WDR 2005 - Chapter 2: Run, tell your neighbour! Hurricane warning in the Caribbean

From August to November 2004, nine hurricanes raked the Caribbean. At least 2,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Economic losses totalled over US$ 60 billion. Haiti suffered by far the greatest human toll. Yet Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, while hit very hard, suffered relatively low death tolls. Why? Much of the difference comes down to knowledge and warning. The chapter reveals that local organization and awareness are as important as timely, accurate hi-tech warnings.

During 2004, Cuba proved how effective it is in protecting human life from windstorms. When Hurricane Charley hit in August, 70,000 houses were severely damaged and four people died. When Hurricane Ivan swept past a month later, over 2 million people were evacuated but no-one lost their lives.

Cuba has a world-class meteorological institute, with 15 provincial offices. They share data with US scientists and project storm tracks. Around 72 hours before a storm’s predicted landfall, national media issue alerts while civil protection committees check evacuation plans and shelters. Hurricane awareness is taught in schools and there are practice drills for the public before each hurricane season. Most adults are reasonably well educated, so they understand what officials and forecasters tell them.

With the storm 48 hours away, authorities target warnings at high risk areas. Local officials check that vulnerable people can evacuate. Finally, with 12 hours to go, everyone who needs to be evacuated should be in shelters, homes must be secured, windows boarded up and neighbourhoods cleared of loose debris. These are the legal requirements in Cuba, and they were enforced during Charley and Ivan. According to Audrey Mullings, a Jamaican Red Cross volunteer: “The best thing to learn from Cuba is that you don’t need a lot of money to make things work.”

In Jamaica, the prime minister went on national radio and TV the day before Ivan hit to remind people that the storm had just killed 39 in Grenada. Jamaica’s meteorology office benefits from US forecasts which predicted where the storm would make landfall to within 50 km. Volunteers from the Jamaican Red Cross and Parish disaster committees issued street warnings, called residents by cell phone, checked shelters were ready, watched rivers for signs of flooding, and borrowed private vehicles to evacuate the blind and disabled.

Since Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, there have been great improvements. The country’s disaster preparedness office has mapped flood and landslide hazards, developed community-based warning systems and maintained a year-round public awareness programme. June is ‘disaster preparedness month’, during which awareness days, practice drills and displays are organized. These factors helped keep the death toll during Ivan down to 17.

Dominican Republic shares Hispaniola island with its neighbour Haiti. When Tropical Storm Jeanne dumped record rains during mid-September, rivers overflowed – 23 Dominicans died, 40,000 were rescued and 2 million were affected. The day before, the meteorological institute issued a warning and maps showing the storm’s likely path. News quickly reached even the smallest settlements. Radio stations relayed the message. Some received cell phone calls from relatives in Puerto Rico, who’d seen the storm approaching on TV. Others got the news from local mayors riding into rural areas by horseback or motorcycle.

However, people focused on the wind rather than flooding. Many decided not to evacuate, because they lived in wind-safe houses. Some awoke to find their houses flooding. One family of 11 spent the night up a tree, until they were rescued with a home-made raft.

Over the border in Haiti, Jeanne’s rains inundated the coastal town of Gonaives. Floodwaters rose two metres in 30 minutes, killing 1,800 people and leaving 800 missing. Why did the same storm carry away 100 times more Haitians than Dominicans? Jeanne’s rains lashed deforested mountain slopes, causing deadly landslides. The sudden departure of President Aristide seven months earlier had led to great instability and rioting. Early warning systems require local government to prepare people, convey warnings, monitor events and help evacuate. The system existed on paper but didn’t function in practice.

Haiti’s meteorological centre lacked resources. The country’s emergency operations centre wasn’t working. Warnings never made it to Gonaives. When the storm struck, most residents thought the mountains would shield them. They had no idea what was about to hit them. Over the last 60 years, hurricanes have killed 17,000 Haitians. Clearly Haiti needs help to reinforce its preparedness and warning systems.

