by Nancy Notzon

We are considerably unprepared for the decade or so ahead, in terms of natural disasters.

Haiti is a prime example. The strong Richter scale 7.0 earthquake which struck on January 12th this year has left millions affected and displaced, the capital Port-au-Prince in ruins and 230,000 dead.

Haiti was devastated by this disaster and although the country lies on an extremely dangerous fault line, prone to earthquakes, it was completely unprepared for this calamitous force majeure.

Edward Blakely, an Honorary Professor of Urban Policy at the United States Studies Centre (USSC) at the University of Sydney and a disaster expert who worked as the 'recovery czar' in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, revealed at a recent FCA briefing the story of Haiti and what needs to be done to prepare and manage for the already forecasted natural disasters of the near future.

"We share a very common destiny here in the Pacific with Haiti. If you look at the global maps, the cyclone maps, we're all on the same cyclone track. If you look at all the global maps of volcanoes, we're all on the same track (although we haven't had any volcanoes here in Australia), just north of us, when volcanoes occur, that gives rise to tsunamis which could hit our coast."

Australia is also predicted to face another huge storm like Cyclone Tracy, which hit Darwin in 1974, in the same area again in the not too distant future and although the country is not on any tectonic faults, it shares the same earthquake zones which can ultimately also, like volcanoes rupturing, lead to tsunamis. Given that about 70 per cent of Australia's population lives in coastal areas, most of Australia's infrastructure has not been touched since World War II and with limited evacuation processes, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that perhaps Australia needs to learn a few things from Haiti and be better prepared.

"But what is important about this climate change and disaster destiny, brought on by a whole set of circumstances, is that so many things are culminating at the same time." Blakely said.

"I don't think the world will be prepared to do what we're doing in Haiti and what we did in New Orleans again. I think we're coming to the point where people will become what you might say, a bit jaded, with respect to disasters.

"Right now people are putting pennies and dimes and so forth for Haitian relief but if we had three or four of these events compounded it would be very difficult to use this catch-as-catch-can method and designating dollars for particular relief effort."

In short, we would have to hang up our hats on particular rescue and relief efforts if more than one disaster happened to strike at once, or within a short time of one another.

What needs to be done, according to Blakely, an advisor to the US, Australian and Japanese governments to name a few, is to better prepare ourselves to withstand and deal with a disaster through things like the creation of an international rescue force, a ready-to-go recovery organisation, and perhaps, even rethink the way we have chosen to structure our human habitats.

Blakely shared with members of the FCA and two media interns from the USSC, his ideas that now have the support of the World Bank and which will help not only Haiti, but the way in which disaster management is handled.

In Haiti, rescue efforts have been hampered by inharmonious command and communication structures of the international parties who have congregated to assist in the rescue phase. Haiti is moving into the relief phase of the disaster and as Blakely demonstrated, it will be prone to the same problems unless an international rescue force, under common command and communication can be implemented.

"We have no international rescue force. So when the rescue forces arrive from the United States, Brazil and other places they have had no time to practice with one another. They may not have common equipment or common communications and there's no shared command." Blakely explained.

This lack of shared communication and command leads to chaos and inefficient rescue processes. If an international team were developed, similar to how NATO trains and operates different nationals under the same command, the disaster rescue mission of any crisis would be better operated. For the recovery or rebuilding phase, Haiti will also, according to Blakely, need a prepared recovery force to manage the country's rebuilding process with a monetary system to coordinate funds appropriately to ensure building and development is not done ad-hoc and in areas of potential danger.

"I discovered when I was in New Orleans that if you don't decide your recovery direction, many other people will decide recovery directions that may interfere with your potential to be successful.

"For example in New Orleans, it was decided that people could build any place that they owned property and they could receive a building permit. That meant that some people were building in places that were not safe from the beginning. That would require us to provide infrastructure to those places and strain the central infrastructure in doing so."

Blakely's remarks continue, practical, although perhaps not particularly welcomed by political forces.

"The city [Haiti] lies on a very dangerous fault and the people who do earthquake work, suggest this was not the big one. That there's a larger earthquake which will occur in Haiti, well over seven at some time in the future, so to put people back where they were, is probably not the best strategy."

Given the unstable seismic activity in the region, if they rebuild at current location, how would Haiti avoid another grievous strike?

"So the next phase of the disaster is going to be even more complicated in Haiti because that's the recovery phase and in the recovery phase you talk about building. Too often in the recovery phase, the discussion is rebuilding as was rather than needs to be. In almost every disaster I've been associated with, the political forces are to rebuild where the disaster occurred rather than where a disaster will not occur."

Blakely's recommendations at the briefing also encompassed training emergency forces as building inspectors to develop more housing products, better evacuation systems (modelled after Japan's inward evacuation system where people proceed to a basement area below ground during a crisis) and a community rating system.

"Every neighbourhood should have a safety rating, just like schools do, so we move into a neighbourhood and you know what the rating on the basis of its fire protection, decentralised electricity and so forth and this is what we're going to have to do if we really believe in sustainability. We're going to have to give people the power by knowledge to know if they're in a sustainable place or not.

"A community rating would move builders and architects to build safer and better buildings in communities or people would simply not want to be there."

There were many other words or advice and recommendation uttered by the USSC disaster expert and there is much to be done and learned from Haiti and experts like Blakely. But the real questions remain, what will we really learn from Haiti and how prepared will we really be when a disaster strikes next?