Two Fridays ago I returned from Haiti, where ShelterBox, the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for, is helping the nation to recover from Hurricane Matthew.
As always, there are many different things I saw and people I met that left me feeling richer and better rounded, but I want to take some time and space today to reflect on something that sometimes gets overlooked in our normal understanding of relief efforts.
So let’s picture what people think of when they think of disaster relief: Food. Medicine. Shelter. Yes. All good, necessary things. But what happens in the immediate days after a disaster? Depending on where you live, you’ve probably encountered a sign like this somewhere in your neighborhood:
Where do you usually see them? Civic buildings, generally: Stadiums, churches, sometimes–and schools. Schools are well-built; it’s the place to which parents will naturally turn if a natural disaster strikes during school hours, since they’ll want to see if their kids are okay.
But quite often, places of education get turned into shelters that may serve a population for weeks on end if families have no place to turn.
When we arrived in Haiti, a few days after Hurricane Matthew came through, schools had already been pressed into service. One chalkboard I saw had its last lesson on it, from September 28. When we left Les Cayes, there was no news as to when schools could go back into service.
The problem is, when schools are housing families, serving as places to stay safe and out of the elements, they can’t be used for their original purposes. In the Haitian earthquake of 2010, schools only started to reopen after a few months. And in Malawi, where I was last year, even after schools opened to regular classes, classrooms were still serving as shelters, so families had no place to go during the day, while school was in session; and school staff and communities had to work every morning and every afternoon to effect the change from classroom to shelter and back again.
The effect of natural disaster on a society goes far beyond the more acute needs of food, medicine, and shelter. It’s one of the reasons aid agencies like ours work so hard to get families back onto their home sites, so life can go on.