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Southeastern European Experts Work Together in Disaster Preparedness

By Joe Ferrare
Special to American Forces Press Service

DUBROVNIK, Croatia, March 22, 2006 – Participants in a disaster preparedness conference here this week are breaking new ground in regional cooperation that may pay off in many ways, the conference's opening speakers said.

The Southeast Europe Disaster Preparedness Conference is a four-day event cosponsored by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the National Protection and Rescue Directorate of Croatia, and the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Initiative.

More than 75 participants, subject-matter experts and observers from 11 southeastern European nations have gathered within sight of the Dubrovnik's famous walled city.

Opening speaker Haluk Ilicak, deputy director general of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he has seen disaster lead to friendship and now wants to see friendship lead to less catastrophic disasters. "The new and deep friendship between Turkey and Greece happened after a big disaster in Greece and in Turkey both," Ilicak said. "We saw these two peoples, Greeks and Turks, run toward helping each other. Disaster created friendship, but now we have to work on friendship for preventing disasters or alleviating the effects of disaster.

"We need to cooperate within the region because the disaster types within the region are very similar," Ilicak continued. "We have mainly three types of disasters: forest fires, floods and earthquakes. If we can really enhance the cooperation between the countries, we can arrive ... (at) the most important point, which is being proactive. We have to not wait until some disaster happens and then react. We have to take all kinds of measures and make preparedness for disaster, to save lives and property."

U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Ralph Frank said such cooperation is where the United States can make a difference. "I think the real contribution we can make is that we have a cross-border perspective," Frank said. "As you know, there are countries in this area that have a history of not cooperating, of not working with each other. We can come in and do a conference like this, where we point out that the vast majority of disasters -- the kinds of things they have to prepare for -- are cross-border issues."

Working together to prepare for disaster can lead to working together for a better future, he added. "There's much, much more political benefit to what we're doing beyond just disaster preparedness," Frank said. "We're teaching people to work with each other, which will spread to other agencies in their governments and will have enormous political impact in reducing the tensions that have existed here for centuries."

Earthquakes have plagued the region even longer, noted German army Col. Gerhard Blaesing, director of the Marshall Center's conference. "Dubrovnik itself has survived several large earthquakes, including a major earthquake in 1667, which destroyed much of the city," Blaesing said. "And as recently as September 1996, a series of significant earthquakes struck in the immediate area. In addition, neighboring countries, such as Italy, Greece and Turkey have all long endured devastating earthquakes.

"Within living memory Skopje, Macedonia, and Bucharest, Romania, have experienced significant disasters," he added.

"The topic of this conference is, in one sense, painful but truly timely," added Frank. "We have witnessed disasters in the last couple of years: the Asian Tsunami, which led to the loss of over a quarter of a million lives; the earthquake in Kashmir that saw 80,000 lives lost and millions left homeless; and the United States has suffered numerous hurricanes and billions of dollars of losses.

"We've learned from these disasters that they do occur, and what we've also learned is the best time to ... respond to these disasters is, in fact, beforehand," Frank said.

Preparing also has practical benefits. One regional expert pointed out that experts in his country have determined that spending $1 in preparation saves $8 in disaster response.

"I think the folks you will be talking to this week will tell you that disaster preparedness is an expensive and time-consuming exercise," Frank said. "But the lessons learned and the best practices you are going to share this week are essential.

"With every disaster we get smarter, but we can't let this newly gained knowledge fade," he added. "We have to put it to work, and we have to analyze it, and we have to pass it on. Yes, I think we are now better at mobilizing support for disaster responses, but I think you would all agree with me that we have far to go, and that's what makes this conference so important."

(Joe Ferrare is assigned to the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.)

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