Eva M. Calvo
"We lost everything. Wherever you looked, there was devastation and despondency. We didn't know how to deal with that kind of a situation. I just thought we weren't going to survive. It's been a nightmare," explained Katia Zevera, a few months after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras and took all she owned.
Over the last ten years, more than 50 million people like Katia have been affected by natural disasters in the Americas. More than 80,000 have lost their lives. Latin America is a vulnerable region, where flood and drought, earthquake and hurricane, poverty and social conflict all pose multiple humanitarian problems that demand special attention.
In 2002 alone, the region suffered dozens of disasters, both natural and man-made. Floods in Colombia, Bolivia, Panama and Costa Rica, and the drought in Paraguay all had a devastating effect on the most vulnerable regions of these countries. There were earthquakes in Mexico and Chile, while Central America and the Caribbean were ravaged by violent hurricanes, such as Lili and Isidore. At the same time, Argentina slid into a socio-economic crisis, reducing the country's capacity to meet the needs of its people and leaving thousands highly vulnerable.
Recognizing the region's vulnerability, the International Federation set up the Pan American Disaster Response Unit (PADRU), a service and coordination centre providing technical and material support for disaster management to the region's National Red Cross Societies and the International Federation's delegations. Its objective is to help the Red Cross assist disaster victims in an effective and coordinated manner.
The International Federation analyzed three of its major operations in the Americas following a major disaster, Hurricanes George and Mitch, and the floods in Venezuela. This analysis revealed the need to review the organization's disaster response strategy for the region. PADRU was born of the lessons learned and experience acquired.
"The consequences of these disasters show that individual countries, their governments, the population and even the Red Cross were not fully prepared for disasters of this magnitude and complexity," says Iain Logan, the Federation's head of operations for the Americas, who has been involved in setting up PADRU from the outset.
Panama was chosen to host PADRU's headquarters on account of its strategic location and the transport, procurement, land and warehousing facilities it offered. Both the Panamanian government and the Red Cross Society of Panama fully supported and provided the facilities for the establishment of the unit in their country.
Nelson Castaño, the current head of PADRU, believes the unit plays an essential support role in the region. "PADRU is a disaster management tool both for and by the National Societies. It provides a platform in which to formulate, integrate, standardise and facilitate many of the processes of planning, organisation, management and execution, together with the monitoring and evaluation of disaster preparation and response."
During the emergency phase of a disaster, it is vital to respond quickly and appropriately, in order to save lives, meet the most urgent needs of the population and mitigate the effects of the disaster. PADRU supports the work of the National Societies during an emergency by offering a wide range of technical services, such as disaster management, water and sanitation teams, telecommunications and logistics.
One of the specificities of PADRU is its regional logistics unit (RLU), which is responsible for the management, procurement, mobilization and delivery of relief supplies. The RLU has a virtual warehouse; this greatly enhances the response of the Red Cross in the region, making it possible to identify potential suppliers in advance and to procure supplies in a cost-effective manner when a disaster occurs.
In addition, PADRU draws its strength from the people who work there. These individuals are specialists from various technical fields and come from National Societies throughout the region.
Proving its value
Like any new model or process, PADRU has been the subject of discussion. Initially, many wondered what PADRU would do beyond emergencies. However, the unit has contributed to the strengthening of National Society capacities in the region to respond to disasters. PADRU also provides technical assistance and training, which has included running logistics and water and sanitation workshops, training regional intervention teams, all critical to response preparedness.
The focus on disaster preparedness and response has improved coordination between the National Societies and the provision of services both to them and to beneficiaries, and has enabled better use to be made of both human and financial resources.
Nonetheless, there is a long way to go and many challenges to overcome. Castaño believes that coordination between the various parties, the sustainability of the unit and its acceptance and full integration into the different countries' disaster preparedness and response systems will continue to be among the challenges faced.
Although PADRU was designed for a specific continent — the Americas — much can be learned from its experience and from the lessons learned. Iain Logan believes that it constitutes a model that could be exported to other regions.
"The situation might vary, and so might cultural sensitivities and methods of working, but the concept would stay the same and ought to work."
Reducing disaster-related risk and vulnerability and building up the capacity of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to respond to disasters are among the main priorities of the forthcoming International Conference. The lessons learned and the experience acquired as a result of PADRU, offer a practical example of what can be done to reduce vulnerabilities not only in Latin America but elsewhere. With conference participants set to commitment to protecting human dignity, PADRU offers one way of lessening the suffering of people like Katia, who are most at risk to the devastating impacts of disasters.
This article first appeared in the Red Cross Red Crescent magazine
Other related links:
Americas - Regional appeals and updates
News story: Red Cross steps up disaster response in Americas
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