Women in disasters: conference proceedings and recommendations

Participatory Learning Activities for Disaster Mitigation in Southern Africa

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Participatory Learning Activities for Disaster Mitigation in Southern Africa (Astrid von Kotze and Ailsa Holloway, 1996) brought practitioners and relief workers together in drought-prone areas for six one-week workshops. Adopting an adult community education model of participatory learning, workshop leaders integrated gender analysis into every aspect of mitigation training.

For example, trainers taught the process of household risk assessment by distributing cards based on real households in Ghana, including single women with and without tools, livestock, and other resources. Participants were asked to decide in 30 minutes which households should be eligible for drought relief loans. They were then asked to analyze the gender and power dynamics of their collective decision-making process. Who spoke most and least? What criteria were used to distribute aid? When they studied community vulnerabilities and resources, workshop participants were also asked to use their own life experience and draw time lines displaying the gendered division of labor. This innovative community education project brings gender issues from the margin to the center of grassroots mitigation and is an excellent model for similar projects in developed countries like Canada and the US.

Implications: for disaster scholarship, practice, and community organizing

A gender-aware model of grassroots mitigation implies new research partners and new research questions. We need more research on the root causes of vulnerability in developed and affluent countries. What political, social, economic, racial, and gender structures produce these patterns and how can our disaster planning address them? What models can be identified of women’s mobilization around hazard and disaster? What best practices can we document of disaster organizations proactively responding to gender bias and of community organizations undertaking emergency planning? We need more collaborative and action research involving dialogue between practitioners, vulnerable communities, and academics.

We must also develop new partnerships between emergency practitioners and community groups. Although women may be active neighborhood volunteers and will certainly be central actors as disasters unfold in real homes and neighborhoods, they rarely have a collective presence in mitigation projects. Planning networks must extend beyond traditional partners like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and interfaith response groups, to include hotlines, food banks, homeless coalitions, environmental groups, and women’s groups. Among the latter, practitioners should network with:

  1. groups representing women especially vulnerable to disaster, e.g. minority-language speakers, single mothers, frail seniors

  2. agencies serving women in crisis, e.g. victims of violence, homeless women, women in shelter

  3. coalitions of child care centres and of family day care providers

  4. women’s health care provider organizations

  5. women’s educational organizations (parents; teachers)

  6. local chapters of national women’s organizations (university, service, professional, business and labor organizations)

Grassroots women’s groups can contribute to mitigation by documenting the specific needs of locally vulnerable women; identifying the resources of local women’s services and groups (from trained crisis line staff to physical space or national resources); raising women’s disaster awareness; and sharing community knowledge and oral history with emergency planners. We need practitioners at the local level who represent and can work with diverse constituencies.

Finally, women’s services need to take up the challenge of disaster planning because it will be part of our future or of those we care about. We need to inform ourselves about local hazards and specific conditions creating vulnerability and learn about existing emergency plans, personnel, and resources. We should assess how our own efforts and goals relate, for example, to environmental risk or housing issues. We need to proactively identify and address our internal agency vulnerability, taking a lead role to model emergency planning for other community-based organizations. We need to insist that our funding agencies support this effort toward sustainable community development. We need coalitions at the local and regional levels between seniors, the disabled, migrant workers, low-income families, indigenous communities and others likely to be hard-hit in future floods, earthquakes, or hazardous spills.

Each new disaster is a wake-up call—a strong reminder that we must not continue the past into the future. In developed as well as emerging societies, and in academia, emergency management, and women’s services alike, women’s expertise and leadership is essential as we shift from disaster aid to disaster reduction through sustainable development.

Contact information: Dr. Elaine Enarson, Disaster Preparedness Resources Centre, University of British Columbia, 2206 East Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z3. Tel: (604) 929-6062. Email: enarson@unixg.ubc.ca.

#7: “Hard Lessons Learned in Manitoba: A Personal Account” Susan Goyer, Ritchot, Manitoba

I started as a volunteer during the l996 flood. I was a single woman, back at university, retraining as a physiotherapist to get back into the workforce so I could support my three kids and myself. We were still recovering from the flood of l996 when we got hit with the blizzard of ’97 and then the flood of l997. I started, like every other disaster manager that I hear about here, as a volunteer.

