Catholic Relief Services: What We Learned from the Indian Ocean Tsunami


By Cecile Sorra

Even though Catholic Relief Services is an agency seasoned with more than 65 years' experience responding to disasters around the world, the Indian Ocean tsunami challenged our best thinking.

These challenges, however, paved the way to innovation and improved our ability to help people not only survive catastrophe but thrive despite it.

Shelter, Shelter, Shelter

After the tsunami, more than 1.5 million people, roughly the population of Phoenix, Arizona, were suddenly homeless. CRS had plenty of experience providing emergency shelter, but the tsunami highlighted the need for uniform, high-quality standards and structures that could be adapted to meet the various needs of people--from those who lost everything to those who needed minimal assistance. In addition, since the tsunami was caused by a major earthquake, any new structures needed to be earthquake-resistant.

"If we're going do this, we're going to do it right," says Pat Johns, director of CRS' emergency response team and a 35-year veteran of emergencies around the world. CRS' work in providing shelter earned the agency international recognition. CRS provided shelter kits--tools and material to build tents and temporary shelters--as well as "transitional," sturdier shelters meant to last over a longer period of time. The techniques and standards employed in the tsunami have since been codified in a CRS shelter guide as well as in the Sphere Project, an international set of standards for humanitarian organizations providing assistance during emergencies.

December 26 will mark the fifth anniversary of one of the world's most horrific natural disasters--the Indian Ocean tsunami. Learn more about CRS' work to leave the tsunami's survivors with a legacy of hope.

"We're drawing on some of the shelter experiences from the early days of tsunami," Johns says of the earthquake that struck Padang, Indonesia, and the typhoons that flooded Manila, Philippines, in fall of 2009. "In the case of Indonesia and the Philippines, they're both places in which we'll be doing significant recovery initiatives, mostly in the area of shelter."

Finding the Right People

CRS has long maintained an expert staff of emergency responders with a varied set of skills needed during emergencies: a generalist, plus experts in logistics, health and shelter. The entire team--most of whom are based in Nairobi, Kenya--was deployed to the Aceh province of Indonesia, which bore the brunt of the tsunami.

India and Sri Lanka also needed support, but covering Indonesia proved the most challenging. The region, predominantly Muslim and long isolated by civil war, did not have in place the usual network of partners--many of them sister Catholic organizations--that CRS usually works with. These partners are key to CRS' ability to respond quickly. Without them the agency had to shift to a fully operational mode, assessing survivors' needs and delivering relief supplies directly.

"We were really flying by the seat of our pants to find the right people and get them in there quickly," says Johns, who landed in Aceh within days of the tsunami.

Since then, the agency has started the process of establishing regionally based emergency teams made up of national staff, rather than relying on just one global emergency response team.

"That is a lesson we actually knew about before the tsunami, but the tsunami brought it to the forefront," Johns adds. "If we're going to tout ourselves as first-class emergency responders, we have to have qualified people identified beforehand that we can bring in."

Advanced preparation has since paid off. When an earthquake hit Padang, Indonesia, in fall 2009, the emergency team created as part of the tsunami response was deployed to the affected area within 48 hours.

Strengthening Emergency Response Teams

The tsunami also brought out the need to put additional experts on the emergency response teams. Among the added skills: protection of children and women, water and sanitation, and financial management.

In India and Sri Lanka, Church partners were adept at addressing the issue of protecting women and children, those whom the tsunami orphaned or rendered vulnerable. Emergency programs there automatically took into account how they would protect the most vulnerable survivors. But in Aceh, CRS had to go it alone. At the time, the global emergency response team did not have an expert on protection issues. It does now.

In addition to protection, CRS has bolstered our ability to provide clean water systems and sanitation during emergencies. Such needs are integral to providing proper shelter. In Indonesia, CRS turned to partners in other international agencies, namely the British organization OxFam. Today, however, CRS has its own expertise in water and sanitation.

Handling finances was another challenge that has since changed the agency's operations during an emergency. For example, in the initial days after the tsunami, banks in Indonesia were not operating. CRS had to handle large amounts of cash to purchase all emergency items, including food, water and shelter materials. Although short-lived, it was a precarious beginning.

The agency now has a financial expert on the emergency response team. It has also developed a financial manual to guide the agency during an emergency.

"We've developed a financial manual to be used in emergencies that presupposes that you're not going to have certain things available," Johns says. "You're not going to have banks functioning like they normally do, you're not going to have bank statements, invoices from certain vendors--often no electricity or telecommunications--all the things you're faced with in an emergency."

Affirming the Value of Partners

Though CRS learned from the tsunami where our skills needed sharpening, we also learned what we do well. Primary on our list of strengths is our partnerships on the ground. Our work is rooted in the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity: A higher level of government--or organization--should not perform any function or duty that can be handled more effectively at a lower level by people who are closer to the problem and have a better understanding of the issue. CRS has long operated alongside Church and other faith-based partners in emergencies as well as in long-term development programs.

It is these partners who often guide CRS' focus, particularly in assisting the most vulnerable and oft-forgotten. So it was the bishops in Sri Lanka and India who led CRS to the most marginalized people affected by the tsunami.

"In India, one issue that the bishops emphasized from the very beginning was the need to focus on the dalits, or lowest-caste Hindus," says Kevin Hartigan, CRS regional director for South and Southeast Asia. "The tsunami was an enormous blow to them--many of their family members died, family breadwinners were killed--but they didn't have evidence of 'owning' anything. And that was essentially an invisible problem to many other organizations."

As other agencies focused on restoring lost assets such as homes, boats, nets and other tools, CRS, led by the bishops, also implemented innovative programs to help those excluded from the system of ownership: the poorest of the poor.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

"We did a lot of work to try to help these people collectively gain ownership to some means of production, like fishing nets, boats and things," Hartigan says. "For many of them, it was the first time in their lives they'd ever owned productive assets, even a fishing net. So that was a great opportunity to empower some extremely poor and marginalized people and get them out of a cycle of bonded labor."

In Sri Lanka, the bishops again served a primary role in identifying those most in need of CRS' assistance, particularly in the rebuilding of homes. There, the most vulnerable were Muslim widows, who were more socially and culturally restrained from participating in income-generating endeavors. "The bishops said our first concern should be to get the Muslim widows in homes, particularly those who lost adult men--breadwinners in the family--in the tsunami," says Hartigan, who led the emergency and subsequent reconstruction response in Sri Lanka. "I think it was an excellent example of their cultural sensitivity and also their openness to helping all of the communities based on need, rather than displaying any kind of favoritism toward their own Catholic community."

Spiritual Recovery

Aceh is an overwhelmingly Muslim area of Indonesia, with only one small Catholic church in the entire province. In the absence of a Catholic church structure in Aceh, Indonesia, CRS had to begin forming new partnerships from the very beginning. "There were a lot of agencies that just did their own thing and kind of ignored the religious leaders," says Pat Johns. "You cannot overstate the importance of influencing communities through their religious leaders."

By working with Islamic religious leaders in Aceh, CRS was able to provide such items as prayer mats and veils for women, items fundamental to how Muslims pray and live. Later, during reconstruction, CRS also helped rebuild places of worship--often the only gathering place in a community--as well as markets, schools and roads.

"I thought their spiritual recovery was as important as their physical recovery," Johns says. "They had just experienced a traumatic experience that most of us could not even fathom. Helping with their spiritual recovery was also important."

As CRS' communications officer for Asia in 2004, Cecile Sorra accompanied our first emergency response team into Aceh, Indonesia, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Now a freelance journalist, Cecile continues to write about our work.