When Disaster Strikes

2014 was a year of natural disasters and calamities for India. Various parts of the country were affected by cyclones, floods, overflowing rivers, landslides and more. How do NGOs working in this area prepare to deal with disaster situations? What does the situation on the ground look like? We spoke with Murali Kunduru, Senior Manager – Disaster Risk Management and Lead of Plan India Emergency Team (Roster) for a professional’s perspective.

How soon do you decide to intervene when a disaster hits an area?

Five years back it would take us 3-4 days to reach a disaster hit area. However, in the past couple of years we have been able to conduct a needs assessment on the ground and step in within 24 hours. When Cyclone Hudhud hit Orissa on the 12th of October, for example, we were able to intervene quickly.


What prompts your decision to start work?

We operate on a humanist principle – our aim is to reach affected and needy families/communities and provide them with what they need. We provide them with whatever support they need at the time – it is not necessarily always food. It could be rescue services, information, evacuation, medicines…whatever they require.

We follow a ‘no regrets approach’. If a disaster is predicted to hit an area within the next 72 hours, we are ‘in’ the field in advance with our teams ready. Whether the disaster strikes or not, we make sure we are prepared to respond immediately.

Technology plays a major role in our decisions. We are able to classify the nature of the disaster – Category 4 strength or Category 3. Cyclone Hudhud was Category 4. It was estimated to be travelling at 210 kmph (kilometers per hour), and was capable of causing devastation in half an hour’s time. Once we know the scale of possible damage, we can act as needed. With Hudhud, evacuation was a priority, not just food. After the cyclone has passed, people can go back to their homes. The important thing is to move them away from the storm.

How was the situation in Kashmir different from Uttarakhand or Orissa?

Kashmir’s level of preparedness was low, the area had not experienced such intensity of rains in over a hundred years. People were not evacuated in time. Our priority was to start evacuating people.

Can you describe the ground work you do before deciding to run an intervention? How do you assess what the most urgent need is?

Each situation varies. When Phailin hit, I was in Poonch myself. I deployed available staff to the area as soon I could.

We preposition stocks that could be distributed to people in the area. This includes non-food stocks like water and sanitation kits, wash kits, bed sheets, toothpaste, utensils, medicines and other supplies. We have supplies of water purifier tablets (one tablet can purify upto 10 litres of water), baby food and dry ration with us.

Timely Needs Assessment is essential to ensure that we have an accurate picture on the ground. Time accuracy is equally important. We conduct a Rapid Needs Assessment within the first 72 hours to determine the most pressing need. In coastal areas for example, people are better prepared for disaster situations like storms. Often they have their own supplies of water tablets which are urgently needed.

We also work with local populations, community groups and NGO partners on the ground to ensure that we deliver all required services to the nearest possible centres.

The needs could be related to shelter, nutrition and eventually livelihood options. Communities often need more support in the long-term when they are rebuilding their lives. We support them for three to six months after a disaster. Most people look to volunteer within the first 10-15 days.

Children’s issues come up in this period. Children tend to be the worst affected by disasters, especially those who have lost their parents or homes. We find that traffickers operate in these areas at the time, so protection of children becomes a priority. Children suffer from traumatic stress; we provide counselling and moral support to enable the children to articulate their fears and doubts. We provide help in fulfilling their needs for education, play areas and more.

Working with volunteers

We have to be careful in screening volunteers, also keeping in mind their own safety. Our volunteers are put through a rigorous training process and are accompanied by senior staff on their first few trips to the field.


What are the most useful donations and the least useful donations at the time of a disaster?

I’d like to start with some don’ts:

  • (Heavily) Used clothes are not the best idea: We treat the beneficiaries with dignity and respect, so do ensure that the clothes sent are of a decent standard.
  • We discourage people from sending us cooked food like rice, pulaos and dals. The reason for this is the fear of contamination – we have to transport the food and distribute it within the first 24 hours. The same applies for supplies like milk powder. We’re often not sure of the quality of water used to manufacture powdered milk, and don’t like to pass the risk on to the target population.

Useful donations:

  • Money: This enables us to purchase whatever the community might need at the time. We also communicate what your money was used to purchase and how many families it reached.

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