Before the flood, I identified the vulnerable people in my community who were being overlooked and ignored. I started phoning the municipality and organizing to get them help. I knew the die was cast the day our road got cut off. I was in the middle of building a 30,000-sandbag dike and our road washed out. I had to leave my home and go down and spend four and half-hours trying to locate somebody who would say ‘I am in charge.’ I did this because I needed to rescue 200 volunteers off our road. I had high school students trying to walk off a road that was 4 feet deep in rushing water full of icebergs. I needed to get four armed personnel carriers and a troop carrier to come back and do this rescue. It took me four and a half hours. I started with Water Resources, the RCMP, the municipal leaders, and the army. No one was in charge; there was no chain of command. This was 1997. This was our second flood in two years.

We had an emergency plan in our municipality. Nobody worked the Plan. It fell apart. We had staff—I think seven people—who were trying to run a disaster plan for 5,000. They did not know where to second people from. We looked in envy at the City of Winnipeg with all of its resources. Later we received criticism from our provincial emergency management organization because the municipality “never asked for help.” My municipal councilor says that they did ask for help.

I have become the middleman, mediating between our community and some of the government officials as well as the municipality. Some days I just want to go—no more secrets, I do not want any more secrets. I have people saying “We did this and they didn’t” or the government will come to me and say “Susan, you need to go to your municipality and stress to them that they need to invite us in to do preparedness training in your community.” So I went to my local leader and said, “[She] wants to come and do training. When can we arrange for her to come?” And [he], the local coordinator said, “You can’t plan for a disaster. How would we plan for a disaster?” Another said, “We’ll do it ourselves. What can they teach us?” I was thinking, “Look in the mirror. We just spent 30 million dollars trying to clean up this municipality and only $5 million to prepare.” The arrogance on both sides is sometimes appalling.

And so because the Rural Municipality was disorganized… during the next flood I feel that the main problem is going to be a lack of trust in government. Our residents are solid prairie folk. They have lived there for generations. Some families have owned their land since the l800s. Sure, some of us are new but lots are pioneers who have an oral history. They know by the current where the water comes from. They know when it should come. But nobody asked them. They are the users of the system but they are never consulted from the top down.

Now fortunately, the Manitoba Water Commission did hold local meetings on a regional basis and they heard us. Two weeks ago they released their report. They invited myself and a few others to come in for a special debriefing before we held our own press conference. They heard what we had to say. And they strongly recommended that for all future planning, the users of the system be consulted. That is just such a huge step forward for us if it happens

I had seven feet of water on the main floor of my home. I lost part of my home. I lost my job. I lost a dear friend who died of a heart attack while evacuating his family. I lost a year of my life. And so, as part of the evolution, I started being an advocate for the community. The very first thing I did when I was evacuated was, with Laurie Allen who is now the chairman of our Action Committee, organize the Red River Drive Community Association. We recognized that we were just a group of homes, almost 300 families, south of Winnipeg. We are not a town; we are not a village. We are not on the map. We are really no man’s land. We were a bedroom community to Winnipeg. We were just a group of people sharing the same space.

Now, that being said there were several groups in our community who were interconnected families. Initially when I was hired as the re-entry coordinator, several of the groups of people that I had to work with consisted of three and four generations: great-grandmother, grandmother, children, and grandchildren. And so if you have five or six homes in an area where they are all from the same interconnected family they cannot help each other. I called into Winnipeg one day pre-flood and said “I need volunteers out here for sandbagging.” “Where do you live?” “South of Winnipeg.” “Do you pay Winnipeg taxes” “No.” “Well, find your own volunteers.” I said, “I can’t! Our whole area is going to flood and we can’t ask our extended families to help because they all live here. We’re trying our best but we are all flooding.” And the phone hung up and that was the end of that. Winnipeg was flooding this year so a lot of our last year’s volunteers went into Winnipeg. It was a real problem and in consequence the trust of the residents of Ritchot and the Red River Valley was severely eroded. There was also a lot of conflict over the duties of the military and again another level of trust was eroded.

