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Haiti: 5 things to remember when battling a monster storm

Boys by a river in Haiti.


Unni_krishnanDr Unni Krishnan is a doctor and clinical lead for our Emergency Health Unit – a network of medical teams who can be deployed to emergencies in just 72 hours. He is currently working in Haiti, helping children affected by Hurricane Matthew.


A devastating storm

When Hurricane Matthew smashed into Haiti on 4 October, it was the worst storm to hit the country in half a century.

Aerial photographs show scenes of total devastation. Debris everywhere, houses flattened, banana plantations wiped out. It’s estimated that one million people need immediate humanitarian assistance.

So far, around 1,000 people have lost their lives. That death toll has continued to climb steadily as reports emerge from cut-off mountainous areas.

No words can truly capture the misery. Lives have changed forever.

I’ve been visiting Haiti as a doctor for more than 10 years – here are five lessons I’ve learned from my experience.

Donate now to help us protect children affected by this hurricane, and other disasters like it around the world.

1. Get your priorities right

A father and daughter in Haiti.
A father carries his daughter to a shallower spot of a the river where he can carry her across. The bridge has collapsed, making it hard for people in Haiti to get back to their homes.

Quick decisions and strong leadership can make or break relief operations. Life-saving measures like medical aid, clean water and information should be the priority at this stage.

But remain flexible and keep your eyes and ears open.

There have been reports of cholera, and that means we need to act swiftly. Because dehydration – a complication of cholera – can kill children in six hours. Public health strategies, hygiene measures and clean water will save lives. This will be the top priority for the Emergency Health Unit, my specialist team from Save the Children.

We can’t stop storms or earthquakes. But we can stop disasters turning into crises.

2.  Don’t leave children and vulnerable people behind

A child and relative in Haiti.
A child and relative watch people crossing the river.

Some children have been separated from their families, and some mothers have stopped breast feeding because of a lack of shelters or misconceptions.

Marginalised communities are at risk too. Following last year’s earthquake in Nepal, there were several reports of discrimination against LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Intersex) communities.

We need to go the extra mile to reach vulnerable people, and people in remote mountainous villages that are cut off from main roads. We can’t simply expect these survivors to walk into relief centres and health clinics.

3.  Don’t forget mental health

Locals affected by Hurricane Matthew outside their home.
Locals use a pile of banana leaves from fallen trees to make fire to cook food.

There’s a limit to what the human mind can take. Imagine blowing up a balloon. Consider each blow of air as one disaster. In Haiti, there have been many disasters. And you know what happens when you keep blowing up a balloon that’s already got enough air inside.

The human mind is not so different. Haitians have been battered by several storms, other disasters and several episodes of political violence.

I’ve met some of the most resilient people in my life in this country.

But disasters inflict wounds on human minds. If left unattended, they leave lasting consequences. Aid efforts must place mental health of survivors, especially children and women, as a priority.

4. Collaborate, communicate, coordinate

Save the Children worker walks through rubbish.
A Save the Children worker walks through littered roads. Canals, which are normally filled with garbage, have flooded and covered the streets.

Disaster settings are chaotic and not easy to manage.

Every effort counts, but duplication of effort reduces the impact of aid – so collaboration is key.

Information sharing and robust communication with survivor communities are the first steps to improve aid effectiveness. It can increase the number of lives saved.

5. Support. Don’t substitute

People carry items across the river.
People carry items across the river.

Aid workers like me seem to be responding to more crises in recent years. But it’s the local people who are, and always will be, the first – and often only – responders.

That’s why we must invest in local communities and strengthen their local abilities.

Global warming makes storms more frequent and ferocious, and there will be moments during catastrophic disasters like Hurricane Matthew that will need international support. But these teams should support and complement, not replace or substitute, local capabilities.

Cuba, Haiti’s neighbour, faces frequent storms but has shown that disaster preparedness lessons from school onwards and a robust public health system can save lives and stops disease outbreaks.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and donors need to make long-term investments to make sure it’s better prepared for the future.

Earth is becoming warmer, seas angrier and storms more ferocious. We have to expect more storms and floods.

Donate now to help us protect children in Haiti and be prepared for the next emergency.


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