Haitian earthquake emphasizes the importance of emergency preparedness

The recent earthquake in Haiti shone a spotlight on the emergency response. While there have been concerns about the speed of the response, Kathy Branton, manager of York’s Emergency Preparedness Program, has an interesting perspective on both the disaster and how the response is being coordinated by the international community.

"Whether disasters occur around the world or around the corner, there is an order to how the response is coordinated," says Branton.

In major catastrophies, such as the earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, relief organizations and agenices send in teams to do an initial reconnaissance or assessment of the situation. "They evaluate the situation or situations and determine what the immediate needs and priorities are," says Branton. These priorities include search and rescue missions, medical aid, providing shelter, food and water, and security.

"Once the initial assessments are done, the teams report back to their home organizaton or agency on the immediate needs," she says. Organizations will then start to mobilize more teams to go to the disaster zone. Those teams travel to the area with the necessary supplies, equipment and personnel. In the case of Haiti, emergency response teams were hampered by the destruction of Haiti’s fragile infrastructure and the country’s small airport, which could not handle the influx of aircraft.

Above: Damage to buildings in Jacmel, Haiti. The town was close to the quake’s epicentre. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As with the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, Canadians are being urged to dig deep to assist relief organizations. Branton says there are some key things to keep in mind when making a donation. "Always give money instead of goods or clothing," says Branton. "Many people with the best intentions may donate clothing or other such items in order to help. However, this can cause a secondary problem for responders because they become overwhelmed with items."

York gives to Haiti

Following the devastating 7.3-magnitude earthquake that hit the Caribbean island of Haiti on Jan. 12, the York Federation of Students was quick to mobilize a fundraising effort. Their initial goal was set at $15,000. Since then, the York community has been very generous and YFS has received more than $20,000 in donations.

All monies raised by YFS will go to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Donations will be matched by the York Federation of Students, which will be matched again by the Canadian government.

If you are interested in donating to the YFS effort, the student union has a donation table located in Vari Hall on York’s Keele campus.

In the case of Haiti, the earthquake has destroyed many of the buildings. There is an extra concern with goods and clothing for relief agencies because of the logistical problems of keeping track of such items.

"Professional disaster responders are best able to gather the required supplies, in the right amounts that are suited to the particular needs of that area; so it is always best to donate money rather than goods and let the professionals ensure the right supplies are purchased and sent," advises Branton.

There are many options for individuals and organizations to donate money to, she says. The Canadian Red Cross, World Vision Canada, UNICEF and Save the Children are on the ground in Haiti. "It doesn’t matter which organization you donate to, as long as you investigate and ensure that it is a registered and recognized charitable organization," she says. "It is best to give to these organizations rather that directly to governments. In most cases with registered charities and relief organizations, almost 100 per cent of monies raised go directly to the people who need it most."

She advises those interested in helping to avoid newly formed charities and those with unusually high administrative costs. "Be wary of e-mail solicitations for funds and avoid telemarketers," she says. "Sometimes it is possible to keep tabs on your donation and the organization to see how your donation was utilized. What is important to remember is that with any emergency, whether it is on the other side of the world or the other side of the city you live in, please give as much as you can because no matter how big or how small, every dollar helps.

“It’s a good time to remind people to have their own emergency kit ready,” says Branton. “An emergency can take any shape or form."

For ideas about what to include in their kit and what to store all the items in, see YFile, May 6, 2008.

“It is the responsibility of each one of us to make sure we have an emergency kit at home, at work and in the car, to cope on our own for at least 72 hours should an emergency strike,” says Branton. "With any kind of major emergency, it can take a while before police, fire and ambulance crews will respond as they’ll be busy assisting those in immediate danger."

For more information, visit the York Emergency Preparedness Program Web site or contact Kathy Branton at brantonk@yorku.ca or ext. 55258.

Also, check the federal government’s Get Prepared Web site to watch the video Preparing a Family Emergency Kit.