It became very evident that the policy makers need to consult with the users of the system in order to find out what is going on at the grassroots level and to make decisions about what really needs to be done. It has to be done in a safe climate where you are not afraid of the backlash. I was an advocate for my community and I have to tell you that in October I received $257 in compensation when I put in $10,000 in bills. My file was permanently “lost” for two months—it just did not matter who I phoned, when I phoned, my file was gone. So—is that a coincidence, or was that because I was the local advocate? I do not know.

We had money pouring into the Valley to help, most of it under the auspices of the Red Cross. We had a similar problem as described by another speaker in Miami after Hurricane Andrew. We had a committee chaired by a local lawyer with several prominent businessmen who sat on that committee and a flood victim or two. They developed a computer model of how they were going to help us all out, and it quickly became apparent that they identified the vulnerable and the needy as needing help. But how do you define vulnerable and needy?

For those that had over $100,000 worth of assets and damage, you were identified as being very capable. You had the capacity to recover, and you were “resilient.” It did not matter that this was your second flood. It did not matter that you were 50 years old and taking on a $l00,000 mortgage; that means you are paying a mortgage until you’re 70. It does not matter that you’re 60 years old—you could dip into your retirement income. If you were 50, you could dip into your children’s university savings. You were “capable.” You had the capacity to recover. You were “self-resilient.” I would say to them, “You know, we have to redefine ‘self-resilient.’ I went to several conferences—at Floodnet I heard researchers say, “Oh, those people at higher economic and educational levels—we don’t have to worry about them. They have the capacity to recover, they are self-resilient.” But that is not always the case. In our particular farming community, we found that at the end of the charity monies there were some great inequities and in fact I believe that reverse discrimination occurred. And of course there are always those who can work the system to their advantage. I sincerely hope that we can re-examine the use of this model and make some positive changes for the next flood or disaster. Some of the residents really felt that they were being penalized for having a low debt load and for having amassed assets, and two-parent income families felt particularly targeted. They were working hard and this was their reward.

Now, when I was first hired as the re-entry coordinator it was because I was identified as the community volunteer. I asked my municipal councilor, “Why are you picking on me to do this horrendous job of getting 272 families back into an area that was devastated by 10 and 15 feet of water?” We boated for three weeks. The water sat in our homes, soaked up by every fiber of wood. And he said, “Because you built a good dike.” He liked the way that I consulted an engineer; I did my research, and built a good dike. That was all the experience I needed to become the re-entry coordinator!

And you know I very foolishly—mother that I am—took it on. To me it was like a big sandbox. I had this huge area that I had to work with. Over here were the boys and their toys: I had four contracting companies, the front-end loaders, the cats and the bobcats with grapples as well as dumpsters. I learned all about government machine rates and how to be a very careful construction boss because some of these fellows would overcharge to make up for the rates. Over there I have the friends and the relatives, all of the residents and their families. And over here I have the kids. We had to worry about the children because families were fragmented. They went to the reception centers and then they were sent off to wherever they were to stay in temporary housing for the next month, two months, or even a year. Families were split up. Parents were physically and emotionally unavailable to look after their children. So we had to take on some of that, looking after the children, setting up summer camps, setting up day care centers.

The mothers were horrendously over-loaded. The men went off to war; they went off to hunt and do their thing. I am sorry to generalize, but you know we have been watching this pattern emerge. The women stayed home and tended the fire. They gathered the food and carried water and they made sure they had a roof over their heads, whether it was a mobile home or an apartment. They had to rebuild their houses and homes. They had to deal with all of the home bonding issues. Some people are feeling very guilty right now. “They’re getting these beautiful houses with brand-new everything in them; shouldn’t they feel really lucky?” No, they don’t. They feel guilty. They feel guilty because they are not grateful; they just want what they used to have.

