience caused me to reflect on what it all means for me as a professional disaster responder.
First, simply a renewed and deepened respect for disaster survivors, for those who make it through to the other end of a war or natural disaster of some kind, still alive, still picking up the pieces and having a go at rebuilding. As professed humanitarians I think we too often under appreciate what our beneficiaries are going through. In the midst of our own often very real personal drama, it is easy to forget or never know in the first place just how hard it is for those we are trying to help and how much strength and courage it takes for them to soldier on. Just saying.
Over the summer I was repeatedly hit in the face with the reality of just how debilitating the loss of a family member was and is. And perversely just how much work – actual work – it is to deal with it all: the forms that have to be filled in, the waits in lobbies or on the telephone, the lawyers who have to be dealt with, the documents that have to be filed, arrangements, clean-up, not to mention the real financial cost of it all… All in a context with every conceivable advantage: Rule of law, no rebel snipers or Apache helicopters shooting at us, a working banking system, access to modern communication, extended family nearby to offer support, the ability to take paid leave, a supportive community, clear land tenure and inheritance laws… The death of just one family member was almost paralyzing. I cannot imagine what it must be like to add to that the chaos of a war or disaster zone, and maybe the death of more than only one family member.
The time-critical nature of disaster response. I’m not talking so much about “children will die unless you text to this number immediately”, because in the majority of cases NGO disaster response does not stave off imminent death. I am saying that we need to not waste the time of disaster survivors. We need to not tie them up in meetings or lengthy mobilization; we need to move quickly from assessment to action. It’s hard to overstate this. Time is something that disaster survivors just don’t have a lot of, especially early on. They’re searching for family members, looking for food, trying to find information, burying their dead, salvaging and protecting what’s left of their property, trying to leave the area, watching over their children, or any number of other things.
While I can appreciate the “long-term development” and “disaster response” overlap or closely link together theoretically and programmatically, they are worlds apart operationally. The days and maybe weeks (depending on the magnitude) following a disaster are not the time bog down in the lengthy assessments, analyses or intensive processes which would normally be the standard in community development (do assessments and follow good process – just not lengthy ones). If we want to really help disaster survivors, we need to not waste their time. We need to get in there, make decisions quickly, and get the NFIs or the food aid or the cash transfers done.
The importance of community. It’s been said many times before – and it’s true – that the very first responders are neighbors. And in my case, for all of the help that we received from the government and from formal service providers of different kinds, by far the majority came from community that we were part of. Things like meals we didn’t have to cook, watching the kids, help schlepping furniture. This experience also got me to wondering whether, perhaps, we’re overly focused on the individual beneficiary, as opposed to larger units of analysis (extended families, neighborhood clusters), particularly in our thinking around some of the traditional early recovery interventions like cash for work, different kinds of livelihoods schemes, and even cash transfer. Something to ponder.
New (for me) thinking on recovery. Many have written about the importance of moving quickly from disaster response (some use the term “first phase”) into “recovery” or “early recovery.” We need to prioritize services that help survivors deal with their own issues in the early phases of a response. It should be more common practice in the industry to pay funeral costs, to set up services which enable survivors to make contact with relatives in other places (phone, internet), or to help them in sorting out the innumerable legal and procedural things they have to go through.
The amount of time that my wife and I spent in lines and waiting rooms and on the phone simply dealing with legal and estate issue was astounding. And again, all in a context where we had every conceivable advantage and convenience. I think that too often we envision “recovery” in the calculated sense of GNP and GDP and infrastructure. They’re important, of course, but we too often overlook those things which help survivors recover as people, as families, as members of communities.
The futility of token gestures. I was amazed by the number people who made gestures of different kinds that, while perhaps well-intended enough, did nothing to help us and in a few cases actually made our lives more difficult. Those who knocked on the door demanding to see a dying person who was quite clearly in no condition to receive visitors, and becoming downright belligerent when they were not allowed in, made me think of self-entitled disaster tourism. Those who made donations to random charities in the name of the deceased or organized convoluted prayer vigils, all while we were under significant financial strain and could have really used help moving a piano, and then very obviously anticipated our gratitude made me think of all of the cause-marketed, slactivist #SWEDOW-dumping, KONY2012-esque awareness-raising distraction that passes for “getting involved.” I’ve written before about how, at least in North America, we’re experts at making helping or caring others all about us. And I personally witnessed this phenomenon up close daily.
Stuff. It’s simply amazing how much angst and drama we attach to our stuff. The amount of random stuff – mismatched Tupperware from the mid-1970s, a cow-shaped salt shaker, mountains of clothing – that can be crammed into a small house is truly amazing. Even more amazing, the amount of effort we went to to deal with it. We sorted, priced, sat in the sun for hours during the “estate sale”, and haggled (was this ca. 1986 blender really worth $7, or could we let it go for $5?). I won’t admit to anything specific, but there may have been a local church charity collecting clothes for a sister congregation in Zimbabwe, and I may have allowed them to come take what they wanted. I’ve written before about this, too – how hard it is for many of us, for me to simply throw stuff away.
No words of wisdom on this last one. Just confession.