In Haiti, preparing for the threat of a new disaster
After heavy storms swept through their camp last September, the IRC delivered tarps and building kits to families who had had
their temporary dwellings destroyed. (Photo: Susana Ferreira/IRC)
It is hurricane season in Haiti and a country still struggling to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake faces the threat of a new disaster. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is working to reduce the risk of flooding and hurricane damage for the nearly 100,000 earthquake survivors we serve in some 30 camps in Port-au-Prince as well as for the residents of Leogane, a rural coastal town where the IRC also runs programs. We recently talked with Paola Valdettaro, the IRC’s economic recovery and development coordinator in Haiti, about how the IRC and Haiti are preparing for a storm-related emergency.
Q: How is the IRC preparing for a major hurricane? What are the main risks to the people we serve?
A: People are living in overcrowded conditions in makeshift tents, which puts them especially at risk during a storm. We have been working with local residents, their elected officials and the Department de Protection Civile (DPC, also known as the Civil Protection Department -- the Haitian government agency responsible for hurricane preparedness planning) to help them prepare. Together we're identifying the specific risks each community faces as well as each community's strengths. We're also looking at the needs of small children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and others who are particularly vulnerable in a disaster. In this way the IRC is helping communities to design their own action plans that build on what’s already working -- and to disseminate appropriate safety messages.
A major challenge is that many of the locations where we work are situated on steep slopes or in urban areas with little vegetation or soil, making them highly vulnerable to flooding. Already this summer we have seen flooding, destruction and some deaths. In one site where we work, 80 out of 150 families were affected by a recent storm. Between 20 and 30 tents were destroyed.
Q: What is being done to help protect the camps from flooding?
A: The IRC is hiring camp residents and their neighbors to clean out drainage channels and build new ones. Even so it’s a difficult challenge to stop flooding. We are running similar “cash-for work programs” in six sites in Port-au-Prince, employing about 2,400 people. All these activities help with disaster risk reduction. And for many people, the cash-for-work program has been their only source of income since the earthquake.
Q: How is the IRC helping the people of Leogane prepare for and recover from storm flooding?
A: Leogane is especially flood prone due to environmental degradation of its land. The soil has simply lost its capacity to absorb water. Every time there is a storm people completely lose their livelihood—their animals are killed and it becomes impossible to grow crops for food.
Our cash-for-work programs are helping people put food on their tables while we work with them to make local agricultural production more resilient through contingency planning, rebuilding irrigation systems and improving access to markets. We are also working with the Ministry of Agriculture to introduce new varieties of crops, train farmers in better agricultural techniques, and strengthen farmers’ organizations and cooperatives.
Q: How is the IRC working with the Haitian government on long-term disaster preparedness, beyond the immediate threat of the current hurricane season?
A: As just one example, through our work with the Ministry of Agriculture and the DPC the IRC has identified the six communities in Leogane most vulnerable to flooding. We are running a series of workshops in which community organizations and local authorities from each of these locations are working together on contingency plans. These plans include an early warning system, ways to protect residents and their livelihoods, how to assess damage and needs after a disaster has occurred, and how to organize distributions of emergency supplies.
International humanitarian organizations like the IRC will not be working in these communities forever, and this is a way to ensure that good disaster preparedness systems are in place along with the local capacity to use them.