Every year, cyclones sweep across the Caribbean, causing huge destruction. People in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, are hardly prepared. NGOs are trying to change that using a system of maps and flags.
It’s early June of this year, in the hinterland of southwest Haiti, a remote region where few people, let alone cars, pass. Thick, dark clouds hang low above the hills as a brisk wind stirs the manes of a few scrawny horses. The animals stand stubbornly still but farmers tug at their leads, guiding them over a trail through a small river, past makeshift huts nailed together to a small yard with walled houses.
There, a team of workers from the German NGO Johanniter International Assistance is working together with about a dozen Haitians to help them better prepare for natural disasters. Over the next two days, the group will create emergency evacuation plans. There isn’t much time. The dark, heavy clouds are a sign that the next big storm is just around the corner. June is rainy season on the island, and the first hurricane is likely to strike soon.
It was just three years ago that a massive earthquake shook the country to its core, devastating everything in its path. The size and dimension of the tremor couldn’t have been predicted, but tropical cyclones lash the region every year, beating down on what are often makeshift homes made of wood planks and plastic sheets. Only about two percent of the country’s area is forested, and the soil is highly unstable. That means torrential rains wash away the already degraded land, triggering landslides along the hills and slopes.
Huge task, small force
It is a recurring trend that plagues the entire country, every year. According to a 2012 poll conducted by German Agro Action (Deutsche Welthungerhilfe), most locals believe God willed natural disasters- and that may help to explain why many are so poorly prepared for them. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore through the Caribbean and caused Haiti to declare a state of emergency. But that didn’t grab the world’s attention, which ad shifted to New York where Sandy also touched down and caused a major blackout.
“I lost my five cows and my garden was destroyed,” says one 65-year-old Haitian woman at the workshop. Sandy took nearly everything she had, and before that it was Hurricane Isaac that wreaked havoc.
Shortly before Sandy and Isaac barrelled through the region, the Local Civil Protection Committee, or CLPC, was founded to help protect against natural disasters. But the organization barely had time to set up before the first disasters struck.
“Sandy and Isaac were the first two simulation exercises, but they were real life experiences,” says project coordinator Birgitta Hahn. “The CLPC workers went from door to door with megaphones to warn the locals of the coming storm and to direct them to the evacuation points. And after that they toured around looking for injured people to inform the Red Cross.”
The problem is, the CLPC is simply too small, and the task at hand too large. The group is made up of 25 people and their area of operation includes the Gros Morne, a rural municipality in the north of the country. That district alone is home to several settlements, each of which is made of five to 50 homes that are scattered among the mountainous region. That’s why civil defense groups are being set up on a village level and locals provided training to help themselves.
Pinpointing and protecting water sources
Back to the yard, where the Haitians have been divided up into two groups. Jean Metuschelah kneels in front of a huge piece of white paper and sketches a map of the area that includes the river and a few houses.
Verne Mackenson stands next to him and watches closely. The Haitian works for Johanniter, and he requests his fellow countryman to mark the local school building on the map with a star. “Stars represent buildings that are important for the community. It can be a school, a latrine or even a source of water,” he says.
That’s a lesson that was learned during the 2010 earthquake which triggered a landslide that buried an important water source. “Here in the mountains, there are no groundwater pumps and no water basins,” says Mackenson. “You collect rain water and rely on the river. But then, that one source of water was completely destroyed. People in the area were completely dependent upon it - they used it to get water for everything from drinking to cooking.”
They still haven’t been able to locate a new water source, and that’s why protecting the existing ones is so important. By marking them on the map, it becomes more clear which ones are at risk of being buried during the next hurricane.
Charts, maps, flags and color codes
The maps also allow researchers to recognize where heavy rains are likely to flood latrines, which often sends waste water flowing into rivers where locals collect water and, as a result, contract diseases. When the sketch is finished, another local villager transfers the drawing to a larger, yellow piece of paper.
Meanwhile, the other group is filling out a chart: which hamlets belong to the settlement, and how many schools and churches are there, and where? How much land has been ordered?
While a woman writes the information on an orange-colored chart, Verne Mackenson explains that it will be later compared with the other group’s map. The method will thus help ensure that the map and its corresponding information is complete.
The Johanniter NGO workers researched several statistics before beginning the workshop, from the number of malaria and cholera cases to the areas that have already witnessed landslides. As the three-day workshop comes to a close, one thing has become clear: it will be crucial for the local participants to decide on a central evacuation point, because many in the area could easily be buried alive in their huts if there is another landslide.
The map describes evacuation routes, and flags indicate where masts will be installed. In the future, flags of various colors will serve as the messengers in an early warning system. Sandy and Isaac proved that tropical stroms move much faster than the local civil protection committes, which don’t have nearly enough time to travel to the furthest corners of Haiti to alert every family.
That is why, in the future, individual disaster protection officials in local villages will be informed directly when a hurricane is bearing down. They will gather at a central point to hoist a series of flags across hilltops so that even neighbors a few hills away can see that a storm is on the way - and a special color code will help . “The yellow flag goes up 72 hours before a hurricane is expected to touch down,” says Verne Mackenson. “Then it’s orange 32 to 24 hours before it arrives. And when the hurricane is less than 24 hours away, you have red,” he explains.
“Red means that everyone should bunker down in their houses or even better, gather at the evacuation spot, and nobody can go out after that. When the hurricane has passed, the green flag will signal that it’s okay to go out again but you still have to be careful because there is still the danger of landslides.”
It’s now September 2013, 3 months after the natural disaster course. In that time, 3 tropical storms have passed through Haiti, one of which - Chantal - was expected to grow larger in size and strength. “The local team was preparing for a catastrophe,” said the proejct coordinator. “But the rains weren’t any worse than they usually are during the wet season.”
Jean Metuschelah and his neighbors have not yet been able to test their evacuation plans in Haiti’s hinterlands to see whether they work. But the hurricane season is not over yet.