Mini Case Study: Build Change lays off Indonesian staff, then major earthquake hits
On September 30, 2009, at 5:16 PM, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake ruptured the Sunda Trench, offshore from Padang, Indonesia, killing over 1,100 people and causing 250,000 families to lose housing or work. That day the Padang office of Build Change, a San Francisco-based organization which designs and trains builders, homeowners, engineers and government officials to build earthquake-resistant houses, had just laid off several staff members due to a lack of funds.
Build Change had run up against the Catch-22 of emergency preparedness: Relief money flows fast, but preparedness money does not (especially during a global recession) even though it reduces death and devastation. All of Build Change’s staff members survived the earthquake. Now Build Change’s founder, engineer Elizabeth Hausler, who had opened the Indonesian office in 2005 in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, had to decide whether to call back the laid-off staff members to work immediately in the hopes that the money to pay them would follow suit.
Hausler decided to take the risk. “It was such an opportunity to increase our credibility by investigating the performance of the houses we provided technical assistance on,” Hausler said. “People are always asking us if our houses [and their inhabitants] have survived earthquakes and this was the first real test.” She called the Padang staff back and immediately sent them out to survey the damage. Meanwhile, she sent out an urgent fundraising letter to individual donors.
The Catch-22 of disaster preparedness held true: Post-disaster, the funds flowed. A newsletter appeal brought sufficient funds to cover costs for about a month and a half. The organization’s Asia Program Director immediately started talking to relief organizations and other donors and obtained medium-term funding.
Re-hired staffers found that the quake had done no damage to houses that had been built using Build Change guidelines, providing powerful evidence of the organization’s impact to share with prospective funders and others. Build Change was able to convince government officials to follow its recommendations for minimum standards for new and reconstructed houses, a major achievement.
Build Change’s gamble of rehiring its staffers paid off for the organization and the people of Indonesia. But it underscored for Hausler the need for emergency reserve funds and staff-and ultimately, the need for investment in disaster preparedness.
Last January, the earthquake in Haiti drew global attention to this need. Many of the estimated 230,000 resulting deaths could have been prevented through safer construction. Build Change is currently collaborating with communities and developers in Haiti to ensure that earthquake resistant construction methods are used in their rebuilding efforts.
Hausler also continues working to raise awareness about the importance of disaster preparation. “Assisting homeowners to build permanent houses requires a different and more patient mindset [than emergency relief],” she says. “It’s more like development than relief.”
Photo: Andrea Hsu/NPR