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close this bookA World Safe from Natural Disasters - The Journey of Latin America and the Caribbean (PAHO)
close this folderChapter 4: The wake-up call: From improvisation to response planning
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe evolution of national response organizations
View the documentThe evolution of international assistance
View the documentNew ideas for answering an old call
View the documentConclusions

(introductory text...)

During the past five centuries, dating back to the earliest recorded accounts, nature has struck the Americas with fury in one of many forms - an earthquake, a volcano, a hurricane - and has left in its wake destruction, which rapidly subsides and is subsequent!', forgotten, even by those who suffer its consequences. It was common to believe that natural disasters were simply that - acts of nature - and as such, were unpredictable and uncontrollable, merely events to be endured. To plan for disasters that may never happen was thought to. be folly. Inevitably though, nature's wrath did return, bringing with it devastation. The visits seemed random but were actually routine - regular enough to warrant preparing for them. To convince people that planning could counteract many of the effects of nature was to win half the battle.

The realty of the Americas until the early 1970s was this: When disaster did strike, relief was provided with a great deal of generosity and solidarity, but in an improvised and uncoordinated way. Sectors providing relief competed rather than cooperated with each other. The lack of coordination led to an international response that was neither technically appropriate nor culturally sensitive.

With each passing year, as the size of the at-risk population grew and its dependency on essential services such as water, electricity, communications, roads, and airports increased, disaster response, which included immediate relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction operations, became more commonplace and more complex.

During the last 25 years, the large-scale disasters experienced by the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean forced them to recognize the need to better organize their response and to deal with the usual problems that accompanied disasters: rescuing the survivors; treating the injured; putting out fires; controlling leaks of hazardous materials; providing shelter, water, and food to the affected population; evacuating people to safer places; reestablishing communications; maintaining security and public order; and identifying and disposing of bodies.

Several of these disasters brought to. light what was wrong with a response that was organized in an ad hoc fashion. For example, when the exclusive authority for disaster response was assigned to agencies responsible for internal and external security, without the full participation of the rest of the nation, a period of chaos often ensued. Overemphasis on "law and order" was often the antithesis of coordinated action and effective management. At the same time, the survivors were overwhelmed by the sometimes counterproductive rush of local, national, and international agencies whose goodwill often exceeded their mandate to provide assistance.

During the 1980s, civil defense organizations began to include disaster preparedness for the public in their activities.

The response phase to disaster is complex, because in addition to the number of organizations that are involved, the greatest problems lie in making decisions under uncertain circumstances. Matters become even more complicated when agencies, unsure of their roles even in normal times, undertake operations that interrupt rather than coordinate the efforts of all the groups involved.