As MCC’s disaster response coordinator for Central America and Haiti, Elizabeth Scambler supports MCC’s partners and programs in disaster response, preparedness and risk reduction.
So, what does this look like in real life?
Scambler spends about half or more of each month working from her home office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, emailing or skyping with MCC representatives and partners in her region and with MCC personnel in Canada or the U.S.
Then, she hops on a bus – off for a week or two to visit partners and communities where MCC is working, getting a firsthand feel both for the scope of a disaster and communities’ efforts to rebuild.
What are some joys and some challenges of your assignment?
From the highlands of Guatemala, the informal urban neighborhoods of El Salvador, the rolling hills of Haiti, to the river systems on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, I feel privileged to visit areas that not many people get to see in their lifetimes.
I love learning from such a diversity of initiatives and communities.
I have a family of MCC workers and partners who I get to visit on each trip. I travel mostly by bus so I spend a lot of time gazing out windows and reflecting on the diverse landscapes of Central America.
On challenges, the amount of travel required makes it hard to maintain a balanced lifestyle and engage in community at home in Tegucigalpa.
Tell me some of what you’ve learned about the reality of responding to disasters.
What I’ve noted is that not all of MCC’s work is during the immediate response stage but also about helping communities recover over time from an adverse event. I think some people often assume a disaster is only in the moment when an event is occurring.
A storm or flood can have devastating effects on a community and people’s livelihoods and their ability to cope, for several years in some cases.
Subsistence farmers who lose their crops may need food assistance for several months until the next harvest.
Struggling with drought, Agripina Osorto, a farmer and mother of three in Orocuina, Honduras, received two months of food assistance from MCC partner CODESO.(MCC Photo/Elizabeth Scambler)
Do you sense that people here in Canada or the U.S. are aware of the range of disasters that MCC is responding to in Central America?
I don’t think some Central Americans are even aware of the range of disasters that are happening in their own countries. Large events make the media. MCC is most often responding to fairly localized, small disasters. It can be a storm surge in one community that creates a huge amount of flooding. Some of these events might make the news, but not all. Also, typically our responses extend beyond the time a disaster is in the news locally and internationally.
You could refer to a lot of the disasters we respond to as forgotten disasters. MCC has dedicated disaster funds to allow us to respond to those disasters that aren’t noticeable to people outside those communities.
What disaster responses are you working on now?
The Haiti earthquake response is wrapping up. We have a response to an earthquake in Nicaragua that happened last year. The Central America drought is the major response, with projects in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Community members from Cuisnahuat Municipality, El Salvador, carry material resources they received as part of MCC’s response to drought with partner ANADES. (ANADES Photo/Miguel Herrera)
What else should people know about MCC’s disaster responses in Central America?
I’ve been thinking a lot more about how our disaster response work isn’t separate from the other kinds of work we do.
I really think our development and peacebuilding and other efforts all work together to build resilient communities. Stronger communities are better able to confront a disaster when it happens and less likely to need as much assistance over time.
For instance, in Central America, the farmers in our project promoting conservation agriculture also experienced crop loss during the drought, but their loss was significantly less than those using conventional methods. In El Salvador, we found that community members who had been encouraged by MCC partners to diversify their livelihood with microenterprises such as corner stores or by raising small animals were less likely to need food assistance after they lost their crops in the drought because they already had other income to fall back on.
People used to use the term natural disasters, but we hear more and more from MCC staff that no disaster is purely natural. Can you explain?
Our partners in Central America are talking about this too. There are hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and mudslides. But those things on their own don’t create a disaster. It’s the effect those have on the population that causes a crisis.
You could have an earthquake hit California and not have very serious effects due to building codes, disaster preparedness trainings. Whereas in another context, that same size earthquake – when combined with insufficient building codes and a lack of opportunity that leaves many people unable to afford safe, well-built housing – can lead to much greater destruction and a higher death toll.
What’s up with the disaster preparedness or risk reduction work that MCC supports? You can’t prevent a storm.
There is a lot that communities can do to be prepared and reduce the potential damage that storm might cause.
When people with few resources have to live close to a river bank or on a steep slope, an MCC project might help the community organize to build rock retaining walls to prevent flooding or mudslides. In Haiti, MCC did a lot of training in earthquake-resistant construction methods.
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, mason Arnel Telimont continues to use earthquake-resistant building techniques he learned through MCC’s trainings after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. (MCC Photo/Silas Crews)
Our partners have done a lot of work encouraging communities to form local emergency committees, to become aware of the potential risks and learn what to do when emergencies occur. This can include learning about early warning systems, advocating that their local government implement them properly, establishing evacuation routes and other contingency plans for extreme weather.
Rains always come and storms always come.
We want to give communities the tools to look at their own situation and say, “What can we do together as a community to prevent this from becoming a major flood or landslide and what is the best way for us to react in times of emergency?”
So what do committees actually do then?
They use a number of educational tools to identify community risks and resources. One activity includes drawing maps of their community, identifying different risk areas for different kinds of disasters and the different resources available. They identify people in their communities who are most vulnerable, such as the elderly, families headed by single mothers, or people with disabilities.
What we’re also finding is that our drought response projects were more effective in communities that formed local emergency committees.
As part of MCC’s response to drought in Central America, the Brethren in Christ Church in Orocuina, Honduras, was used as a food warehouse for an emergency distribution. (MCC Photo/Elizabeth Scambler.)
In Honduras, for instance, our partner CODESO, a Brethren in Christ church organization, mobilized more than 50 volunteers to carry out needs assessment, select participants and weigh and pack and deliver materials.
Church volunteers told me that at first they had a hard time understanding why the food assistance wasn’t intended for the church members. But after being involved in the needs assessment, they were able to see there were communities members who had greater needs than they did. It helped them better understand their communities.