Post-disaster Opportunities: An Assessment of Reconstruction Activities following the 1999 Debris Flows in Vargas State, Venezuela
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Disaster impacts have grown significantly in the last half century. Additionally, in 2007 the number of urban residents surpassed that of rural populations generating a struggle for resources, inevitably leading to increased challenges in the achievement of reduction in both urban poverty and disaster vulnerability. Although the literature on disaster recovery suggests that a ‘build back better’ approach is now the accepted norm, there are still many cases worldwide where the reconstruction process actually rebuilds rather than reduces vulnerabilities. The literature on disaster risk reduction provides some basic principles for sustainable hazard mitigation, however, evaluation criteria for effective post-disaster response and reconstruction have yet to be developed. This research will enrich the ongoing debate about what ‘sustainable hazard mitigation’ entails and how it fits into broader development goals in less developed countries (LDCs). A case study examination of a socio-ecological system allows for the identification of the ways in which planning, policy, partnerships, and the like, can be used to reduce vulnerabilities in a post-disaster setting, thus, improving outcomes in future disastrous events. In the absence of a framework for evaluation of disaster risk reduction effectiveness in the literature, an Assessment of Post-disaster Risk Reduction Effectiveness (PDARRE) was created. Thirty three criteria were derived from the literature and ‘good practices’ to address common challenges and necessary actions for successful post-disaster reconstruction which results in reduced vulnerability. The selected case study is a debris flow disaster which decimated the northern coastal state of Vargas, Venezuela in 1999. Torrential rainfall exceeding 900mm fell on the Sierra El Avila Mountains over three days. The results from the PDARRE evaluation found an overwhelmingly poor response to the Vargas disaster, although some positive actions were also noted. Individual community members were not well-informed of the risks they faced living in Vargas and have still not been provided adequate capacity to reduce their vulnerability, nine years after the disaster. The creation of new institutions immediately following the debris flows led to slow decision-making and weak governance as new managers struggled to adapt to their new positions. In addition, poor communication across government institutions, lack of enforcement of zoning policies and an incomplete system of early warning compounded vulnerability and governance concerns. Long-term monitoring of post-disaster recovery and reconstruction has typically been left to local governments that often get distracted by economic pressures and changes. To assist with post-disaster efforts, PDARRE was created to monitor and evaluate effectiveness. The criteria for this assessment were derived from many sources and were organized into categories to assist local governments to see which areas of their disaster response system are weakest, and enable effective adjustments to their activities, consequently improving the entire disaster management system. Though other checklists and tools for post-disaster response activities do exist, I argue that these over-emphasize the immediate response activities and time-frame. The post-disaster context provides an opportunity to harness funding that can be directed at-risk and vulnerability reduction efforts. Consistent with the perspective of prominent international NGOs, this research is based on the prevailing belief that disaster management can be more successful if mainstreamed into broader sustainable development goals and activities. Similar to other disasters, the Vargas debris flow disaster was a convergence of unfortunate and dangerous circumstances. As disasters continue to grow in magnitude and increase in frequency, the importance of strong disaster management plans will be reinforced the world over. With a synthesis of poverty and vulnerability reduction strategies, disaster-affected communities can use the post-disaster context as an opportunity to achieve more sustainable livelihoods, increased equity and improved safety.