When a natural disaster strikes, it’s often the split-second decisions that save lives. Where to seek shelter. When to evacuate. How to apply first aid. Throughout Latin America, the Red Cross has been providing communities with the tools and training they need to stay safe during natural disasters.
Residents of San Rafael recall the bands of rain that pelted Costa Rica for nearly five days in November 2010. By the time it was over, Hurricane Tomas had killed 23 Costa Ricans. “People in our community died,” recalls a local school teacher. “We didn’t have disaster preparedness plans in our school or know what to do.”
There was one certainty, though: they’d do everything they could to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
So for the past two years, the Red Cross has been working with communities in Central and South America to equip children and adults with the skills they need to survive and thrive when natural disasters strike. The Red Cross has been training residents on first aid, disaster preparedness plans, emergency simulations and other life-saving activities with the involvement of local governments and organizations.
The initiative, known as the Latin American Risk Reduction Activity (LARRA), leaves communities better-prepared to handle and recover from extreme weather events like Hurricane Tomas. Sixty-four communities in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama have received equipment and training from the Red Cross program.
Now, students in San Rafael, Costa Rica regularly rehearse early warning system drills, ensuring that the kids—ages three through 12—are prepared when extreme weather, earthquakes, floods and hurricanes strike. “The students know what to do and where to go in the event of a disaster and the teachers expressed the importance of carrying out the simulation drills,” said American Red Cross Program Officer, Alicia Fairfield after a recent trip to visit some of the schools.
In the neighboring community of Laurel de Corredores, Erika Mena Castillo works as a physiotherapist, dividing her time traveling from school to school assisting students with physical disabilities. Mena Castillo, who recently completed a first aid course, recalls putting her skills into practice merely days after the training. “A student was choking on a lollipop. Before the course I wouldn’t have known what to do,” she remembers. But thanks to the course, “I was able to act immediately.”
“There is a real understanding of preparedness and readiness among the teachers and students,” said Fairfield. “The teachers are more confident and know what to do when students are injured and where to go during a disaster. Disaster preparedness saves lives. ”
After two years of activity, the LARRA project recently came to its official end. But the school drills and community-based disaster response teams will remain active in the communities, as will the Red Cross. In many communities, formal agreements have been established with local government entities, making preparedness activities compulsory. So that next time a disaster strikes, everyone will know exactly what to do with those precious few seconds.