Back 17.03.2011

Experiences from the Caribbean: A paradise where disaster is always close

The Caribbean is not only about beaches – it is also about economic, social and environmental challenges. I have spent the last 15 months working with Red Cross National Societies in the Caribbean to improve disaster preparedness of the area. Now being back at Gaia again, I would like to share some experiences with you.

In November 2009, I received a phone call from the Finnish Red Cross. They queried my interest in working as programme manager in a European Union funded Disaster Preparedness and Disaster Risk Reduction Programme in the English-speaking Caribbean. After carefully considering the pros, cons and practical implications with my family and encouraged by colleagues at Gaia, I decided to take up the challenge and move to the Caribbean, settling down in Trinidad and Tobago.

Most people, me included, associate the Caribbean with white beaches, turquoise oceans and friendly laid back people. The reality of life for the majority of the local population is, however, somewhat different. The Caribbean faces unique economic, social and environmental challenges.

Economically, most of the Caribbean states are islands with limited resources and seasonal character of employment opportunities such as tourism and agriculture, vulnerable to downturns in the economy. Socially, the Caribbean is faced by dramatically increasing violence and HIV/AIDS rates – one of the highest murder rates and the second highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world. Compounded with social and economic challenges, environmental challenges prevail.

Immediate start: the earthquake hit Haiti

The Caribbean is one of the most disaster prone regions in the world. Weather extremes such as hurricanes and extreme drought as well as heavy rains during the “dry season” and heavy flooding during the “rainy season” have become more common and more destructive. The islands lie in a seismic zone, and endogenic hazards, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, are constantly present.

The massive damage caused by the earthquake in Haiti on12th of January 2010 and the exceedingly slow process of recovery and rebuilding indicated once again that vulnerability really is a sum of underlying socioeconomic factors combined with physical hazards. It is estimated that 3 million Haitians were affected by the earthquake.

I was sent to Haiti immediately after the earthquake to assess and coordinate the immediate response efforts. The combined damage and needs assessments led to a deployment of an unprecedented number of Red Cross Red Crescent Emergency Response Units. These self-contained units included field hospitals, water treatment plants, logistic bases, portable operational centers, emergency telecommunication, infrastructure and sanitation supplies. In order to maximize the current assistance and rebuilding efforts, it is of utmost importance to integrate disaster preparedness and risk reduction components to build local capacity alongside with the rebuilding.

The recent earthquake in Japan revealed that not only the third world countries are vulnerable to disasters. As a society Japan is obviously much better prepared to the earthquake and as has more resources to deal with the consequences. There are, however, some similarities between Haiti and Japan. Human behavior in disasters tends to be very similar regardless the regions and countries we live in or the cultures we represent. That in mind it is important to realize that disaster preparedness starts from oneself and from simple practical things. Are you trained in First Aid? Do you have emergency supplies in your home? Do you know the muster point of your workplace?

Improving preparedness and testing it in real life

If capacity is the opposite of vulnerability, there is a lot of it in the Caribbean. Caribbean people are resilient, generous and willing to build and strengthen their communities, nations and the region. The aim with the disaster preparedness and risk reduction programme I worked on was to harness this capacity to make the communities more resistant to the effects of disasters.

Two outcomes were expected of the programme. Firstly, to build capacity within selected communities to prepare for, respond to and mitigate against identified vulnerabilities and hazards. Secondly, to strengthen the institutional capacity within the Red Cross National Societies to efficiently cooperate with key stakeholders in times of disasters.

The usefulness of our disaster preparedness programme was tested on the 30th of October 2010 as Hurricane Tomas lashed the Islands of Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Barbados survived with only minor damage but St. Lucia and St. Vincent were worse off. In St. Lucia heavy rains caused landslides and thereby extensive infrastructural damage. In St. Vincent heavy winds near 45 m/s destroyed almost completely the banana produce in the country. It was a devastating blow for a country where banana farming alone accounts for upwards of 60% of the work force and 50% of merchandise exports. Only few lives were lost but monetary losses throughout the Windward Islands were estimated at US$ 588 million.

Even though the hurricane caused considerable damage, it was encouraging to hear that our Community Disaster Response Teams performed effectively as first responders in the communities and provided support as auxiliaries to the authorities.

Back to Gaia again

Now being back in Finland again I feel fortunate having had the opportunity to work in the Caribbean and getting a glimpse of what is beneath the surface. I am still convinced that the long-term development cooperation work in the Caribbean should continue. There is, however, an increasing need to look beyond conventional development mechanisms and tools and create dynamic, tailored and innovative methods to advocate and mainstream disaster preparedness and risk reduction measures.

Although I already miss my Caribbean friends and colleagues, not to mention the weather, it is nice to be back at Gaia again. Gaia’s work relates very well to the humanitarian sector as we have several clients and a lot of experience and know-how from this field. Even more interesting is Gaia’s unique cross-sectorial knowledge base and capacity to tackle challenges in innovative ways. Having been away for a while and attained some perspective, I can confidently stand behind Gaia’s slogan Innovative Solutions for Sustainability.

IFRC basecamp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

© Tanya Wood / IFRC

Johan Lunabba is an expert in the fields of disaster management and disaster risk reduction and mitigation.