A lesson from Hurricane Maria: Communicate!

Dominicans say emergency communications need to be two-way

Marian Casey-Maslen

Executive director of the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, a group of more than 30 organisations dedicated to making aid more effective by improving communication and information exchange

One year ago, Hurricane Maria tore into Dominica, causing widespread damage, loss of life, and severe disruption to the country’s communication networks. Local and international responders worked to help around 65,000 people. But how did those people let aid providers know what they needed? When help arrived, did it meet people’s needs? Did Dominicans have a say?

 

Not initially, according to our recent study on communications during the Hurricane Maria response. Dominicans described initial silence from aid providers. They said they were frightened by the lack of information in the early days after the hurricane struck. The first people to make contact with them, they said, were amateur radio operators, civilian volunteers, and diaspora communities active on social media – groups that together form a vital network of first responders.

When information from national and international responders finally filtered through, people were frustrated by the lack of detail, inaccuracies, communication delays, and their many unanswered questions. Rumours, they said, were everywhere. What they had wanted to know, they said, was what assistance they were entitled to and how decisions were made.

 

Information can be one-way, piecemeal, too late, confusing, and in the wrong language – that leaves people in the dark about when, where, and from whom assistance is coming.

After mobile and internet connectivity was restored – a matter of hours for some areas, months for others – and after more direct means of communication were established by government and aid agencies, people told us they could gather better information, come together, seek support, and take part in decisions about rebuilding their communities. The 50 Dominicans we surveyed this April included government officials, journalists, and ordinary citizens. All were loud and clear about what they needed during emergency situations: practical information on how to adapt, both immediately and to long-term challenges, and greater openness and transparency from the government and aid agencies about recovery plans. Survey respondents also said they wanted to learn more about climate resilience policies and how those policies would impact practical assistance.

Surveys earlier this year by the NGO Ground Truth Solutions also revealed that Dominicans felt they had been unable to communicate easily with aid providers to raise concerns or complaints in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Only several weeks after the hurricane hit did aid organisations and the government provide telephone hotlines and recruit more field staff to visit communities and hear residents’ concerns and views.

Essentially, setting up two-way channels of communication between aid providers and the people who needed that aid was a low priority in the first three weeks of last year’s response. When people were later offered the chance to meet with officials and aid providers, they responded well, felt heard, and believed their feedback was taken seriously.

Improving systems

It’s widely recognised within the aid sector that an individual’s ability to survive and recover from disaster depends not only on receiving safe food, water, medical care, and shelter but also on access to timely, accurate information, re-establishing contact with family and friends, and being able to have a say in response and recovery efforts. Yet the experience of the people we spoke to in Dominica is all too familiar.

Those affected by disaster often face information blackouts, cannot make contact with friends and family, and have little say in what aid they receive. Information can be one-way, piecemeal, too late, confusing, and in the wrong language – that leaves people in the dark about when, where, and from whom assistance is coming. In the information void, rumours multiply and put people’s lives even more at risk. And aid falls short.

Every disaster is different, but as Dominicans told us, emergency communication has to be two-way. It’s high time to consider how international and local responders could achieve this and improve existing communications systems.

First, long before disaster strikes, make communicating with affected communities during crisis periods a priority and put in place systems to allow that. If information is not readily available at the community level right after disaster strikes and emergency communications channels are not in place, communication and engagement with those affected becomes impossible.

We need to see more funding dedicated to setting up early emergency communication systems linked to national disaster management authorities that are primed to respond. This would mean training and coordinating everyone necessary to communicate effectively with the population: telecommunication providers, media, humanitarian agencies, the government, and community groups.

Long before disaster strikes, make communicating with affected communities during crisis periods a priority and put in place systems to allow that.

Last year, the Dominican government’s leadership during the response effort and its involvement in coordinating meetings within communities helped provide accurate and relevant information; government officials were key in passing information through village councils and disaster management committees. This led to better cross-checking and verification of information and improvements to the quality and design of messages. Face-to-face communication is fundamental. Training and recruiting field staff within communities to establish contact and then set up regular meetings with officials must be a priority.

Social media is a ubiquitous and inexpensive way to reach people and interact with them during a disaster; responders could use it to coordinate and standardise messaging and avoid delays, duplication, and confusion. Telecommunications and technology providers must be involved in creating early emergency plans, warning systems, and simulation exercises so connectivity can be restored rapidly. The media also plays a vital role in sharing life-saving information but can be overlooked in response efforts. Journalists should be involved at all stages of emergency operations and receive training to raise awareness about disaster-related threats and improve accuracy of reporting in a crisis.

At the heart of effective emergency communication is accountability. This means giving people at risk of or engulfed in crisis the opportunity to have a say in the response effort. It means acting on people’s feedback and showing them what has been done, as well as communicating response and recovery plans clearly and regularly. It is a dialogue, a dialogue that must begin long before disaster strikes. As Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut remind us of the devastation large storms can cause, it’s not too late to make two-way communication a priority in the aid response effort so more lives can be saved in the future.