Nicaraguan Red Cross bolsters emergency airlift for Felix casualties

Published: 7 September 2007 0:00 CET

Alex Wynter in Sandy Bay, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s President, Daniel Ortega, has declared this remote coastal settlement, actually a cluster of 12 tiny hamlets, to be the worst hit by the passage of Hurricane Felix on Tuesday.

All Sandy Bay’s fragile wooden houses have either been severely damaged or destroyed completely.

The eye of the storm – a category five, the most violent – went right across this section of coast, shattering the lives of people who, even by Central American standards, are very poorly equipped to withstand extreme weather.

The remote north Atlantic coast is inhabited overwhelmingly by indigenous Miskito people, who may not speak Spanish well and who survive from subsistence fishing and farming.

Flying in on a Nicaraguan air force helicopter, the wind damage is immediately evident: houses have been completely smashed, wood turned to tinder and the jungle flattened as far as the eye can see. The ground is still soaked; river lines blurred.

There is an unmistakeable air of shock about the small villages; people say they will have to start again.

The Nicaraguan military, as of late Thursday, was still operating an almost non-stop helicopter bridge between the regional capital, Puerto Cabezas, and Sandy Bay and other settlements that have been cut off since the storm.

As fast as helicopters land, they exchange casualties for more relief supplies and take off again.

Despite the loan of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the US, the Nicaraguans say they are desperately short of aircraft, and helicopter-borne relief operations quickly eat into any military’s humanitarian budget.

On the ground at Puerto Cabezas, the role of the local branch of the Nicaraguan Red Cross (NRC) has been to administer emergency medical attention and get the injured to hospital in their own vehicles as quickly as possible.

Fears are growing, meanwhile, for people still unaccounted for after Felix, especially on the small keys well out to sea, which are inhabited mostly by divers who fish for lobster, and in isolated inland communities.

However, the general consensus among Red Cross workers is still that about 70 per cent of people in this region heeded the official storm warnings, even if some left it very late.

“People here don’t really believe in hurricanes,” said Dorwell Welch, an NRC volunteer organizer. “They think they’re something that happens way out in the Caribbean. After [Hurricane] Beta they started to wonder. And now they’re really wondering.”

The NRC, in a project backed by the Netherlands Red Cross, was one of the first National Societies in the world to try to integrate the uncertainties of climate change into its regular disaster-preparedness effort.