We are living through a historic, global crisis and many wonder how we—especially the most vulnerable among us—will recover and rebuild afterwards. This month, we share a story from a former IAF leader which we hope will serve as an example of humanity’s resilience in the face of disaster. At the time, the IAF was new to working with grantees through disasters. Today, we continue to use the approaches that served us best—reaching out to community partners and listening to their challenges and ideas—to navigate how to best support grassroots efforts in the face of crisis, including the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In 1979, Hurricane David devastated the Dominican Republic, killing 2,000 people and leaving 200,000 people homeless. Steve Vetter, former Senior Vice President of the Inter-American Foundation, recalls it well. He happened to be visiting grantees in the days before the hurricane.
Memories of Crisis in the Caribbean
The newscasts were coming in that this was going to be a horrible hurricane. People were running around in a frenzy trying to stock up on things. I wanted to stay and weather the hurricane in the Dominican Republic along with our grantees, but at the urging of grantees and colleagues—“You’ve gotta get out of here. Just go-go-go, stand in line if you don’t have a ticket”—I got on the last flight out before it hit.
The IAF had never been a disaster relief organization, and then-president Bill Dyal asked whether we could come up with a “self-help approach” to setting people on the path back to community development soon after a disaster. Eight days after the hurricane, we received our first call for assistance. My supervisor, Bob Mashek, and I arrived in the Dominican Republic two days later for a round of listening sessions and needs assessments with local organizations at the hardest-hit sites.
People vividly recounted the tremendous roar, the high pitched howl of the wind, seeing pieces of pipe swept up and stuck in phone poles, overturned trucks, and large sheets of glass embedded spear-like in palm trees.
In many places, Hurricane David had completely erased the project work we had supported, not to mention homes, roads, schools, and churches. The randomness of the hurricane’s crazy-quilt, zig-zag movement through Santo Domingo and on up into the Cibao and into the poor, arid southwest left many wondering why some were spared and others crushed. For such a once-lush, green, tropical landscape, the darkness after David captured the imagination: a bleak, dark, muddy-quick-to-dust moonscape, in which not a green leaf appeared.
Through the 50-year regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961) and for some years after, the central government had responded to natural disasters unilaterally by deploying the military to dispense needed goods top-down to communities. Only the government had the power to convene different players. But the IAF had been tracking the incipient forms of social organization emerging after Trujillo’s assassination. By the time David hit, we knew every active group and nongovernmental organization (NGO) and what their capacities were—and had developed trust with them.
In the vacuum following Hurricane David, these organizations realized that they had to come together to search for social and technical innovation and form public-private partnerships focused on reconstruction. We followed the lead of local leaders like David “Scotty” Luther, who would later found the Instituto Dominicano para El Desarrollo Integral (Dominican Institute for Comprehensive Development). For the first time, he worked with other leaders to convene a series of national and international summits where representatives of the government, church, business, NGO, and international funder sectors came together to coordinate their response and propel social and technological innovation.
Civil society leaders also gave us a good practical sense of Dominicans’ needs: “Rice takes too long to germinate… beans will give a quicker turnover.” We quickly provided approximately $500,000 to each of the three major NGOs with the infrastructure and national reach to support reconstruction programs.
Cooperatives provided training in animal husbandry and distributed goats, chickens, and dairy cattle that immediately started feeding people with milk and eggs and proved an ongoing success. In some areas renowned for their fruitfulness, heavy rains had washed away the fertile topsoil, but in the Cibao and Southwest regions, some cooperatives that planted quick-turnover crops were able to feed their communities and earn revenue from restaurants in the capital. Our grantee partners found an effective technology for water filtration using sand and charcoal and a cement-based roofing alternative to rebuild simple shelters. They organized “work parties” in which neighbors helped neighbors rebuild. We were encouraged to see how this natural disaster helped communities previously riven by rivalries and distrust to come together.
In follow-up evaluations, many Dominicans expressed the greatest sense of accomplishment that nongovernmental organizations had finally earned “their seat at the table,” playing a key role in advancing more effective disaster relief.
The current COVID-19 pandemic crisis is a reminder of the importance of finding paths through the complexities in a time of disaster. My experience in the wake of the hurricane gave me an essential faith in the ability of our fellow humans to find solutions in even the most challenging of circumstances.
After the hurricane, I initially feared, “The Dominican Republic will never recover from this disaster.” Today, I recall that remarkable sensation: “We can get through this together—a better future awaits us.”