Emergency Preparedness and Recovery in Southern Serbia

Since May 2006, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), in collaboration with CHF International and Booz Allen Hamilton, has been implementing the USAID-funded Serbia Contingency Planning and Economic Security Program (SCOPES) in southern Serbia to obtain two objectives. The first is to work with municipal governments to help them plan for and respond to emergencies. The second is to mitigate inter-community conflict in vulnerable areas—those with large populations of unemployed displaced persons, youth, and former employees of state-owned enterprises—including the municipality of Vlasotince, in which unemployment is more than double the national average at a staggering 50 percent.

On November 25 and 26, 2007, heavy rains unleashed flooding throughout southern Serbia, affecting the municipalities of Babušnica, Bela Palanka, Dimitrovgrad, Doljevac, Lebane, Leskovac, Novi Pazar, Pirot, Tutin, and Vlasotince. The waters washed out bridges and roads, flooded homes and storage cellars, and posed a serious threat to public health. Drinking water sources and waterworks systems were contaminated, and in many affected communities, raw sewage washed into streets and homes, creating an imminent health threat. It was the region’s worst flooding in a decade.

Vlasotince, in south-eastern Serbia, was the most severely affected municipality with more than 1,000 homes damaged by the floods as well as at least 13 pieces of critical infrastructure, such as bridges and roads. In one particular settlement, Crni Marko, over 200 residents, mostly of the Roma minority, had to be evacuated to the local sports center until the flood waters receded. In total, damage was estimated at US$8 million.

Because a program team was already on site in Vlasotince when the flooding began, the team was able to conduct a rapid assessment and recommended a course of action for the communities that had been hardest hit within two days. To ensure an accurate needs assessment and effective response, the team worked closely with the Serbian Red Cross, municipal government, local utility companies, the Ministry of Interior’s Sector for Protection and Rescue, and the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Center for Social Work to triangulate needs against available relief supplies.

With the support of the U.S. Government, communities were provided with equipment to pump water and mud out of their homes and disinfect them to avoid a public health crisis. Assistance was targeted to the most vulnerable families—recipients of social welfare, the elderly, households with children, and people with disabilities and special needs. The pumping equipment that was donated will be used by the Serbian Red Cross in the event of future flooding throughout the region as well.

In addition to the pumping equipment, SCOPES was placed in charge of coordinating a donation of US$55,000 in humanitarian assistance to the municipality of Vlasotince thanks to a joint effort between USAID and the U.S. Department of Defense/European Command.

The November floods challenged the capacity of many communities to respond, including Vlasotince. Those municipalities that had been working with the program over the past year and attending its preparedness and planning trainings displayed better communication and more effective responses than those municipalities that had not. Two in particular, Novi Pazar and Tutin, were able to prevent injury to persons and damage to property and infrastructure thanks to the trainings.

Novi Pazar had had a history of persistent flooding in highly populated residential and commercial areas, but when the floods began on the morning of the 26th in Novi Pazar, the head of municipal disaster management received information that waters were rising and made a municipal decision to mobilize bulldozing equipment and deepen drainage canals within a half hour. Previous flooding and the ongoing SCOPES risk assessment had prepared the municipality to act immediately.

Likewise in Tutin, a combination of a standing disaster management body, an updated risk assessment plan and a well-developed communications system—all elements of SCOPES training—ensured a quick and effective response. In addition to a Disaster Management Team/Operational Flood Defense Team, which included representatives of businesses with heavy equipment, local media advised citizens to call a special phone number at the first detection of flooding.

To date, 29 municipalities have participated in SCOPES’ preparedness and planning trainings, and Vlasotince is a candidate for inclusion in 2008—to ensure lasting recovery.