Two years ago today the largest earthquake in over two hundred years struck Haiti. Mixed with the already impoverished conditions of the country, the powerful quake left 220,00 dead (including ELCA seminarian Ben Larson), 300,000+ injured and 1.5 million homeless. The immediate response was overwhelming in size and scope as relief agencies around the world began to respond and people began to give. In the ELCA alone more than 13 million was given through ELCA Disaster Response.

Yet, as the full extent of devastation became known, people realized that much more was at play here than the aftereffects of a major disaster. Part of the issue was that relief work is focused on bringing people back to normalcy as they put their lives back in order after a tragedy. In Haiti the “normalcy” prior to the earthquake was over 70% of the country living on less than $2/day, 86% of the people in the capital Port-au-Prince living in slums where half of the city had no access to latrines and only one-third had access to clean water. As people began relief (short-term) efforts they quickly realized their actions could also contribute to development (long-term) opportunities in the country.

Haiti relief efforts has become a watershed moment in how we understand disaster relief and international development as part of a holistic response. As we look back today in somber remembrance of those lost and the lives impacted by this tragedy, I believe it a fitting tribute to see what we have learned about creating better capacity to mitigate the effects of disasters and learning how to connect this work with longer-range development.

Disaster Risk Reduction & Preparedness

The issue of mitigating, or lessening, the impact of disasters is the focus of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Disaster Preparedness (DP). DRR can be understood as a type of development work where the goal is identifying potential disaster risks within an area and then implementing projects that would lessen these risks. In Haiti this would be insuring that new construction is earthquake-proof. Another example would be planting crops that need less water in areas prone to drought. DP is very similar to DRR and in some ways are synonymous. The difference is DRR works on altering the environment to lessen the impact while DP works to clarify and enhance the ability to respond. DP work can involve things like setting up evacuation routes, meeting places, communication plans and roles for times of disaster. In Haiti, it has been in the building of institutional capacity within the Lutheran Church of Haiti to effectively respond to disasters and manage that response. Together DRR & DP work to make sure less life is lost, fewer dollars in damage occur and the response is more efficient and timely after a disaster.

Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development

The other effect of Haiti is adding extra weight to the conversation about how relief and development interrelate. This work has been labeled Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development (LRRD). The goal here is to better understand how the short-term and long-term responses to areas of need can learn from and connect to each other. An analogy from running is to compare relief to a sprint and development to a marathon. Just like running where a sprinter will benefit from long-distance training and a marathon runner from sprint workouts, so will relief benefit from studying and interacting with development work and vice verse. In this way when either is implement they are always taking into account the perspective of the other. How will this relief project help create the foundation for future development work? How will this development project help lessen the impact of potential disasters?

An Example: Gressier Model Resettlement Village

One example from Haiti of this in practice is the Gressier Model Resettlement Village, to be located about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince (map). This is a project of the local Lutheran World Federation office in Haiti and is funded in large part by the ELCA. The village will provide 200 families new homes homes that are equipped with solar-panels and green waste management systems in order to not only lessen the environmental impact but also the financial impact on families. The building of each house will also leave a small portion of the work (like hanging doors and painting) for the families receiving the homes for local ownership and contribution. There will also be a community center and playgrounds for shared use and the center and community will be maintained and run by Village Association, established with the community as the construction process is taking place. Programs in alternative livelihood training and the creation of Community Based Disaster Preparedness/Risk Reduction hub further promote the sustainability of households and the overall resiliency within the community to disasters in the future. Those living in the community will also have the option to enroll in a Micro Credit System of the community in an effort to give economic stability.

Through projects like this, the wider work the ELCA engages in relief and development with local companions is benefiting from the lessons learned over the past two years in Haiti. As we pause to remember our brothers and sisters in Haiti in the midst of this Epiphany season, we remember that the revealing of Christ is an ever-renewed and ever-renewing act. In our trials, our failures and our successes, Christ accompanies us, shining forth to light our way, reminding us in the words of Pastor Livenson, president of the Lutheran Church of Haiti: “We will not be defined by rubble but by restoration, for we are a people of the resurrection.” Amen.

Please take a moment of silence and/or prayer at 4:34pm local Haiti time (EST), exactly two years after the earthquake struck.