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Jakarta post

by Jennie S. Bev

The United States has its fair share of natural disasters and experience in handling emergencies because of them. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), this year alone 78 major disasters were declared. Some made it into the international news, traveling as far as Indonesia, while most of the disasters did not. 

In California alone, two major natural disasters were recorded in 2010: A severe winter storm and an earthquake. Smaller-scale disasters like local wildfires are considered minor and rarely make the national news, but remain equally frightening to those who experience them. Hurricane reports in Florida always make national television, occurring at least once every year. 

Newcomers from foreign countries might be astonished with the enormity and frequency of disasters. In the USA, property and auto insurance coverages are mandatory, which is understandable. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that Americans are used to experiencing disasters.

Tell an American about a natural catastrophe and they are likely the first ones to help. Former Playboy playmate Pamela Anderson quickly helped out Merapi refugees with the money she received for posing for a Playboy cover. Tom Cruise and Kim Kardashian were among the first celebrities expressing sympathy.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida were among the hardest hit. But, sometimes, the worst disasters become the best testaments of humanity and compassion, and the best test of an administration.

Recently, Indonesia was hit by floods in Wasior, a tsunami in Mentawai and Mount Merapi’s volcanic eruptions in Java. For a country sitting on the Ring of Fire, it is astonishing that only recently have major disasters been experienced simultaneously. It is unpleasant, but an unprecedented learning experience in managing emergencies and natural disasters. 

Columnist Bramantyo Prijosusilo brought to my attention the concept of Satu Keluarga, Satu Saudara (One Family, One Brotherhood), a concept associate professor at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Irfan D. Prijambada was also familiar with. Prijambada learned that the villagers of Banyuroto, a village in Magelang, were sheltering 2,700 displaced individuals affected by the Merapi eruptions. The idea first arose because Banyuroto doesn’t have a public field or building.

Prijambada, Prijosusilo and some local and national cultural icons such as singers Iwan Fals and Gus Mus have supported this effort and would like to see more families hosting Merapi refugees, or any other victims of natural disasters in Indonesia.

 A humble village has inspired the whole nation. 

While it sounds like a fresh idea, this concept is not new at all. Prijosusilo said, “The wisdom of Banyuroto was also practiced over 1,400 years ago when Prophet Muhammad’s followers, displaced from Mecca, were housed in the homes of the Anshar in the city of Yathrib, which later became known as the city of the Prophet.”

While the USA is secular, compassionate citizens have been practicing something similar, especially during a major emergency like Hurricane Katrina. Many non-profit organizations organized host family programs. Others acted upon their own inner callings without any intermediaries.

The ability of a government on federal, state and local levels is evident in how they implement policies to overcome the social and economic impacts of a natural disaster. A disaster recorded as an official “major disaster” by FEMA is used by administrations as a reference.

For instance, from May 20 to July 31, 2008, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin were declared “Midwestern Disaster Areas,” meaning residents were allowed to adjust their tax provisions.

Federal, state, and local tax bureaus weigh the damages caused by natural disasters directly and indirectly. In short, tax laws are adaptable to disasters. At the very least, they accommodate changes in: loss limitations, cancellation of debts, earned income tax credits, education credits, exemptions to families affected by disasters, recapturing of mortgage subsidies, retirement funds, recovery assistance distributions, limits on charitable contributions and standard mileage rates for vehicles used in managing disasters.

In the US tax system, the category “qualified dependent” is often abused by taxpayers due to its vagueness. In an emergency, however, such categories are oftentimes lifesavers. The tax credits are encouraging enough for taxpayers to help others with taxation assistance from the government.

Indonesia might have a long way to go to implement an emergency-conscious taxation system that is compassionate and accommodating to refugees of natural disasters. Yet it is something to be considered seriously and acted on, preferably right away.

The people can start helping one another and the government can start reinforcing the good deeds done by citizens with compassion-based policies.

Regardless of whether one is religious or not, there is no excuse for not helping others in need. We are one family and one brotherhood of humanity.[]

The Jakarta Post, November 21, 2010

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