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Red Cross prepares Haitians for start of hurricane season


The rains come every day now in Port-au-Prince. Haiti's largest city has made strides toward recovery since last year's devastating earthquake, but the rains – which start this time every year – have brought renewed hardship to the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Haitians still living in camps.

Navigating winding, mud-covered paths by day and sleeping in damp tents by night is difficult and uncomfortable at best. The greater worry now is that the coming months will bring another natural disaster – a hurricane, severe flooding or mudslides – that will prove deadly.

With the official start of hurricane season this month, the Red Cross – which has already helped almost 10,000 families transition to safer, more secure shelters – is actively working to help the vulnerable Haitians still living in camps be prepared for potential disasters.

In cooperation with local ‘vigilance committees' that help mobilize camp populations, the American Red Cross is implementing programs such as early warning systems that will help people be prepared for disasters and, if possible, move out of harm's way.

"We're trying to accentuate the alert system," said Mathieu Juslain, project manager for an American Red Cross disaster risk reduction program. "We want people to know what flag to raise when."

The color-coded system – a green flag is raised on the flagpole to alert residents that rain is forecast, yellow signals potential flooding, and red means a hurricane threatens – is supplemented with bullhorns and whistles to alert residents to potential risks. Children have learned about the warning systems and other preparedness measures through songs, skits and games taught in a series of workshops in the camps.

Other aspects of the American Red Cross disaster risk reduction program include emergency first aid courses, clearing and marking safe evacuation routes, digging drainage ditches, sandbagging precarious hillsides, and distributing waterproof bags to protect important documents. More than 40 camps in and around Port-au-Prince have received disaster preparedness training from the American Red Cross, whose programs in this area are being emulated by partners in the Red Cross network and other aid groups working in Haiti.

The Red Cross network is also distributing text messages with information about disaster preparedness and has a weekly radio show, which is broadcast nationwide in Creole, to help educate people about how to prepare for disasters. In addition, a Red Cross disaster operations center has been established in Hinche to help leaders coordinate a national emergency response. Stocks of emergency relief items also have been pre-positioned at sites around the country in order to be readily available.

The emphasis on awareness and preparedness has long been an important part of Red Cross disaster risk reduction programs, and these programs are due to be expanded to dozens more camps in Haiti the months ahead.

"The people are a lot more aware of the threats, and are much better prepared" than they were immediately after last year's earthquake, said Juslain. Yet he added, there's no doubt that the start of hurricane season is another worry for Haitians still living under tarps and tents. "For people who are already vulnerable, this is stressful."

The American Red Cross is also coordinating with our Red Cross partners, United Nations agencies, Haiti's government and other humanitarian organizations – a network that is helping residents to better prepare for severe weather and that would collectively respond to meet any resulting needs following a major storm in Haiti.

Since the earthquake in January 2010, the American Red Cross and others in the global Red Cross network have been helping hundreds of thousands of Haitians. As of early May, the American Red Cross has spent and signed agreements to spend nearly $315 million to meet the needs of earthquake survivors.

Thanks to the generosity of its donors, the American Red Cross was able to help Haitians receive emergency relief and is now providing longer-term support and training to help them recover and rebuild. In coming years the American Red Cross will continue to invest in Haiti relief and recovery programs and projects until every donated dollar is spent. More information about the Haiti response can be found at www.redcross.org/Haiti.