Thursday, June 3, 2010

21st Century Disaster Relief

I was listening to a report on NPR Radio this morning talking about people in Haiti who still are living in lean-to shelters on a median strip of a highway, using inadequate portable toilets that they have to cross traffic to use, and that fill up before the day is out.

By an odd coincidence, I am in the middle of listening to an audio book of the novel 1906, set in San Francisco in the days leading up to, during, and following the great quake.

Now, in terms of the actual earthquake and its immediate aftermath, those in power in 1906 San Francisco had far fewer excuses for their lack of preparedness than those controlling the government in 2010 Haiti. After all, San Francisco was less than 40 years past its last major quake, while Haiti's most recent quake had been some 200 years before.

But as far as providing food, shelter, and sanitation, among other things, I think we could be doing better by now. This is not one of those "if we can send a man to the moon" arguments that are, I admit, quite popular with people of my generation (I was twelve when Buzz Armstrong put his footprint in the lunar dust). It is an opinion based on things I have read recently about people who, for reasons other than disaster relief, are doing some rather amazing things in these realms.

Like the company in Malaysia that converts shipping containers to motel rooms. Or the Dutch company Spacebox, who builds stackable module to create housing units. There are companies working on low- or no-water sustainable toilets and water purification systems. And there are a lot of companies and researchers working on the problems of preserving or creating food under harsh conditions.

The problem, I think, is that many of those who control disaster aid, those who are considered "experts," are stuck in a certain mentality. It reminds me of an architect, someone who specializes in very small houses, who wanted to bid on a low-cost housing project. He had many excellent ideas on how to make small spaces liveable and save time, cost, and materials without compromising quality. But when he got the specs, he found that the bid called for minimum 1200 square-foot, three bedroom houses.

Convention can get in the way of real solutions. When you start with the end in mind, trying to think about what's needed instead of the ways things have always been done, you sometimes find that solutions that are faster, better, and cheaper really are available, especially at the level of technical and creative sophistication we find ourselves in right now.

I don't have all the answers; I don't think anybody does. But what is more important for those in charge is much more basic: ask the right questions. And don't just go to your usual experts for answers.