Literally and figuratively, “shelter” means far more than protection from sun, wind, or rain. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, the ideal shelter also guards against violence; the spread of disease; the lack of access to food, clean water and sanitation; and insensitive treatment of vulnerable populations.

But disaster after disaster, in both developed and still-developing nations, has proven this is easier said than done. That’s especially the case when viewing shelter not only as an emergency response, but as a stepping stone to a community’s full recovery. Consider the ongoing issues in Haiti, where more than 350,000 people still live in tents three years after the nation’s devastating 2010 earthquake; the lack of stability continues to impact the area’s economic growth and recovery. Domestically, stories of horrific conditions in post-Hurricane Katrina shelters—and perceived slow government response to the more recent Hurricane Sandy—showed that universal challenges exist regardless of the geographic area.

160949491Granted, some differences exist; in a developed nation, stronger building codes from the outset can mean mitigation of damage from a disaster such as a flood or earthquake. In addition, availability of private insurance can help individuals more quickly rebuild.

In a resource-poor nation, however, rapid population growth—especially in urban areas—can mean inadequately built structures less likely to withstand the elements. In addition, overcrowded conditions raise the chances of mass casualties should an event occur. According to the World Health Organization, less than 40 percent of the global population lived in a city in 1990. In 2010, that number surpassed 50 percent, and by 2030, is expected to reach six out of 10. Issues are compounded when those urban dwellers are already vulnerable because of issues such as poverty, disability or age.

It should be noted that shelter also incorporates the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were an estimated 26.4 million IDPs at the end of 2011. Countries with the largest IDP populations include Colombia, Iraq, and South Sudan. In addition, UNHCR states, 14.9 million people, mostly across Asia, became IDPs due to natural disasters that year. More than half of all refugees of concern to UNHCR live in urban areas.

Key Facts

  • The most effective strategies for shelter are to consider the entire disaster life cycle, including mitigation, disaster preparedness, disaster response, and disaster recovery. Focusing solely on providing immediate relief can mean duplication of services, wasted resources, and lost opportunities for stronger long-term recovery.
  • Those most likely to be affected should be involved in shelter plans—preferably long before a disaster occurs. Participation by local leaders and communities is essential for any recovery plan to work; communities recover as communities, not as individuals. Any plans should include not only housing expertise, but also consideration for vulnerable populations.
  • Even in developed nations, private philanthropy plays an essential role in the rebuilding of communities. Government assistance and insurance only go so far in meeting needs.
  • Urban areas need special consideration. In the aftermath of a disaster, there may be more rubble from affected buildings, in addition to damage to roads and other infrastructure. Urban areas also may include a higher percentage of vulnerable or resource-poor populations, with less ability to withstand/recover from disaster on their own.
  • Improved planning and smarter building can act as mitigation. In Bangladesh, for example, a nation heavily impacted by annual floods, communities have worked with NGOs and others to raise houses above flood levels; establish flood shelters than can accommodate up to 300 families each; build raised-tube wells for clean water; improve warning communications; and keep rescue boats on hand. 
  • Much can be learned from past experience, both domestically and internationally. Opportunities abound not only for the study of best practices, but also working toward implementation of those practices in vulnerable communities worldwide.
  • Emergency shelter is one of nine thematic clusters identified by the United Nations for greater coordination in humanitarian crises. UNHCR shares leadership of the United Nations’ emergency shelter cluster with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

How To Help

  • Don’t stop at relief. Support efforts that increase focus on disaster planning in addition to longer-term recovery of communities.
  • Remember the needs of vulnerable populations. Tenuous situations prior to a disaster are only exacerbated during and after one. Ensure that shelter plans, for example, are appropriate for those with disabilities, and help fund communication efforts that spread necessary information to those who might not otherwise receive it.
  • Build capacity of NGOs with long-standing ties in areas of concern. These agencies are more likely to work with local agents and deliver the most efficient, appropriate results.
  • Fund collaborative efforts between NGO, government agencies, and the building/engineering communities to develop best practices. The Engineering & Construction Disaster Resource Partnership (DRP), for example, works toward coordinated private sector partnership in response to natural disasters.
  • Post-disaster, support programs that help those affected help themselves. For example: microloans for rebuilding and livelihood opportunities in the removal of rubble, etc., helping return community pride and purpose.
  • Fund assessments of areas vulnerable to particular natural disasters. Consider NGO and government capacity, in addition to past events.
  • Don’t forget funding for large-scale rubble removal in urban areas. Often overlooked in disaster planning, rubble from damaged infrastructure can stand in the way of efforts to rebuild, unnecessarily extending the need for shelters.
  • Consider and support the development/availability of innovative shelter structures. Over the years, numerous designs have offered lower-cost, more efficient and/or more sustainable options than, for example, tents.

What Donors Are Doing

Following any disaster, government typically takes the lead in providing/restoring shelter and safety. In a domestic situation, insurance also bears a heavy brunt. That said, numerous NGOs coordinate with government agencies and others to offer shelter supplies; staff shelter facilities; perform assessments; ensure all populations are represented; provide small grants to individuals for rebuilding; and participate in strategic planning efforts for mitigation, preparedness, and long-term recovery.

Because the concept of shelter crosses so many sectors, private philanthropic efforts run the gamut. Countless individuals and foundations have established funds that have gathered and given money to provide shelter and other assistance to victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As of January 2013, according to the N.Y. State Attorney General, about $400 million had been raised.

Private/public partnerships also have led to institutional research on best practices, yet there is still more to be done.

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