I said to this one 82-year old lady who had her devastated home rebuilt by Mennonite Disaster Services, “Well, how are you liking your new home?” She replied, “Susan, I’m like the cat. I just keep looking around for the old couch.” She’s 82. She got out with her car, her cat, and her purse. That is all she that got to take with her. She lost everything that she owned. Her sister, who lived in a mobile home at the end of my road, was in the hospital having a hip replacement. Her whole family was flooding—sister, nieces, children, grandchildren, everybody. Nobody took care of her trailer and she lost everything that she had collected over 85 years. And yet saying that—two weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk to a woman in our area who lost part of her very large home filled with items from her world travels. She seemed to identify that it was safe to talk. She confided how much it all hurt. And I heard how the stress of the flood was compounding the grief of the death of her daughter many years ago. Apparently she feels isolated because she has so much financially that there is nobody that she could talk to or share her hurt with. They would not understand because she had enough money and so she had “everything she needed.” It seems that there are very few people who understand her emotional needs.

That is something that has really come out as this year has gone on. The flood was over—Mayor Susan Thompson rang the bell, everybody honked his or her horns at noon on Friday and the flood was declared over. And so as it faded from people’s minds and our community struggled on and on and on. We started to feel more and more isolated and more and more vulnerable. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get over it?” And particularly for the women, because they had to look after their husbands, their children, their normal house accounts, their EMO account, their Water Resources account and their business account. They had to go and buy whatever they needed for their temporary home and also their new house and make a thousand decisions every day if they were rebuilding. They had to make the decisions that kept them going in their apartment or their mobile home. They were literally exhausted and worn out, and there was nobody that they felt safe turning to. If they would go out to work and talk on coffee break, people would turn on them and accuse them of expecting the government to look after them. People started to feel very, very isolated quite early on. And we learned that if you do not have your losses publicly acknowledged and if they are not socially validated, it really compounds the grief that you feel. As well you are busy working hard day after day in your community only to look up one day to find that a lot of your community is gone. I have lost three neighbors off my street and I do not have a very big street. They have relocated along with 37 others from my immediate community. We all have our noses to the grindstones. We have to rebuild our lives, our homes and our businesses in a lot of cases. At the same time we struggle to keep our families together. There is not a lot of time to connect with others and to share our feelings.

So what we learned as a community is that we have to stop living in isolation—no man is an island. We need to understand that we are a community and that we need to live within the shelter of each other. We do have a lot to offer each other within our greater community. So we have started to do that, through the resurrection of a community hall for which we are now raising money to relocate so that it can be flood-proofed. Air Canada workers came from Montreal and rebuilt it for us last summer.

I really cannot over-emphasize the need for childcare workers. I worked 18-hour days, seven days a week, for several months on end and my children were left to fend for themselves. My community initially promised that they would like after my kids while I worked but by that promise soon went by the board. There was no trauma team in place. It took three and a half months from the date of the blizzard to get a psychosocial team in place working to offer emotional support in our community. They had workers in Winnipeg at the reception center, but when we moved home there was nobody there to help us re-enter the flooded community.

It seemed that there were so many decisions that were reactive. There was no one who stepped back and took a proactive planning role. I was always told “There is no time, Susan. You expect too much from us.” But I think in any disaster, somewhere, someway, someone has to step back from the action and be looking ahead weeks and months in order to do the necessary proactive planning. We could have saved so much time and money and effort.

The other part of my “sandbox” was the volunteers; Green Teams, the Floodbuster students, the Mennonite Disaster Service, the Christian Reform World Church, 100 Huntley Street, and those who came from all over North America to help us. Someone had to coordinate with them, somebody had to find them places to work and supervise what was going on. Somebody had to watch out for the safety of all of our workers and our residents. There was no safety officer; no one checked the homes before we went back into them and a lot of them were very structurally unsound because basements were full of water and starting to cave in as they drained. I tried my best while working with the volunteers because we had a lot of mold and a lot of refrigerators and freezers full of rotten food. There was the potential for a lot of lung damage. I was coughing up blood by the middle of July. We all had to make sure that we were wearing proper facemasks and gloves while looking after our health. It is so easy when you get tired and caught up in the moment to ignore your health but we were ultimately responsible for those volunteers coming in from across Canada. Unfortunately we did not have a safety officer anywhere who was identified to do that work. It was just what we thought to do as we were working on a day-to-day basis.

