As I joined countless others watching the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas and parts of the southeastern United States, I was reminded by one of the mantras of disaster relief: Once the flood waters recede, so do the headlines and the critically needed support that come along with the urgency of the moment.
Why this matters, especially as natural and weather-related disasters increase with greater frequency, is because the Jewish community and Israel often deploy humanitarian responses that can seem outsized given our small numbers in the world. Already with Hurricane Dorian, we know of local Jewish agencies—Jewish Federations and Jewish Family Services—and international organizations like Chabad, Cadena, IsraAid and my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), that are responding to the needs of those facing unprecedented loss and despair.
While it’s nothing short of inspiring that this is the case—demonstrating the Jewish people’s dedication to their own and to all humanity at times of great need—there are important lessons from recent disasters that should be guiding our work and our community’s vision for a successful response.
More disasters are undoubtedly in store, and we should be looking at a holistic model of Jewish relief in the wake of these events—one that spans immediate emergency efforts to rebuilding and fostering sustainable resilience of local communities. To do this, we can learn from past experience and from our work with vulnerable populations: those living in extreme poverty, women and children, people with disabilities, the homebound and the elderly, who are often the hardest-hit when disasters strike.
Three lessons stand out:
First, a disaster doesn’t just last one day, and flexibility is key in an ever-changing environment. Yes, we must provide immediate and basic human needs in the wake of such events: food, clean water, medicine and shelter. We must also ensure search-and-rescue operations that put the value of each individual life center-stage. And yet, when the news feed stops, the survivors in a disaster area must deal with lives that begin anew in a landscape and society ever-changed. So any response requires a component that ensures people are less vulnerable to the next disaster.
In Indonesia, where we have worked since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, we built a disaster-risk reduction and response capability among local communities by training them in disaster management and psychosocial services. The program, which was funded by USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, ensured that more than 4,000 villagers were prepared to withstand the impact of regular catastrophic flooding and the ongoing eruptions of volcanoes.
Building up the capacity of communities to prepare for themselves is even more important when circumstances shift among survivors. As many know, in both Mozambique in 2019 and in Haiti in 2010, the outbreak of cholera stymied aid efforts because a new front popped up and required urgent attention given how quickly the disease could spread among survivors. Therefore, aid groups must be prepared to shift resources for these inevitabilities.
Secondly, we should leverage the role of Jewish people and communities in disaster relief. For the Jewish people and Israel, the ability to weather a crisis and having the systems in place to do so has been developed over a millennia. Those tools position us well to aid others when all is lost. We understand how to deal with the psycho-social impact, like trauma, and also how to coordinate our internal resources with government agencies for maximum impact. When massive floods hit Kerala, India, last year, the local Jewish community was a key player in deploying food and clothing to hundreds of families in need. The key to their success was coordination with us and NGO partners already working on the ground. The Jewish community was the nexus of knowledge, emerging needs, and swift aid efforts that sustained people in the wake of the devastation. That this community is well-integrated into Indian society and has no experience of anti-Semitism makes it all the more powerful.
Finally, education is key to ensuring that the long-term impact of disasters is understood widely by the public, and that support is available for projects like rebuilding smarter and livelihood transformation when local industries, from farming to fishing, are decimated after a disaster. Our Jewish communities need to understand that the effects of disasters are not created in one day, but pre-exist within a context of poor-quality housing, environmental degradation, gender-based discrimination and lack of opportunity.
To effectively be there at times of crises and help rebuild stronger, we must also be prepared to tackle those underlying issues and making them known. Following the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, our investment in women went deeper by focusing on mitigating the risk of human trafficking and the creation of independent livelihoods that would benefit them and their communities for many years to come.
In the short time we have leading up to the High Holidays, we are reminded of our own mortality and, perhaps more important, the power to transform our lives for the better. To do this successfully, we must take stock, learn some very hard lessons, ignore the urge to instantly solve problems, and recommit to actions that sanctify life and our treatment of people around us.
These weighty, serious considerations also imbue the work of saving lives and rebuilding communities after a disaster or crisis. Watching scenes from Hurricane Dorian—where the extent of the damage, especially in the Bahamas, is so deeply concerning—it’s all the more important to get it right and ensure a more sustainable future for those who need it most. We know how much they appreciate the care we provide in those early days when all seems hopeless; how much more so when their horizon is made brighter by those sticking around and partnering with them for the long term. Let’s resolve then to give a new meaning to our efforts to repair the world this year by focusing on the year ahead and the generations that follow.
Mandie Winston is director for disaster relief and international development at JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization.
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