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Recovery road

Earth, fire, water and wind are the elements of nature. But when they go wild, disaster strikes – and the impact can be felt for generations...

Munich – WEBWIRE

When the waters finally recede and the fires extinguished, when the roads are cleared of debris and the last orphaned child comforted, the TV crews move on to the next hard luck story. Every year, violent natural catastrophes – earthquakes, fires, floods and extreme storms – cause devastation around the planet. This year has brought one disaster after another.

Hurricane Michael, the worst the U.S. state of Florida has seen in a century, recently left behind “unimaginable destruction” in Mexico Beach. Earlier, Hurricane Florence had hit North Carolina, causing damages of up to $22 billion. Asia had its own share of disasters. In Indonesia, a tsunami struck the island of Sulawesi in late September, taking more than 2,000 lives in the city of Palu, while Typhoon Manghut, this year’s strongest storm, devastated Southeast Asia. 

The news frenzy around these disasters usually dies down soon enough. But for the communities affected, days, weeks, months and sometimes even years are not enough to restore normalcy. 

“Just because the Red Cross leaves, it doesn’t mean that life returns to normal,” says Athanasia Scheuermann-Christodoulou, a senior claims expert at Global P&C in Allianz and an expert in natural catastrophe (NatCat) insurance. “What you see on the news are short-term recovery actions like removing debris and restoring power. Rebuilding shattered communities can potentially take years.”

Scars remain

Lamek Nahayo, a specialist on mudslides and an applicant to the 2018 Allianz Climate Risk Research Award, agrees. His homeland of Rwanda, known as “a country of a thousand hills”, is prone to landslides resulting from land degradation and torrential rain.

In 2018, disasters relating to heavy rains caused 222 deaths, destroyed 14,491 homes and 8,978 hectares of crops until the end of August alone, according to Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugees

“Those hills can spell disaster when the rains come,” he says. “And the recovery actions you see on the news are short-term interventions – the provision of temporary housing, clothes and food. That phase usually lasts for two weeks. Full recovery can take months or even years.”

Those whose lives have been turned upside down face a long struggle to resume normal life. In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refers to the “need to re-establish a healthy, functioning community that will sustain itself over time” in its long-term recovery planning process for events such as Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and Hurricanes Maria and Harvey in 2017.

But in Rwanda, despite government assistance, individual disaster insurance is largely unknown, and this limits recovery. 

“The burden falls heaviest on the poor,” says Nahayo. “They lose their houses, their possessions, their livestock and often their livelihood, as well as family members. It can take years to recover financially, but the scars of the loss of loved ones stay with the victims.”

Ripple effect

For all the pain they cause, the Rwandan landslides are localized events. Disasters not only wreck communities, but entire countries and the numbers involved can be staggering.

Some 220,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that affected India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. An estimated 160,000 were killed in the 2010 Haiti earthquake  and 100,000 in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, while 138,00 were lost in Myanmar in the 2008 Cyclone Nargis . The scale of these catastrophes means nations struggle with the giant task of restoring and rebuilding destroyed assets – both economic and social.

“You need to distinguish between economic, social, environmental and psychological recovery,” says Raphael Atanga, another applicant for the 2018 Allianz Climate Risk Research Award. “The economic damage to businesses, property and built infrastructure such as schools, factories and equipment, roads, dams and bridges is expensive, but they can be repaired. However, the losses run deeper than that.”

Atanga has studied the impact of floods on the capital of Accra in Ghana. More than 150 people were killed in Accra in June 2015 as they sought shelter from flooding when a petrol station exploded. That made news, but often the floods, despite being chronic and deadly, rarely get international attention. 

“When you look at events like those in Palu in Sulawesi, I think one of the most devastating long-term aspects is the loss of human capital, the loss of skilled workers, as well as education,” says Atanga. “That can ripple across generations.”

He explains that people may be forced to sell assets to meet basic needs causing families to fall into long-term “poverty traps.” 

“Even if schools are rebuilt quickly, families may need to pull children out of school to help boost income, which can impact the development children and their future careers.”

Art of recovery

Athanasia Scheuermann-Christodoulou says there is no universal answer to how long recovery will take. The process is unique to each country and almost each disaster. “There is no general timetable. That depends on local resilience, funding, effective government, tourism and other factors.”

Three years after an April 2015 earthquake struck Nepal killing 9,000 people and destroying 750,000 homes, almost half a million people still live in temporary tin shacks. While this state of affairs is not uncommon in developing nations, developed nations can also struggle to get back on their feet.

The New Zealand city of Christchurch was expected to bounce back quickly from a series of tremors that hit in 2010 and 2011. More than six years later, work only started on restoring the icon Gothic Revival cathedral. Only 55 percent of the physical reconstruction of the city had been completed by then. 

Yet, some places rebounded quickly and positively. The Maldives was devastated by the great tsunami of 2004: resources that produced about 60 percent of the gross domestic product were destroyed. Within two years, the economy had rebounded and tourism was back to normal. 

“The personal toll is immeasurable and certainly life changing,” says Scheuermann-Christodoulou. But there are positive examples of where communities, supported by local government, international organizations, local resilience and a strong sense of community have managed to recover within a couple of years.”

In conclusion, all puny humanity can do against the violent forces of nature is to put into place processes that ease the suffering of the affected and help them rebuild.

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