Our Past

Learning from Disaster—A Recent History of Emergencies

Catholic Relief Services was created by a disaster—a man-made one called World War II. Our first decade focused on supporting victims of that war with food, clothing, housing and, in some cases, moving them to new countries for a fresh start.

Since then, CRS has responded to countless disasters, from small floods to major earthquakes. Our focus has grown beyond providing just the essentials. We bring not only short-term relief but also long-term improvement. We now know that educating people to become sustainable on their own is key to more safe, healthy and resilient communities—and we’ve used some of the largest disasters in history to teach us how. Following are a few examples from the last nearly 25 years.

The Rwandan genocide took the lives of some 800,000 people in the spring of 1994 and led to deep soul-searching at CRS. We’d been working in Rwanda since 1960 on a variety of aid projects that all seemed successful. But something was clearly missing. If we had not mitigated this hatred. That soul-searching led us to what we call the “justice lens”—a way of looking at our work based on Catholic social teaching and the rights of all people to live in just and peaceful societies. It brought into focus the need to not just give material aid, but to also redress grievances and imbalances to foster healthy relationships. We used this lens as we designed post-genocide programs in Rwanda that brought together perpetrators and survivors to help them build a more just and prosperous future.

When Hurricane Mitch’s 180 mile per hour winds hit Central America in October 1998, dumping a year’s worth of rain in 3 days, more than 10,000 people died. Taking lifesaving measures and addressing people’s immediate needs was necessary but not sufficient. We wanted to ensure that we would address the iniquities that were the foundation of poverty in the area. Working with Church and local partners, we helped communities organize so they could advocate for their own needs.

An earthquake triggered the massive Indian Ocean tsunami the day after Christmas in 2004. The death toll topped 200,000. Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India were especially hard-hit. We launched immediate help and a 5-year response plan, engaging survivors and partners as we set about rebuilding markets, homes, water systems, transportation infrastructure, schools and hospitals. Innovations in shelter, water systems and sanitation methods led to international recognition by peer organizations and governments.

The 7.0-magnitude Haiti earthquake hit in January 2010, destroying large sections of Port-au-Prince, killing an estimated 230,000 and leaving some 1.5 million people homeless. CRS was there immediately with food, shelter, water and other help. Even amid the unprecedented emergency response, planning began to build back better. CRS has helped thousands of Haitians in the years since the earthquake and continues to work to overcome obstacles in the way of better permanent housing. We have been in Haiti since 1954 and will stay with its people, dedicated to their progress.

 In November 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest storms ever recorded in the Philippines, made landfall and quickly traversed this nation of islands, killing more than 6,200 and leaving some 4 million homeless. Working with the local Church and Philippines Caritas, we quickly began distributing tarpaulins as well as food, water and sanitation supplies—the first step in a 5-year program to build back safer. CRS programming included job training, improved sanitation and storm preparedness.

Learn more about CRS’ emergency response and recovery programming. 

CRS in Action

Surprise Connections

Find out about the surprises we uncovered when the Catholic community in the United States welcomed thousands of Cuban refugees in the 1960s.

The Here & Now

Storm Hacks: Reducing Disaster’s Impact

A plastic bag.

A rice seedling.

A raised foundation.

A megaphone.

A portable garden.

A row of trees.

A reinforced roof.

A mobile phone.

A portable stove.

A plastic soda bottle.

A wheelbarrow.

The items are diverse, but they all have something in common—disaster risk reduction—which CRS applies around the world to reduce a disaster’s impact and ease the recovery process.

In Bangladesh, cyclones are an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. Powerful enough to destroy the largest homes, the storms can devastate a poor family by leaving them homeless with their lives in tatters.

CRS educates the most vulnerable people about disaster risk reduction techniques that reduce the impact of severe storms. This includes everything from putting important documents in sealed plastic bags to storing food in waterproof containers—and placing it all in high, but accessible places. Other techniques include using a moveable stove that can be transported to an evacuation center—and back again—so the stored food can be cooked. Building a raised foundation keeps possessions safe from rising waters, and reinforcing a roof means it survives intense winds. And equipping community members with megaphones to announce an approaching storm can save lives.

In the Philippines, people seeking inexpensive housing around Manila crowd their homes in low-lying areas vulnerable to rising water and storms. CRS helps community members travel through these communities with wheelbarrows collecting garbage that otherwise would clog the rudimentary drainage systems, making floods worse. The income they earn gives them a cushion that helps their own recovery when a storm strikes.

In India, the agricultural practices of rice farmers have been developed over generations of dependable monsoon rains. But those rains are changing. Some places aren’t getting enough; others are getting too much. CRS works with agricultural scientists to find varieties of rice that can survive erratic rains as well as prolonged inundation during floods. By planting these new varieties, farmers will be able to withstand the shocks of changing rain patterns.

Households learn to plant vegetable gardens in cement sacks that can be picked up and moved to higher ground during floods. They are taught how to tie together empty plastic bottles to make lifesaving flotation devices, and a committee developed an evacuation plan for the community when storms and floods are on the way.

In Ethiopia—and many other places throughout Africa—disaster may mean not a storm, but a drought. CRS works with farmers on the best way to adapt to the changing climate. Planting a row of trees can help preserve precious top soil, while other measures that restrict the run off of infrequent rains help maintain moisture levels, saving precious crops.

Farmers also use cell phones to pass along information about weather patterns so they can decide how to plan for the coming season, discuss what kinds of seeds to use and what type of harvest to expect.

Disaster risk reduction is probably part of your life and you don’t even know it—from building codes that ensure your house stays secure during a storm, to storm drainage systems that keep your neighborhood from flooding.

We know disasters are going to happen—but with the right preparation and a little ingenuity, they don’t have to be disastrous. That’s what disaster risk reduction is all about.