What we’re watching: Weekly disaster update, March 13

A strike team clears snow from critical infrastructure in South Lake Tahoe, California on March 12, 2023. (Photo credit: CAL Fire Butte County; via Twitter)

We know all too well that disaster can strike at any time, in any place in the world. Some disasters make headlines; others do not. Here at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, we keep an eye on the status of disasters worldwide and compile a list of the ones we’re tracking weekly, along with relevant disaster-related media coverage.

Here’s what we’re watching for the week of March 13, 2023.

New or Emerging Disasters

California – Storms: Rain and snow battered large parts of California on March 10, with around 9,000 people under evacuation orders in the state, according to California Office of Emergency Services Director Nancy Ward. On March 10, Ward said at least two people had died as a result of the severe weather in the state. More than 37,000 households were without power on March 11, mainly in Monterey County.

The storm brought significant snow totals to communities in the Sierra Nevada range in the past week, leaving thousands of households without power for essential light and heat. San Bernadino County was among the worst affected in Southern California, where long-time locals said the storm was unlike any they had seen. On March 9, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office said it had responded to 13 death investigations, but it was unclear how many lives had been lost due to various blizzard-related factors including downed power lines and blocked roads preventing people from accessing critical medical care.

On March 1, California Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency to support disaster response and relief. Then, on March 10, President Joe Biden approved California’s request for an emergency declaration freeing up additional resources for 34 affected counties. Another atmospheric river is expected across California early this week, bringing an additional round of flooding rainfall, high-elevation snow and strong winds.

Landslide – Indonesia: A massive landslide, triggered by severe rainfall, buried 30 houses and killed at least 32 people in Genting village on a remote island in Indonesia’s Natuna archipelago at the edge of the South China Sea. Authorities deployed 700 rescuers with heavy equipment to search for missing people trapped under the landslide, which was 13 feet deep. The landslide displaced about 1,300 people. Dave Petley of the University of Hull observed on his Landslide Blog that the area’s slopes were very steep and said it appears “to be a shallow, disrupted landslide that has transitioned into a mobile flow.”

Previous/Ongoing Disasters

Tropical Cyclone – Southern Africa: The scale of damage and loss of life from Cyclone Freddy continues to rise. The storm’s death toll in Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar since it first made landfall last month is now nearing 100. On March 7, Freddy became the longest-lived tropical cyclone ever recorded and is now officially Earth’s most energetic storm ever observed. A storm’s energy is calculated through a metric called Accumulated Cyclone Energy which reflects a storm’s intensity and duration.

Cyclone Freddy made its second landfall in Mozambique on March 11 in Zambézia province, with maximum winds of almost 92 miles per hour (148 kilometers per hour). Heavy rains are expected early this week before Freddy leaves Mozambique on March 15. In addition to significant damage from Freddy’s first landfall on Feb. 24, the storm’s most recent landfall damaged homes, schools and hospitals. Many roads were also blocked because of fallen trees.

The cyclone is exacerbating food insecurity in Mozambique and a persistent cholera outbreak there and in Malawi. Madagascar is reeling from Freddy’s impact, with more than 72,600 people affected, including 24,300 displaced. Authorities there estimated the storm damaged around 12,400 houses and 280 classrooms, leaving nearly 28,000 students out of school.

Tropical Cyclone – Vanuatu: Tropical Cyclone Judy hit Vanuatu on March 1, followed by Tropical Cyclone Kevin on March 3, which packed maximum sustained winds of over 96 miles per hour (155 kilometers per hour) and brought heavy rainfall. According to the country’s National Disaster Management Office, more than 251,000 people are affected by the cyclones, about 80% of the population.

Current priorities are restoring power, re-establishing communication and transport systems, and shelter. Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau said that the initial estimate of the recovery cost is $50 million (6 billion Ni-Vanuatu Vatu) and declared a state of emergency.

Humanitarian partners in the Vanuatu Cash Working Group are planning coordinated efforts to distribute cash and voucher assistance. Cash is preferred in most disaster situations because it is flexible, allows survivors to choose what they need most to support their recovery and helps the local economy.

In addition to the disasters listed above, we actively monitor the following disasters or humanitarian emergencies. For more information, see the relevant disaster profiles, which are updated regularly.

