How the U.N. Is Preparing for the Next World Disaster


In the two months since a massive earthquake shattered Haiti, the U.N.'s World Food Program is still responding to the event and so far has fed over 4 million people there. The WFP has dealt with catastrophes for decades, bringing food and other assistance to communities devastated by natural and man-made disaster. But Haiti, reports the WFP, is different. Of the 200 people the WFP already had stationed in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, one was killed outright, and most of the others were left homeless.

"They lost relatives, they went through this crisis and at the same time they still had to help those who also needed help," says WFP spokesperson Bettina Luescher. "So it was really an unprecedented situation that our staff was so affected by a disaster and immediately sprung into action."

As the 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile so soon after Haiti's shows, another world disaster is always looming. Variables such as population growth, economic trends and continued climate change could combine to create even larger natural disasters in the future.

Emergency Response Needs to Be a Science

The quakes in Haiti and Chile are sobering reminders of how quickly societies suffering through a disaster can unravel without immediate emergency assistance. And the WFP has made disaster response a science, combining standardized procedures with organizational flexibility.

While top officials at WFP headquarters in Rome coordinate emergency responses, the organization has ready-made mobilization plans. They include huge, strategically placed Humanitarian Response Depots all over the world, so that food can be brought into any disaster zone within hours. But the organization also brings with it the everyday supplies needed to make such operations work.

In Haiti, says Luescher, "we've got containers . . . to set up office space, we've got tents, we've got motorbikes, we've got water purification equipment. The telecom equipment came from Dubai because that's where the telecom teams are. You fly in experts who have done this many, many times -- and you bring them in from all over the world."

WFP's work in more than 70 countries is completely funded by donations. The Haiti quake quickly added to its budget needs, an estimated $6.3 billion for its global operations this year. But only $711 million has been raised so far.

WFP country director can access immediately after a disaster, and specific financial instruments ensure cash flow does not become an issue. Denise Brown, who works in WFP's Senior Donor Relations, is also an operations officer who's been on the ground in Afghanistan, Somalia and most recently Haiti. She points to the importance of the WFP's Immediate Response Account, which allows in an emergency for WFP headquarters to allocate loans against contributions coming in.

"We're not cash-strapped," says Brown. "We also have the CERF, which is the Central Emergency Response Fund, managed by OCHA, the [U.N] Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. I was on the phone with them the night of the earthquake, and they immediately released $10 million of which WFP immediately got $5 million."

Buy School Books or Prepare for Disaster?

Emergency management experts say the time has come for both business and government to place disaster preparedness near the top of their economic and security agendas. But it's a tough sell.

"If I'm a policymaker and I have a choice between buying schoolbooks or preparing for a disaster that may or may not happen on my watch, I tend to go with 'buy the school books,'" says Greg Moser, executive director of the Homeland Security Program at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies. "It's like selling life insurance: It's not going to be a priority for a lot of governments because they can't see the benefit of it."

The public may open their hearts and checkbooks after highly publicized disasters like Haiti and Chile, but they can also restrict the response of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to such disasters. "One of the things you'll find consistently across the NGOs is the call to not tie your donation to an event," says Moser. "Support us because we need to build this capacity, because who will know what will happen tomorrow?"

Moser suggests that both business and government market the idea of emergency management programs as they have marketed military preparedness. "We invest lots of money in weapon systems for wars that may or may not ever occur," he says. "But I guarantee you we are going to continue to see catastrophic natural disasters and potentially catastrophic human-caused disasters as well. We need to recognize that and make appropriate investments in that, to prevent and mitigate them and respond effectively."

And, he says, it's a smart business model to not only have emergency management in place but also to support efforts to rapidly restore affected communities in the months and years following a disaster. "There's an enormous amount of economic activity in rebuilding a community," he says, "so I think there's a lot of benefit. This is incredibly complex, you don't want to create it on the fly. I would really like to see us do a better job of investing in it up-front."