Now I have to tell you, that out of the five or six major agency players in our area, the bulk of the work was supervised by four or five very assertive, aggressive, competitive women. These women really kicked butt. They got the job done and I was really proud of them. I learned a lot working with these women. But while I really felt that they were the ones that got the work done I did worry about their families and their potential for burnout.

I acted as a catalyst a lot of the time between the community, the various agencies and the government. I still fulfill that role today as executive coordinator for the North Ritchot Restoration Community Committee. We have made a lot of changes. We have learned to work with the media and know that the media can be very manipulative. They want to report the sensational negative things but we have learned to try and use them to report the good things. And one of the good things we did that was reported nationally, that you heard about here in BC, was our ladies’ and men’s retreats.

We started to recognize this past February that the women were caving in under the load that they were carrying and so Lorraine Bergmann, another coordinator, decided that we needed to hold a retreat. Initially we thought that we would try to register 20 women. We applied for some funding and, before you knew it, there were 30 women and then 40. In the end we held two different retreats for 86 women in total. There’s a third retreat planned for another 36 women. I was also instrumental in initiating a men’s retreat. It’s being held in two weeks and it is for 20 men.

We arranged for a team to come and offer Raike and therapeutic touch, we offered free massages and raffled off 12 manicures. I was scared to death that we were going to open Pandora’s box--you now, we would get these women together and the story telling might open up the emotional floodgates. I worried that we needed to have a plan in place to help women with debriefing—because everyone has been too busy working to debrief. That is something that has not really happened. So Lorraine and I hired some facilitators to help with this. To start with we needed to know how to process grief. And then identify where we are today emphasizing our strengths. What can you draw on? Let’s have something hopeful! And then we identified envisioning the future. We know from the research done on the Holocaust and Vietnam that what keeps victims going and turns them into survivors is being able to envision their future. What will there be at the end of the road? What is your light at the end of the tunnel? Yes, you are going to be able to move on someday. And it’s real, it’s tangible, it’s there, you can feel it. You can smell it. Unfortunately, I can still smell the flood even if it is all in my mind! But hopefully some day we will all be able to smell the flowers – of course only after we replant them all. But that is another problem – loss of genetic rootstock and our familiar landscape.

So that is what we left the women with. - A vision for their future. We had a three-day retreat in a hotel, with a pool and weight room, coffee shop, nice meals, karioke machine, and massages. An amazing number of women had never had a massage. They were so grateful. And it was free. We did it through student masseuses. The feedback we got was incredible. They want more. Where are we going to get the funding? The Red Cross is leaving at the end of the month, and we are going to have to be very creative to find out where the funding can come from.

If we can send these women back home to their families, strong, productive and hopeful then the families will become strong, hopeful and productive and so will their communities. I think that by identifying the women as the major caregivers in the community we have done a really wonderful piece of work to ensure the survival of these communities over the next several years—hopefully, before the next flood hits!

Unfortunately let me tell you about the local store - liquor is running through it like a river. Liquor comes in our community one day and flows out the next. Substance abuse is high and marital discord is high. Marriage retreats have been well attended and more are planned. I do not know about domestic violence. This has been really interesting for me. I am going to go back with open eyes and start looking around to find out where that piece fits for us.

I have to tell you that the residents have been very concerned that monies were well spent. However, I never once heard the words ‘sustainable development’ used by anyone in government, but I sure know that the residents were really concerned that a lot of the mitigation measures that we are doing right now are not sustainable development. Building 15-foot high hills and 30-feet deep ponds in order to flood-proof is not sustainable development. We need to be looking at other means of protecting these communities. And some of these have been identified and they seem sensible.

The one major lesson for me is that no one offered care to the caregivers. There was very little debriefing done. There were very few meetings to allow the caregivers to identify the loads that they were carrying and to caution them against working these crazy hours for days on end, and urging them to take the time off and get the space they needed. People gave 500% to this project. While it is commendable, the burnout is horrendous and the burnout just impacts back on the residents through the silencing response.

