Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Natural Disasters: Preparedness Pays Off

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Readiness is everything when disaster strikes.  In the Caribbean, where the annual six-month hurricane season is in effect through November 2011, readiness can mean the difference between life and death, between chaos and composure.

In late October 2010, when Hurricane Tomas savaged St. Lucia with 100-mile-per-hour (160 kilometers per hour) winds and driving rains, an entire island was tested. The effects of the storm were devastating, with widespread damage to crops, homes, water supplies, and infrastructure. Remote communities were unreachable by the lead disaster agencies based in the capital city of Castries, including the island’s National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) and the St. Lucia Red Cross.

Yet the rural, 1,349-person community of Fond St. Jacques—high in the hills of the larger agricultural community of Soufrière and more than an hour from Castries—was able to minimize the humanitarian impact of the disaster. A massive mudslide had taken four lives and left hundreds without a roof over their heads, and aid agencies were at least 48 hours away from bringing in vital relief supplies. After Hurricane Abby (1960) and Tropical Storm Debby (1994), Fond St. Jacques had also been left isolated—forced to cope with losses of life, livelihoods and homes without supplies or an organized community response team. The difference in the aftermath of Tomas was that hours after the disaster, the community had already initiated its own response.

Members of a community response team—formed and trained in 2009 as part of the American Red Cross/St. Lucia Red Cross’ Readiness to Respond project—swung into action.  Immediately after the hurricane passed, team members left their homes and did what they could to assist neighbors and account for the missing. They journeyed through dangerous terrain to reach their team’s established central meeting point, the credit union.  There they had pre-positioned relief and rescue equipment.  Based on an already-established plan, the team then coordinated relief responsibilities.

One team member worked in the initial hours and days to traverse much of the damaged territory, making assessments and identifying individuals who were severely affected. With the help of others, he secured multiple rope lines across a river running through Fond St. Jacques to evacuate persons in vulnerable situations and to afford other community members a safe passageway.  Two other community response team members initiated a slow journey down to Soufrière to notify government authorities of deaths and damage, while others performed search and rescue efforts that moved the elderly to safety on makeshift stretchers. The team leader managed a shelter in the local church that housed at least 300 displaced people.

This response was possible due to the disaster preparedness of the community response team—a process that involved training responders in first aid, identifying potential risks and getting community-wide agreement on the steps to be taken to plan and prepare for an eventual disaster. The Fond St. Jacques response team also had developed small-scale disaster mitigation projects and plans that iden-tified evacuation routes and emergency shelters.

The response in Fond St. Jacques shows that community resilience is a simple but highly effective approach to disaster management. Community response teams are cost effective too. The initial training costs about $2,500 per team, but the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, which came up with the original concept, estimates that every dollar spent on preparedness saves $4 in response.

Another highly proven and often simple prevention measure to improve resiliency in hazard-prone areas is building effective early warning systems. These relatively simple, low-cost systems—based on person-to-person networks rather than technology—allow messages to reach the most vulnerable who are without access to TV or radio. Increasingly, governments and agencies working in disaster preparedness are recognizing the importance of quickly getting information to the local level.

Community members are first responders, and in each village or city, capacity and resources already exist to help in the event of disaster. This means that the key approach to disaster preparedness is to engage in dialogue, enabling people to understand the risks of potential disasters. At the same time, people must be empowered to plan and organize so that they can save lives and protect households when disaster does strike. Enabling communities to independently handle the immediate effects, especially where governments lack the structure and resources to provide support, is critical.

Fond St. Jacques is not unique. Two other examples from the 2010 hurricane season in the Caribbean stand out for their effective use of community teams: the response to floods in the Dennery community in St. Lucia and the response to a flash flood in Bendals, Antigua.

While effective community-based preparedness and prevention efforts pay off, many hazards exceed the community’s response capacity. This makes it critical to establish partnerships with national disaster agencies and local authorities. In the case of Fond St. Jacques, when NEMO reached the community, an initial on-the-ground assessment already had been conducted and first-hand information provided to the national emergency organization.

In many at-risk communities, local teams respond to disasters without guidance, training, equipment, or a relationship with government disaster agencies. This is a challenge for long-term recovery. But what is encouraging is that community-based disaster management increases local capacity to independently address small disasters: a strategy that saves lives while building bridges between first responders and national authorities.

Tags: Kathryn Wade, Natural Disasters, Red Cross
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