Thursday, July 26, 2012

Where disaster is just a matter of time

Workshop in Guaramal II
The 14 students of Escuela Anardo Napoleon Mata listen attentively as the woman at the front of the one-room school quizzes them about how they'll respond in an emergency.
Will they jostle each other on the way out the door if an earthquake is shaking the mud walls of the school down? "No!" Will they exaggerate how badly injured somebody is should they need to go looking for help? "No!" Do they know who heads up the Comité Emergencia Escolar in their tiny village? "La maestra!"
We're in Guaramal II, one of 20 isolated villages around Copan Ruinas where my organization works. Emergency preparedness is a significant part of the work done by the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, and on this day CASM is here giving workshops to the 15 families who live in Guaramal II on managing risk during a natural disaster.
That there will be a natural disaster sooner or later is a given. This is the rainy season in Honduras, and rain can be torrential in the hills. Villagers are at constant risk of roads, houses, livestock and crops being washed away when the rains come pounding down on the steep slopes where they live, a problem they've inadvertently worsened by cutting down the forests on those slopes to make way for their subsistence corn crops.
Earthquake evacuation practice
And while North Americans can generally assume that somebody will come to save them in the event of a natural disaster, the villagers of Honduras know otherwise. The residents of Guaramal II and several other villages regularly lose contact with the rest of the world whenever the Rio Negro is running high and the makeshift road that cuts across the river bed is impassable. The village is only 25 kilometres away from touristy Copan Ruinas, but it's a long, hard hour to cover that distance, and it might as well be a thousand miles away given that few of the villagers have vehicles anyway.
There's electricity here, but the power failures are frequent in Honduras at the best of times and a certainty in periods of heavy rain. If you're lucky, you might get a weak cell phone signal in Guaramal. But don't count on it.
Through projects funded by Diakonia and Christian Aid - two of the European faith-based organizations that fund a significant amount of the development work in Honduras - CASM has been working to get communities better prepared for when disaster strikes. Hurricane Mitch killed almost 15,000 Hondurans in 1998, and nobody in the country will forget that anytime soon.
In the schools, the preparation takes the form of Comites Emergencias Escolares, headed by the teacher at each village school and focused on getting students to safety as quickly as possible. In the communities, CASM has developed Comites de Emergencia Local (CODEL). Hondurans like acronyms, and so the CODEL committee members focus on the details of EDAN - evaluating damages, analysing needs.
At the workshop this week, CASM employee Carmen Elisa Recarte encouraged people to think about how they'd priorize their response in the event of a disaster.
Would it be more urgent to replace the roof of the school or the roof of the community health centre, for instance? People in the room were slow to respond, but perhaps it was something of a theoretical question in a village that has neither of those things. The "school" is in fact just an out-building that a resident is allowing to be used for classes, and the nearest health centre is a 40-minute drive away.
The group gets the hang of things after a while, though. They agree they'd priorize rescue services for elderly residents and anyone who is incapacitated. They're not sure what they'd do about contaminated water; that's an ongoing problem in the village at the best of times. But they do know the name of the community leader charged with heading up evacuation and rescue, and they've got a plan for getting villagers to safety. That's more than they had before.
Like every village workshop I've been to in Honduras, this one is interrupted regularly by restless toddlers, crying babies and many chickens and dogs wandering through. But the audience seems to have better attention skills than I do, and by the end of the afternoon they are very clear on why they need a disaster-management plan: To save lives.
In a country where so many lives hang on the thinnest of threads, that's challenge enough.

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