The other lesson learned is that we cannot invite workers out to work in these disaster areas without ensuring that they have some understanding of post traumatic stress syndrome and how to deal with victims and survivors of disaster while understanding what they have been through. This includes treating the residents with respect and listening to their local knowledge and their wisdom. Workers need to respect the wisdom of the people that the are working with. This did not always happen.

And the third lesson learned is that we had real trouble communicating with each other during and after the disaster. We are going to get some funding and set up a website on a dedicated computer run out of the RM. It will have a variety of different functions. We will be able to use it to advertise a lot of the things that others and we have done here during this disaster. We will be able to communicate with residents and get them more involved in their local government. Hopefully this will require our local government to be more accountable and responsible. It is my belief that this is how we need to rebuild the trust that was eroded during the flood, by getting people more involved in local government. It will also help educate the community about disaster preparedness.

Communication is a real difficult thing to do post-disaster. You have people living out of the immediate neighborhood, all the regular channels are disrupted, there are not enough people around to spread the word, and people stop coming to the local events. We had a lot of helpful seminars or workshops in the first year. But a lot of the residents were too busy working, too busy surviving. It got real basic. It got real basic for me. At night I would go to bed wondering - where am I going to get clean water? Is my septic system going to keep working? (In fact it’s being dug up right now as I speak.) Do you have a roof over your head? I moved five times in five months. Do you have clothes? Is your family together? So when people are worried about those basics they are not going to the trauma talk or the other wonderful workshops that were set up for us. We need them now, a year later. Unfortunately, our funding is up for our trauma team and they are leaving the area. And people are just now at the stage where they are lifting their heads and saying “Oh, gee, I really need to go talk to someone, I really need some help.” Now they are open to this help but it is almost too late.

Suicides—we know that suicides are on the increase but nobody talks about them. Somebody asked a speaker from Grand Forks at our conference, “were there suicides?” He said “Yes, but we’ve chosen not to advertise them.” I guess if you tell people that suicide is an option that means that they are going to do it! I know that’s a myth, but this is the thinking—let’s not talk about suicide because we are all going to go out there and imitate it. But we have had a completed suicide in Manitoba and we have had several attempted suicides and people tell you that they are thinking about it – often. Finally, in late February/early March we had a suicide workshop for the workers in the area to recognize and be more alert and responsive to the needs of those people who are at that level of distress and despair.

Marital break-up is a real problem and I am certainly going to inquire about domestic violence. Unfortunately in our smaller, religious communities—and I know it’s there, I’m not fooling myself--we do not have local shelters, and I know it’s going to be really well hidden. We are going to have to find some way to provide a safe outlet for people to seek help.

The last thing I would leave you with is, to paraphrase Larry Whitney… In our area we have many hills and ring dikes so we focus a lot on flood forecasting and water levels. But floods are not just about engineers. They are about people. And it is not the magnitude of the losses that people experience that affect them the most - what I think affects people the most is having lost a sense of control over your own destiny. And so, if we as policy-makers or advisors to the system can allow the users of the system to voice their wisdom, voice their local knowledge, have a say in what is being done for them, then that that will mitigate the magnitude of the losses that they are feeling. A sense of control will give them the ability to envision a future for themselves and enable them to walk on and work towards that future. We really have to turn on and tune in to the eternal optimism that we all have as human beings. Thank you.

Contact information: Susan Goyer, Box 36, GRP6, RR1, St. Norbert, Manitoba. R3V 1L2. Tel: (204) 792-3417. Email: sgoyer@pangea.ca


This conference brought together a diverse group of emergency planners, responders, women’s services, academics and others. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four introductory group discussions for responses from the field to conference presentations. Following this first general workshop, participants selected one of four thematic workshops to attend for both days.

After brief presentations by panelists, workshop participants explored both general issues and specific change strategies. Workshop facilitators made presentations to the general audience summarizing the issues raised during the first day, and, on the second day, the specific recommendations put forward by the group. Participatory workshop discussions were the basis of the conference recommendations.

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