Banda Aceh to New Orleans: A Global Perspective on Local Recovery
The Satya Interview with
Photo by Cassandra Nelson
Disaster relief and recovery is nothing new for
Mercy Corps director Diane Johnson, who has been coordinating programs
in Afghanistan, Sudan
and post-tsunami Indonesia. What is new for Mercy Corps is working
in the U.S. and for Diane Johnson, in her hometown of New Orleans.
Almost one year after the devastating tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean,
Mercy Corps is applying some of their international expertise in the Gulf Coast
post Katrina. After checking on her home and family in New Orleans and before
heading back to her work overseas, Diane Johnson had a chance to speak with Sangamithra
Iyer about aid and the importance of empowering local people in their own recovery.
You have a wide range of experience in disaster and humanitarian crisis relief
elsewhere in the world. What are some lessons learned from these situations that
you feel are most important to share?
One is the need to have a government liaison to constantly pay attention to what
all different levels of government are doing. It is a full time job to find out
what the local policies are, how they are interfacing with the state and federal
government. That’s always a huge issue. Certainly in post-tsunami [Indonesia],
we had a full time person just paying attention to government relations and policies.
Also, people always go home sooner than we think. Normally, we only see small
percentages of people who stay in [shelters] for long. They go home as soon as
they can, even if it is going home to a mess or something that is less ideal
than before. People want life to start up again. It will be interesting to see
if that holds here in America.
Thirdly, we always make sure local communities have a big voice in their own
recovery. We find ways and space for people to organize, [voice their concerns],
and help them structure solutions. We typically give a lot of support and sometimes
grants directly through local organizations. We are doing the same in the Gulf
and finding that it seems to make the most sense. We are finding who naturally
is responding, between NGOs, church groups and community-based organizations,
and [try] to give them kind of a leg up.
Going back to the importance of having a good government liaison, reports seem
to suggest there has been a lot of disorganization and miscommunication between
government agencies, national groups and grassroots organizations in the Gulf.
Can you comment on the situation?
Because we haven’t seen this scale of a disaster in America before, those
coordination channels really weren’t worked out ahead of time. In an international
disaster there is some [structure] that people really respect. The United Nations
usually plays a coordinating role and the international NGOs, host country government,
and the donors will typically know the set up. There will be an agreed upon structure
for how we all pass information. But this has been a real question in the South.
The UN may not be the most appropriate [agency] to play that role, but then who
is? I know there has been a lot of work in Baton Rouge to set up a coordination
council. A lot of those efforts were driven by international NGOs because our
normal mechanism through the UN was not there, which really hinders the flow
of information and at times is going to make contradictory information.
What are some of the parallels you’ve observed between the situation
the Gulf and the situation in Indonesia last year after the tsunami?
When you look at the aerial views, some of the destruction, particularly in Mississippi,
looks very similar. The wall of water that rose 20-30 feet and washed miles inland
did similar damage. The real difference is in the death toll. In the tsunami,
there wasn’t enough prior warning and people didn’t know how to react.
You had over 200,000 people die. In the Gulf Coast, I believe the count is around
1,000 now, which is horrible, but there was more of a warning system in place.
Even though it didn’t work as well as it could have or should have, it
still kept an astronomical death toll from happening.
Because of the need for airlift capacity and logistical expertise, the need for
a heavy military presence initially to provide aid was also really similar. Some
of the things that needed to be done were not something local groups could do—airdropping
of food, evacuation of people, big engineering projects. The role of the military
is being discussed further in the U.S. Is that going to be a way in which we
structure the national emergency response rather than having it go through the
National Guard or some of the more normal channels?
Difficulties with layers of government are also extremely similar. In Indonesia,
they had a federal central-based government out of Jakarta, state province-wide
government, and then local officials, and the difficulty in getting those communications
channels open is very similar [to what we are seeing in the Gulf].
In post-tsunami Indonesia, the recovery was really very local and grassroots
led. It’s just around now—nine months [after the tsunami]—that
the big central blueprints and large government infrastructure projects are coming
through. Whereas two, three weeks after the tsunami, local people were returning,
rebuilding their houses, and picking up the pieces. So it will be interesting
to see [in the Gulf] how much and how far local communities go on their own,
versus how much they need or choose to wait for the centrally planned government
What will be interesting in both cases is how that reconstruction is done. Is
it going to be large contracts going to Halliburton and those kinds of companies?
Or is it going to be more of a local-based employment generation process?
In addition to your international expertise, New Orleans is your hometown. What
are some of your local concerns as a resident as well as a relief worker?
My biggest concerns are how much local businesses can do on their own and how
fast local government structures and schools can open up. That is going to make
a big difference for how soon people can return and fully engage in their lives.