U.S. Midwest Low-Attention Disasters

The Midwest is regularly faced with low-attention disasters that affect people across the region. CDP’s Midwest Early Recovery Fund (ERF) effectively funds efforts that catalyze equitable disaster recovery.

These are some of the latest disasters and related news the ERF team is monitoring:

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies – Colombia

Many places worldwide are experiencing emergencies caused by conflict, climate change, drought, famine, economic challenges and other conditions that combine to create a complex humanitarian emergency (CHE). CDP maintains complete profiles on several CHEs, and what CDP considers Level 1 CHEs are profiled in this weekly blog post and tracked.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) says more than 15 million Colombians suffer moderate or severe food insecurity, almost a third of the population. In addition to factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, rising food prices and disasters caused by climate change, a major contributing factor to food insecurity is Colombia’s decades-long internal armed conflict.

In January, Colombia’s Interior Minister Alfonso Prada said the country’s ceasefire with four armed groups at the end of 2022 led to significant reductions in violence during its first month. Additionally, the government expects to begin talks soon with two dissident groups founded by former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels who reject that group’s 2016 peace deal.

However, infighting between these armed groups continues. The New Humanitarian reports that although human rights and humanitarian organizations are cautiously supportive of the ceasefire strategy, they question how these government-sanctioned truces will work in practice and whether they will improve the lives of civilians.

In early 2023, the government established “humanitarian caravans” by government agencies into parts of western Colombia controlled by the ELN, an armed group, with their support. The impartiality of such caravans and the activities of non-government organizations is critical to bringing aid to communities in need.

In their December 2022 Humanitarian Access Overview, ACAPS said the efforts of humanitarian organizations are regularly affected by armed groups’ roadblocks, and people’s mobility is often restricted, which also negatively impacts aid access. For conflict-affected Venezuelans in Colombia, humanitarian aid is not always granted and accessing this population is especially challenging in remote areas. Last year, Venezuelans dominated the flow of migrants crossing the dangerous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama on their journey north.

The impact of disasters, particularly those linked to flooding and landslides, is significant. For example, Category 1 Hurricane Julia swept through the La Guajira department in northeastern Colombia in October 2022, producing heavy rain and flash floods, affecting more than 159,000 people.

Local government offices have limited response capacities, and Colombia’s poorest and most vulnerable groups are worst affected, including the indigenous and Afro-Colombian people. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says 7.7 million people in Colombia need assistance in 2023.

What We’re Reading

  • To move past ‘male unless otherwise indicated’ in data, just ask women – Devex: “When organizations fail to acknowledge the differing experiences of men and women, they treat men as the default and women as the exception — an approach that often extends to their data collection.”
  • Malnutrition rises in pregnant women in 12 at-risk countries – The Associated Press: Acute malnutrition among pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers has increased by 25% in the past two years in 12 countries hard hit by rising food prices fueled by the fighting in Ukraine, according to a new United Nations report released a day before International Women’s Day.
  • Syrian women find strength in the aftermath of the earthquake – Al Jazeera: As the world marked International Women’s Day last week, women in Syria face trauma and displacement but continue to care for their families and communities. One woman, a medical services volunteer with the Syria Civil Defence said, “We have proven, as women, that we can work in the most difficult conditions and in all fields.”
  • Her Voice: Listening to Women in Action – CARE: In this new report, CARE says, “Women are helping to lead community response, but the space for their participation and leadership is shrinking. The best way to understand what is happening to crisis affected populations—especially for people who often do not get a chance to inform the global conversation—is to listen to their voices and experiences.”
  • Don’t Let the Pendulum Hit You: How to Make Lasting Change for Women’s Rights – The Center for Effective Philanthropy: Elana Wien, executive director of SRE Network, says, “We do this by continually and collectively making the case that this is not a ‘women’s issue,’ this is a human issue, this is a community issue and this is a societal issue. Every family, workplace, community and society is negatively impacted when women and people of all genders do not have the ability to reach their full potential.”
  • Disaster Survivors Need Help Staying Connected With Friends and Families — and Access to Mental-Health Care – The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Research conducted after various catastrophes have shown that mental health problems become more common after these events. Yet, the flow of support that focuses on meeting survivors’ psychological needs often falls short of what is needed.

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, the International Rescue Committee celebrated 10 women activists and leaders making the world better.