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October 8 is International Day for Disaster Reduction

Zoe Elena Trohanis's picture

Growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, every year in elementary, junior high and high school, we would participate in hurricane drills. An alarm would sound, and all the kids would file into the interior hallways, sit cross-legged on the floor, and cover our heads with our hands. Some of us, if there wasn't a hallway handy, would crawl under our desks until we were told it was safe to resurface. Thinking back on those drills, I knew they were important but never quite made the link as to why we had to do these exercises, since strong hurricanes never seemed to make their way that far inland while I was growing up. Of course then in 2004, Hurricane Ivan blew through my hometown and caused massive damage, and knocked out my parents' power and water supply for more than a week. I'm sure the local schools put their hurricane drills to good use during that storm.

One of my colleagues told me that when her mother was in grade school, a tsunami warning was issued Honolulu (where she was raised as a child). School was released early. Residents were instructed to move to high ground. Instead, her grandmother gathered up her mother and siblings, as well as a few of the neighborhood kids, and they all piled into a convertible and down to the seaside so they could watch the wave come in.

The tsunami never arrived in Honolulu that day and I never got a chance to crawl under my desk at school with a hurricane bearing down, but these memories and anecdotes made me think how far we’ve come in making people more aware of the risks of natural disaster, and less likely to take a convertible down to the beach to go “tsunami-watching.”

This year, October 8 is the International Day for Disaster Reduction, marking almost two decades since the United Nations General Assembly agreed on the second Wednesday of October to promote a culture of disaster risk reduction around the world. In a year in which more than 62,000 died in China’s Sichuan-Wenchuan Earthquake (see related blog posts) and more than 84,000 people were killed or made homeless in Myanmar as a result of Cyclone Nargis, it is clear that we still have a ways to go and plenty of work to do in order to reduce disaster risks in our region.

It’s a good time to for everyone involved in disaster risk reduction to highlight how very small awareness raising actions at the community level can have a big impact in mitigating the effects of a disaster. 

Take the case of the ten year old British schoolgirl Tilly Smith who managed to save several people who were at the beach in Thailand when the Asian tsunami hit in 2004. She watched the sea receding and bubbling from a beach in Phuket, Thailand where she was vacationing with her parents. Remembering a school lesson weeks before on earthquakes and tsunamis, she told her parents what was happening; they then immediately alerted tourists and hotel staff, and remarkably, almost everyone was evacuated in time. 

In the EAP region, we’re working with communities and governments to come up with plans to deal with the threat of disasters before they happen. While it’s not always possible to avoid a storm, earthquake or tsunami, innovative national governments, as well as local authorities, are constantly coming up with new ways to protect their citizens. The International Day for Disaster Reduction is a prime opportunity to promote these initiatives.

For example, in the Philippines, the World Bank, through the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), is supporting technical assistance to strengthen the capacities of Philippine institutions, especially at the local level, to reduce vulnerabilities to the impacts of natural disasters and to better manage disaster risks. And in Pacific Island countries, which are especially vulnerable to sea level rise and associated impacts of climate change, we are working to enhance the capacities of Governments to prepare ex ante for disaster risks and to be ready to respond when catastrophes strike. 

Houses have been rebuilt to higher standrads.
And almost four years after the Asian tsunami, more than 100,000 permanent houses have been rebuilt to higher standards, which has helped families to get on with rebuilding their livelihoods. Plus more than 800 schools have been reconstructed and more than 23,000 teachers have been trained to teach in these education facilities. I'm sure that emergency preparedness and awareness raising on disaster risks is being reflected in the curriculum in these areas.

I believe these and other programs, which the World Bank and the GFDRR, Governments, the UN and other development partners are supporting, will have a ripple effect across all development activities at the country level—to ensure that future disasters don't have such devastating impacts.

What do you think? Have you experienced a natural disaster? How did you and your family cope with the event? What are your thoughts on reducing disaster risk in the East Asia Region?

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