I was one of the lucky ones and my home is okay. My concerns are with my family
who are there. I am going to go down again this week to take a look and let my
family decide when it will be okay to return—when they can get their livelihood
It’s always about economics. It’s less about the physical space to
live than about being able to make a living. New Orleans is a large tourist town
with a small amount of jobs unrelated to the tourist industry, unless you are
a professional. Are the lower and lower middle classes going to be able to return
and have any kind of livelihood? That’s the biggest concern I have.
With Bush’s suspension of the Davis Bacon wage determinations,
it seems like it is going to be the opposite of the New Deal, in terms of job
Yes. There is going to be a big of need for employment locally. Do we facilitate
that by giving jobs to local people or is it more of a centrally controlled heavy
presence that just kind of does it quickly and then leaves? That can have very
long-term effects on who is able and who chooses to come back to stay.
It would be very strange and very sad to have New Orleans be like a movie set,
where there is a certain part of town that people visit, but it not be a real
city again. I think there is a possibility of that.
Like many other disaster situations, poor people are often the most vulnerable.
While aid often addresses immediate needs, do you find that rebuilding efforts
fail to address the root causes of these vulnerabilities?
Well, that’s the trick to doing good aid work. When you go in, you want
to build back better or try to address the real root causes by helping the most
affected lead their own recovery.
That is the difference between what we would consider “truck and chuck”—just
dump supplies on people—and transition programming—getting people
involved in their own relief so that they can lead to recovery. Eventually it
ends up being a better development program.
New Orleans is the kind of town that we [should] have gone in years ago to do
health and education programs, like we do in many parts of the world, because
the standards were so below what they should have been. But we didn’t.
Now there is a real opportunity, if done correctly, to not just give relief to
people but involve them in this transitional period.
[Mercy Corps is] not so much focused right now on meeting basic needs. We are
looking at economic programs and how we can get the banks to give loans to lower
income people and how we can help local communities help salvage parts of their
communities or houses that might be culturally or historically relevant so they
can rebuild with those pieces or sell them to some preservation society. Those
are the kinds of programs Mercy Corps is working on right now, but all of those
things require some sort of government approval, and it’s a real labyrinth
trying to find the right people to sign off on these things.
There are a lot of decisions and policies being made by the federal government
right now regarding reconstruction. Can you comment on this?
I was watching the news this morning and there is very little on the hurricane
now. We are back to terror alerts, Iraq and the things that keep everybody on
the edge of their seats with fear. It is at such periods, when people stop paying
attention, when a lot of these longer-term policies get changed and they are
no longer in favor of local communities.
Knowing that and having seen that pattern in countries all over the world, part
of the role in being an international aid agency is to keep those kinds of issues
on the radar and to keep community groups and our representatives in Washington
talking about them.
There are potentially a lot of things getting passed in the name of doing better
next time in emergencies, but it may not address what is really needed—local
It is crucial to keep sustained attention on what kind of structural changes
happen at a state and federal level over the next six months that are possibly
ignoring what the local level wants and needs. We need to make sure they are
in favor of real people.
As you mentioned, there is often an initial attention and outpouring for immediate
needs, but not enough follow through for long-term needs. How is the situation
in Indonesia one year later?
The recovery there is amazing in terms of what it looks like now compared to
what it looked like after the tsunami. Obviously there are still huge needs.
They are just now getting to the heart of reconstruction of roads and bridges
and schools. There is a huge amount of local capacity developing.
We are also working on programs for arts and culture—having local culture
festivals. Most people don’t need therapy, they just need some kind of
semblance of normality to process as a community. We do a couple of these “softer” programs,
coupled with the reconstruction. In New Orleans that will be needed as well.
People are going to need Jazz Fest next year, even if it seems to be frivolous.
I think it is really important to do those kinds of things.
What can we expect one year from now in the Gulf?
I really don’t know. I think that local businesses and community groups
will do a lot more on their own, but there are many places where they can be
totally overrun. There are many unknowns, but I believe that in the next couple
months the situation will become clearer. But there will be long-term needs.
It is America, and it [may be addressed] faster than in some countries just because
the resources are there and because there is a political risk.
If there was one concern you’ve heard from displaced residents
could share with our readers, what would it be?
I think people want access to good information. The one thing I’ve heard
from people in New Orleans and the surrounding area is the real lack of solid
information on a regular basis. The broad pictures people are getting on CNN
and Fox are not really telling the whole story. People are feeling they don’t
have good access to information to make decisions.
I’ve learned in my job not to trust the media. At a time when they said
you couldn’t get to New Orleans, I drove in, easily. But that’s not
everyone’s initial reaction—to do what you are told not to do. So
there is an [uncertainty] of what’s going to happen and how it will affect
To learn more about Mercy Corps visit www.mercycorps.org.