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Hurricane Irma: 5 simple lessons from monster storms

Right now, Hurricane Irma is bearing down on the Caribbean. A category 5 hurricane, Irma is already a life-threatening monster storm, packing winds of over 180 miles an hour.

Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba and the United States all are in its path. If it makes landfall in any of these countries, the impact could be catastrophic.

A four member EHU team has been deployed to respond to Hurricane Irma and, at the time of writing, is in the air en route to the Dominican Republic.

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What we do when a storm hits

As a humanitarian worker and doctor, my work involves responding to the catastrophic impacts these monsters have on children and vulnerable communities.

I lead the Emergency Health Unit (EHU) in Asia Pacific – our EHU takes world class teams of nurses and doctors to the heart of disaster in its critical first stages.

Big storms like Irma have taken me to Haiti, Dominican Republic and several countries in Asia. I have also witnessed the impact of deadly storms in Cuba and New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina.

Today, while monitoring the trajectory of Irma and how the hurricane is unfolding in the Caribbean, a few simple lessons from the past come to my mind.

Lesson 1: Deadly storms have a bias against children

Storms often leave a lasting impact on young minds. Relief efforts should prioritise children – their needs, their emotional well-being.

But, at the same time, nobody should underestimate the grit of children in such settings.

Last year while in Haiti, I met seven-year-old called Daphne, an inspiring young girl who was pulling rain-smudged schoolbooks from the rubble. Her school had been destroyed by the storm but she told me she wanted to go back because she had aspirations and dreams to become a doctor.

Activities that help children cope better and recover quicker, such as education, should always be part of relief work – because they can help reduce the long-term impact on children’s lives.

Our first child friendly space (CFS) in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.

Lesson 2: Health is one of the first casualties in big disasters

Health centres and services get disrupted. Not only are physical structures damaged, but the lives of workers who staff health facilities are also thrown into turmoil. This reduces their capacity to respond to the needs of surrounding communities.

And when disasters and weak health systems meet, diseases such as cholera thrive, as was demonstrated during Hurricane Matthew.

Timely action, along with a combination of public health measures and mass communication, can stop disease outbreaks in their tracks.

Lesson 3: Stay as local as possible

Last year in Haiti, my team was made up of Haitian nurses and doctors, and experts from other parts of the world.

The knowledge our Haitian colleagues had about local communities, terrain, language (Creole) and cultural sensitivities helped generate momentum and make our response more people-friendly and appropriate.

While deploying, experienced people is often necessary, conscious efforts are needed to ensure that experts from elsewhere complement, and not replace, local efforts. Collaboration is key.

Dr Unni with children in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.

Lesson 4: Be one step ahead of the storm

The best way to reduce the impact of a storm is by being one step ahead of it.

A big storm can shut down airports and halt transportation, so it makes sense to get the right people on the ground before storms make landfall. Failing to plan and prepare is planning to fail – it’s not rocket science.

Technically, this is often known as a no-regrets approach – i.e. it’s better to err on the side of over-resourcing the critical functions rather than risk failure by under-resourcing. Human lives are at stake in such settings and inaction. Slow action, or delayed action, can cost lives.

Lesson 5: Stop all storms

But the best way to beat a hurricane is to stop it from happening.

While the priority for the next few days should be to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance, addressing climate change is a key step  in reducing the frequency – and ferocity – of storms in the future.

Investing in disaster risk reduction and bolstering the resilience of communities are key to break the cycle of disasters and miseries they bring.

Hurricane Irma’s exact path remains unclear. I sincerely hope it weakens or moves away from where terrified children are anxiously waiting for it to pass. And if it makes a landfall, I hope the above observations help to make a difference.

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