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When Disaster Response Is Its Own Disaster (and How We Can Easily Fix It)

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The Mississippi is flooding.

Sunday a tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri, destroying whole neighborhoods. Last month tornadoes left tens of thousands homeless, and in March we were riveted by images with hundreds of thousands displaced by the earthquake and then tsunami in Japan.

History -- and the scenes flooding our TV sets today -- vividly illustrate that preparations for housing victims of large-scale disasters are critically lacking.

While we make valiant efforts to mitigate the impact of potential catastrophes we are often left scrambling to provide displaced people with the basic necessities after they've been hit.

Though safe building codes and protective infrastructure are essential, we cannot make our homes invulnerable and therefore we must be prepared -- we must be better prepared -- for the aftermath of natural disasters beyond our control.

The images may fade quickly from the front pages and TV screens but the suffering of the victims is just beginning, as they are forced into temporary housing like motel rooms or trailers, often far from their neighborhoods.

Many of the displaced victims are again being housed in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers, which are slow to arrive, cost upward of $30,000, and provide only temporary and unsafe shelter arrangements. There is a terrible irony in the fact that natural disaster victims are housed in the exact kind of shelter that is most vulnerable to natural disasters: mobile trailer units.

FEMA trailers are also typically located in camps remote from the neighborhoods where disaster victims had their homes originally. This adds to the dislocation and upheaval caused by these terrible events. Forced to move, disaster victims often lose their connections with neighbors, jobs, and schools, profoundly disrupting communities for months or years. Many, especially the vulnerable elderly and disabled, become permanently homeless as direct consequence of natural disasters. This is an unconscionable waste of funds, livelihoods, and lives.

Fortunately, a far better and more cost effective alternative has been developed thanks to advances in engineering. It looks like this - inexpensive hurricane-flood-and-earthquake-resistant emergency kit houses that can be quickly and easily erected onsite. These modular houses are plug-and-play, incorporating electrical and plumbing systems that are ready to be connected. If necessary, they can be equipped with self-contained composting toilets, generators, and water tanks.

The cost of such kits, which can provide permanent, safe two-bedroom housing units, is comparable to the cheapest FEMA shelters, and they can be erected in a couple of days by small teams of people with no special training.

Kit houses can often be erected directly on the sites of homes that were destroyed. They also meet or exceed the strictest US building codes and are usable, permanent homes; alternately, they can also easily be dismantled, packed flat and stored for future emergencies. Such kit shelters should be stockpiled in warehouses in earthquake, hurricane, flood and tornado prone areas by FEMA.

They could then arrive on the scene, by truck (or where necessary helicopter), and be erected within a few days of a disaster, eliminating the need for costly 'temporary' emergency shelter and the long-term displacement of families.

Our current approach creates additional trauma for the already traumatized by forcing victims to live in temporary unsuitable conditions, and the time has come to choose a better way. While kit houses may not be suitable for immediate use on highly damaged sites and cannot replicate a lost, beloved home, they offer the best and safest way to restore a normal way of life and provide a foundation for continued recovery.

If victims knew that they could return to a brand new permanent home in their old neighborhood, built rapidly with their own efforts the sense of helplessness, loss, destitution, and desperation would be alleviated by hope for a brighter future.

Ruth Bettelheim, Ph.D. is a Los Angeles psychotherapist, life coach, and writer who lost her home in an earthquake.

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