10/03/2011 09:21 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2011

Long-Term Rebuilding in the Aftermath of Disasters

Since 2006, 14 million people around the world have lost their homes to earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters. Low-income families who live in vulnerable areas and in houses that are least likely to withstand harm often suffer the most.

Today, on World Habitat Day, as we recognize that everyone should have the opportunity to live in decent and affordable housing, we also emphasize that more work must be done to help communities vulnerable to disasters and those still desperately struggling to recover.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted five years after Hurricane Katrina, a startling 70 percent of residents in New Orleans felt that the nation had forgotten the challenges they have continued to face in the years since the floodwaters receded. In Haiti, nearly two years after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, hundreds of thousands remain displaced and continue to face extreme uncertainty.

New Orleans and Haiti are not alone. Developing a pathway to permanence after any disaster is a long-term proposition. Recovery is measured in years, not months. With sustainability in mind, I believe there are critical areas that must be addressed in disaster response efforts.

  • Communication between relief organizations is imperative, particularly in urban settings, and systems must be developed to ensure coordination among various groups providing immediate and long-term aid.
  • Communities and disaster relief organizations must consider the long-term and focus on permanent solutions that address the needs of each individual community.
  • To remove any barriers to the assistance that lower-income families so desperately need, a clear process is required that can address the lack of documentation and unclear land tenure that can be common in some developing countries.
  • Finally, we must not forget that disaster mitigation is crucial. It is far more cost-effective to improve homes before natural hazards become disasters.

For the past 10 years, Habitat for Humanity International has implemented rebuilding programs in areas badly damaged by disasters. In 2010 alone, we served 20,280 families in recovering communities. Habitat organizations located in areas where recurring, cyclical hazards are present have learned to integrate mitigation elements into project design. But we know there is much more to do.

As we focus on the global need for adequate shelter on this World Habitat Day, we implore business, government, policy, civic and relief organization leaders to work together to institute practices that support adequate housing in all areas of the world. Habitat's hope and vision is to see policies established that will help ease the recovery burden on severely devastated areas worldwide.

Jonathan T.M. Reckford is the chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International. Habitat for Humanity's 2012 Shelter Report "Build Hope: Housing cities after a disaster" can be found at