The American Red Cross is working with partner Red Cross societies in countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to implement community disaster response training and, as one small community in St Lucia discovered, pre-disaster training can be the difference between life and death.
When Hurricane Tomas slammed into the island of Saint Lucia last October, the community of Fond St Jacques was cut off by flooding and landslides. But thanks to Red Cross training, local volunteers jumped into action and saved lives before outside help could arrive.
The Latin American region is particularly prone to heavy winds, rain and mudslides, and the Red Cross has invested for years to help communities reduce their risks. The Red Cross is helping communities across the region with training for community disaster response teams, development of community disaster plans, installation of early warning systems, identification of evacuation routes and assistance to families so they can create their own preparedness plans.
Early on October 31, a massive landslide brought water, trees and mud rushing down the mountains and through the community of about 1,300 people, destroying homes as well as a critical bridge that spanned a river running through the middle of the town. With relief from the St Lucia Red Cross 48 hours away because of the damage, the community response team launched into action.
Given its vulnerability to past hurricanes and tropical storms, Fond St Jacques had been selected by the St. Lucia Red Cross the previous year to be a part of a project known as Better Be Ready. The program involved a series of community meetings at which townspeople identified potential risks and vulnerabilities, as well as the actions needed to address them. A number of local residents were trained as members of the Fond St Jacques community disaster response team.
When Hurricane Tomas hit the following year, members of the community disaster response team gathered at their assigned meeting point and set out to assist fellow community members.
Rope lines were strung across the river’s raging waters to evacuate people, and the team relied on response equipment donated by the Red Cross. The team established a community shelter in a nearby church (a site that had been identified prior to the disaster), where displaced residents received care, comfort and psychological support. The team leader, who had received shelter management training from the global Red Cross network, managed the location that provided temporary housing to more than 300 community members.
“If we had not attended these workshops, we wouldn’t have been able to know what we should do, because we have different age groups, different types of people, different types of personalities you have to deal with,” said the team leader, Sharla Pascal. “The training has helped me personally and it has helped the community quite a bit.”
“It gave me faith in my fellow countrymen, St. Lucians, Fond St. Jacques,” said Anthony Bernard, a member of the disaster response team. “There could have been a lot more fatalities.” Without the local team “there would be chaos, I could imagine chaos with no one on the ground to coordinate and maintain cool,” he added. “We were prepared to lend a hand and to do it without fear or favor.”