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Caribbean welcomes end of difficult hurricane season

Cayman Islands
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by Allison Ali in Trinidad

The end of the 2004 hurricane season has been welcomed by residents of the Caribbean. For some it means a break from the heavy rains and strong winds they have been experiencing, while for others in countries like Grenada, Jamaica, Bahamas and Cayman Islands, it signals a time to concentrate their efforts on rebuilding their lives, as well as preparing for the 2005 hurricane season, which experts predict will be worse than this year.

This year's hurricane season saw four major hurricanes - Charley, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne - make their way through the Caribbean, causing mass destruction along the way.

Ivan ripped through the Caribbean for more than a week in September with power and destruction unseen in the region in the last ten years. Dubbed 'Ivan the Terrible', the hurricane wreaked havoc in the islands of Grenada, Tobago, Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands before making its way to Cuba and Florida.

The islands that suffered the most damage were Grenada, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. It damaged homes, buildings and infrastructure, cut off utilities and claimed at least 100 lives. Many more were placed at risk from disease, contaminated drinking water and food shortages.

The economic impact on these countries is huge. Grenada suffered the most with 90 per cent of its housing stock destroyed, leaving 60,000 people homeless. The Grenada Red Cross headquarters was also destroyed.

Hot on the heels of Ivan was Jeanne, a category three hurricane which made its way through the Caribbean less than two weeks after Ivan. Jeanne was particularly devastating in Haiti and the Bahamas, where it brought torrential rains, severe flooding and landslides. At least 1,600 people died in Haiti, many of them in and around the city of Gonaïves.

But amidst the fear and destruction caused by the hurricanes, many people have started to rebuild their lives. The Red Cross has been at the forefront of relief efforts in all the countries battered by hurricanes this year, and are continuing their efforts to improve the lives of those left vulnerable by the hurricanes.

"We never expected Grenada to be ravaged by a hurricane," commented Samantha Dickson, Health and Safety Officer of the Grenada Red Cross Society (GRCS). And rightly so, since the last time Grenada was affected by a hurricane was 49 years ago.

She said that while the Red Cross had existing disaster plans, the scale of the hurricane was much greater than they could handle. "A disaster of this magnitude would have caught out even the most prepared - members of staff and volunteers were affected, so the Red Cross took a bit of time before getting to work."

But despite their personal losses and having no headquarters to operate from, Red Cross staff have been working tirelessly to help the most affected populations. In the emergency phase of the Red Cross operation, some 65,000 people, or two-thirds of the island's population, received urgently needed aid such as food, shelter and hygiene items.

However, Dickson said they have definitely learnt from this experience and are preparing for next year. "Our activities right now are alluding to early preparations for the 2005 hurricane season." The GRCS is continuing its training in disaster preparedness. "The hurricane has made people more aware of how badly things can be after a hurricane and we (the Red Cross) now have an opportunity to have beneficiaries really pay attention."

The Red Cross will also be looking at issues such as adherence to building codes to ensure that structures can withstand disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. The GRCS is also focusing its efforts on vulnerable groups that need special attention such as people living with HIV/AIDS, the elderly and the disabled.

"I cannot stress enough how important it is for National Red Cross Societies to be more open minded when preparing for disasters. We cannot wait for the disaster to happen and then take action. We must take action now," Dickson said, who suggested that national societies start putting effective communications systems in place.

"In Grenada even cell phones were out and the entire island was cut off for hours. Outreach in terms of really meeting psychological needs of persons and having a good volunteer base and management system in place are really important," she explained.

As part of the Federation's post-emergency rehabilitation, zinc sheets for roof construction will be provided to 800 families in Grenada, following a house-to-house assessment.

Yvonne Clarke, director general of the Jamaica Red Cross (JRC) said the JRC in its capacity as a disaster and emergency response organization, stood ready and waiting to respond to the pending disaster. Prior to the hurricane, the various branches of the Red Cross, as well as their volunteers and community disaster response teams were placed on alert and were ready to respond.

She said after Hurricane Ivan, the JRC's staff and volunteers experienced the "most trying times". "Since the onslaught of Hurricane Ivan, the JRC has been playing an essential role in the island's restoration process by responding to various needs island-wide."

Since the passage of Ivan, Red Cross personnel have been out in the field assessing the damage and addressing the needs of those affected by the hurricane. Supplies including food and non-food items have been dispatched from the JRC National Headquarters to the various Red Cross branches who in turn distribute the supplies to the various communities in all fourteen parishes.

While the distribution of much needed supplies to those in need has been the focus of the JRC's relief efforts, it is not the only assistance being offered. Ivan left many people displaced, and communication between Jamaicans and their loved ones overseas have been disrupted. The JRC has played a vital role putting them back in touch with one another.

"A great number of persons have been contacting us from abroad to get our assistance in locating a family member or friend...and we have been working with our branches island-wide to locate these persons, some of whom have been displaced, just to ensure that they're okay," states Ruth Chisholm, Director of Emergency Services and Communication.

"This is essentially what we are about," Clarke adds, "the Red Cross mission is 'to improve the lives of the most vulnerable by mobilizing the power of humanity', and that's what we've been doing and will continue to do."

"Nobody expected it to be this bad," said Jondo Malafa-Obi, director general of the Cayman Islands Red Cross (CIRC), who lost her home and has been living in a shelter since the hurricane.

She explained that while the CIRC was prepared for a hurricane, the intensity of Ivan was too much to handle. "The roof at the Red Cross was built to withstand winds of 150 mph, but Ivan brought winds in excess of 200 mph."

She added that the Red Cross also had containers with relief items in different districts, but unfortunately they were flooded and many items could not be used in relief efforts.

While she was grateful for all the support that the CIRC has been receiving, Malafa-Obi said it was the Red Cross volunteers that have been making relief efforts possible in all districts of the island.

"Everybody suffered on a personal level but this did not stop them from helping their fellow man. Everybody is pulling together and working to rebuild Cayman."

The emergency phase of the Cayman Islands relief operation concluded at the end of September with the final distribution of goods sent from the Pan American Disaster Response Unit (PADRU). The focus of the operation will now be on rehabilitation.

The CIRC, in coordination with the British Red Cross, is turning its attention towards the more permanent shelter needs of the population and to raising awareness of hygiene and sanitation as residents begin to clean up after the disaster.

"We are moving ahead. We want to rebuild our headquarters with a more stable or better roof and clean up, but we are moving ahead," said Malafa-Obi.