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Preparing for Disasters, with Giggles and Smiles


PORT-AU-PRINCE – Dressed in a red Spiderman t-shirt, jean shorts and black high-top sneakers, Cherizard Erito does not look like an especially scary boy. But today the 13-year-old has been asked to participate in a skit, play-acting the role of a flood that is threatening residents of the hillside camp where he and hundreds of other earthquake victims live under makeshift tarps and tents.

With a circle of 20 children around him, Cherizard screws up his face in a scowl, eyes bulging, and barks in Creole at the two young girls standing before him. Rather than running away, though, they hold their ground and tell him they're not afraid. They know exactly what to do if a flood is threatening. When a yellow flag goes up on the camp flagpole "we will quickly collect our bags and look for mom and dad," they tell him.

The role-playing is part of a childrens' workshop that the American Red Cross has organized here in the Bourdon Valley, a hilly area of Port au Prince badly affected by the January 12 earthquake that left more than 1.5 million people homeless. Under the direction of Red Cross staff, more than 360 children at nine camps across Haiti's capital city have learned songs, skits and dances that teach them how to prepare for floods, mudslides and hurricanes - all very real threats to this vulnerable population.

"It's fun," says Cherizard, adding that the most important lesson he has learned is "together, we can combat disasters." He is one of the older children participating in the workshop, which includes boys and girls as young as five.

Jean-Pierre Frantz, a member of the camp's leadership committee, concurs. "It's a very good program," he says.

Sansom Alberique, an 18-year-old student who is watching from the sidelines, says the childrens' workshops are a good way for all camp residents to be reminded of emergency preparedness. The workshops are being held at sites where the American Red Cross has already trained residents in emergency first aid, disaster early warning systems (such as flags and whistles), and safe evacuation procedures. In addition, global Red Cross network is sending tens of thousands of SMS text messages to Haitians urging them to prepare for hurricane season.

Despite the serious nature of the threats these vulnerable Haitians face, the American Red Cross staff tries to make the childrens' workshops as entertaining as possible. There are giggles and smiles all around during the hour-long session in the Bourdon Valley. The biggest laughs come at the end of the workshop when a blond-haired, blue-eyed American Red Cross staff member, who has been watching a group of six girls do a dance, joins them in front of the crowd. The kids think it is hilarious to see an American dance.