Relief organizations and U.S. government agencies that handle disasters are feeling the pressure of a unique pileup of catastrophic events. Besides the Mexico earthquakes, there was a landslide killing a thousand people in Sierra Leone. And in Bangladesh, half a million Muslim Rohingya refugees have poured in, fleeing violence in Myanmar.
All this has happened as the world was already grappling with the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II: 20 million people at risk of dying from starvation and disease due to conflicts and drought in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.
USAID, the agency that delivers U.S. assistance to poor countries, has deployed six separate disaster response teams including teams to help displaced people from Syria and Iraq. “This is only the second time that we’ve had six teams mobilized at once,” notes Alex Mahoney, a top official with the agency’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, or OFDA. The last time was during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. “So yes, it’s unusual,” he says.
USAID’s OFDA says the staffing demands of Ebola combined with several other disasters at the time, including the earthquake in Nepal and the Syrian refugee crises, “stretched OFDA to the breaking point.”
“We didn’t drop the ball on it, but it really took everything we had,” says former OFDA official Jeremy Konyndyk, who is now a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “We pushed our staff farther and for longer than was sustainable.”
And in the aftermath, he and other officials concluded that this was unlikely to be a one-time occurrence.