Andrew Macalister, of the New Zealand Red Cross, in Suva
As the Pacific cyclone season winds down, Red Cross disaster preparedness programmes have again shown their worth in the region.
The roll call of cyclones - Yolande, Zoe, Ami, Beni, Cilla, Dovi and Eseta – that made landfall represented one of the Pacific’s worst cyclone seasons in recent times.
Yet, national Red Cross Societies in the Pacific, with the support of the International Federation, were able to respond quickly and effectively to the disasters.
“Thanks to a commitment to training local communities in self-reliance skills, workshops for National Societies, and through the provision of a network of shipping containers stocked with non-food relief items, the Red Cross was able to play a lead role in nearly all instances,” says Leon Prop, head of the Federation’s Pacific Regional Delegation.
Solomon Islands Red Cross representatives were on the first boats to deliver relief supplies and medical assistance to the remote islands of Tikopia and Anuta after they were battered by Cyclone Zoe. The Solomons and Vanuatu Red Cross conducted assessments after Cyclone Beni, and the Tonga Red Cross went on stand-by for Cyclone Eseta.
But by far the biggest response was that of the Fiji Red Cross to Cyclone Ami in January.
Carrying winds of up to 200 km an hour and depositing heavy rainfall in its wake, Ami caused wind damage and severe flooding in the north and east of the Fiji archipelago, as well as claiming 15 lives.
In the aftermath of Ami, communications with the capital, Suva, were lost for 40 hours and no national disaster response could be generated. But, during that time, local Red Cross branches in Labasa and Savusavu had already swung into action.
Each had a shipping container loaded with non-food items and, drawing on the training they had already received from Fiji Red Cross, were able to respond quickly and efficiently to the disaster.
“By the time we received the first communication in Suva one-and-a-half days after Ami,” recalls Fiji Red Cross disaster programmes manager Vuli Gauna, “the volunteers had already distributed their relief supplies.”
In fact, within the first 10 days, and before the Government relief programme had reached full capacity, Fiji Red Cross distributed aid to an estimated 50,000 people, drawing on other stocks of pre-positioned relief supplies located elsewhere in Fiji.
At the heart of the Red Cross response to Cyclone Ami were ‘black packs’ – a kit of blankets, towels, clothing, matches, soap, mosquito coils, first aid kit and camphor wrapped in clear plastic. The packs were prepared in advance of the cyclone season and stored in strategic locations throughout Fiji.
“I know how hard it is survive just a few days after a disaster before any form of help is mobilised from Suva or nearby places,” says Vuli. “It is quite a dream to have an early form of support in these isolated places.”
Vuli knows this from first-hand experience, having survived the devastating Cyclone Meli as a child on his home island of Nayau.
Only two years old at the time, the young Vuli slipped out of a sling being carried by his grandmother as the family fled the huge seas overwhelming their coastal village. He was saved from certain death when his uncle rushed back to rescue him, but his grandfather was not so lucky, becoming one of the 14 victims of Meli.
“That experience is why I still have the urge to work for an organisation like the Red Cross. I can understand the importance of disaster preparedness first-hand,” says Vuli. “What I hope is that local people will see Cyclone Ami as a learning experience for Fiji. I hope people will see how Red Cross disaster preparedness programmes were something that actually helped in times of need.”
Disaster preparedness is not an easy concept to promote, because its usefulness is only apparent when a disaster strikes.
“In the case of Ami and Zoe, the pre-positioning of relief supplies, and the commitment to training, meant the Red Cross was able to generate early and effective responses,” Leon Prop says. “We need to draw on such successes, whenever they occur, and make sure people understand why a rapid response was possible at all.”
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