Effective hurricane warning requires both technology and people-to-people communication. Secrets of success in the Caribbean include:

  1. Hurricane forecasting: the US shares its forecasting tools with the region – providing accurate forecasts 3-5 days in advance. Cuba supplements these with its own radar and computer models. Challenges remain – particularly in forecasting hurricane intensity.
  2. National warning: Authorities should convey initial 3-5 day alerts, followed by specific warnings to trigger preventative action 24 hours before the hurricane’s expected landfall.
  3.  Local government: provides the vital link between national level warnings and communities at risk. Local officials must have resources available for warning and evacuation. Warnings should include localized detail on possible flooding and landslides – often more deadly than high winds. If local government is weak, the warning chain breaks.
  4. Civil society participation: not even in Cuba can the government do everything. Civil society – including local NGOs, Red Cross, church and youth groups – must pitch in. This involves trusting official warnings.
  5. Popular understanding and action: vital to Cuba’s success in hurricane preparedness. Public awareness campaigns – through schools and practice drills – are essential.

The technology of early warning is the easy part – the real challenge lies in making it people-centred:

Make warnings intelligible: People at risk need to know what to do when they get a hurricane warning. Increasing basic literacy will help.

Make warnings specific: National warnings must be supplemented with local warnings of flooding and landslides.

Encourage local ownership: early warning systems are more likely to succeed if people at risk participate in designing and maintaining them.

Supplement local knowledge: personal experience and oral history are important – but not always reliable. Experience must be discussed critically and supplemented.

Spread awareness through schools: children who are aware of hurricane hazards spread awareness through their families and neighbourhoods, and become more receptive as adults.

Link warning to risk reduction: Investment to tackle root causes of vulnerability, such as uncontrolled urbanization and deforestation, is urgently needed.

Jamaica’s community disaster response teams

“I was glad that I could warn them before the storm”, says Patricia Greenleaf simply. Patricia is a member of the Jamaican Red Cross’s community disaster response team (CDRT) for Cedar Valley. Along with dozens of other volunteers, she went from street to street issuing warnings by megaphone, 48 hours before hurricane Ivan hit. They encouraged marginalized groups and people with special needs – including the elderly and mentally impaired – to hang a white flag or piece of material outside their home to signal that they needed help when the time came for evacuation.

Hurricane Ivan, the most powerful storm the Caribbean had seen for 50 years, had just pounded Grenada with 250 km/h winds, killing 39 people and damaging or destroying 90 per cent of the island’s buildings. The Jamaica Red Cross put all its branches and 12,000 volunteers on high alert. They opened 1,000 community shelters across the country.

When ‘Ivan the Terrible’ struck Jamaica on 11 September 2004, Patricia’s team was ready. They had prepared a local map detailing potential risks and resources. They knew where Cedar Valley’s most vulnerable people lived. They had drawn up a community response plan, with the local Red Cross branch. They were already trained to carry out light search and rescue, emergency first aid and rapid assessment. And they were equipped with medical kits, megaphones, shovels, rope, waterproof boots and helmets. Despite widespread damage to property, no one in Cedar Valley died during the storm.

Principal contributors to this chapter were Ben Wisner, Victor Ruiz, Allan Lavell and Lourdes Meyreles. Ben Wisner, is an independent researcher affiliated with the Development Studies Institute at the London School of Economics, the Benfield Hazard Research Centre (University College London)and the Disaster Prevention Research Institute at Kyoto University, Japan. Victor Ruiz is an independent consultant and sociologist based in the Dominican Republic. Allan Lavell, is the coordinator of the risk and disaster research programme at the Secretariat General of the Latin American Social Science Faculty (FLACSO) and the Latin American Network for the Social Study of Disaster Prevention. Lourdes Meyreles is a sociologist who coordinates FLACSO’s Dominican Republic programme. Ruth Chisholm, the Jamaica Red Cross’s director of emergency services and communication, contributed this Box.