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Freeplay Stories

Hurricane relief efforts in Haiti

The Lifeline radio is extremely important in during disasters. Powered by human energy and by solar, it becomes a vital tool to establish communication amidst the breakdown and ruin of infrastructure. Internally displaced people have access to important information updates at all times. Project Partner: International Federation of the Red Cross.

In Creole, 'Kouri di Vwazin'W' means 'tell your neighbour'. It reflects the oral tradition that reigns in Haiti, a country where more than 60 per cent of the population are illiterate. It is also the perfect title for a Red Cross project that aims to alert and sensitize vulnerable communities to potential hazards such as hurricanes.

The project uses a combination of traditional and new technology to achieve its ends. Already, 150 Haitian Red Cross volunteers have been trained as 'relais communitaire'. Their job is to alert the population and raise awareness of what to do if disaster strikes.

"Relais communitaire is an African concept that represents the link between the source of information – in this case the Red Cross – and the community," explains Toumane Dianka, the International Federation's Disaster Management Delegate in Haiti.

When hurricane Ernesto was approaching southern Haiti, Denis Jean Colo, one of the relais communitaire, came to alert Etes Davilma and his wife Piard Marie Anne to the threat and the need to leave their home for safer ground.

"If Colo hadn't told us, we wouldn't have known," says Davilma, who has already lost nine relatives including his parents to hurricanes and floods.

"We had a radio but the batteries ran out and can't afford to buy new ones."

Davilma has lived for 21 years in a high risk area at a river basin. He could see the river level rising but did not know what to expect. "You would never think that this river, which is no threat during the dry season, could become deadly," explains Colo.

Davilma and his wife stayed in the emergency shelter for eight days before they could go back to what remained of their home.

Harnessing Radio Technology

'Word of mouth' is a useful means of communication but it cannot reach everyone. "We have seen that where there are no relais communitarie, some people don't get the news or get it too late," says Chery Jean Benito, one of the project coordinators in Les Cayes, in the south province.

To reach as many people as possible, therefore, another aspect of the project is to distribute Freeplay's wind-up and solar powered Eyemax LED radios. The first of these were distributed on 11 October, the international day of risk reduction.

"These radios do not need batteries," explains Benito. "They are the most innovative thing I've ever seen and they solve a lot of problems for these families."

Radio remains the most widely used medium to reach and inform the millions affected by natural disasters and complex emergencies in developing countries. Reaching the most vulnerable people is essential both for providing adequate protection and assistance in an emergency and for strengthening their capacity to cope in future crises.

Sixty-eight radios were distributed in the south-west province alone. As well as family radios, 12 of these were larger community radios. These were given to community leaders who were responsible for alerting their neighbours about any threats. Thanks to Freeplay, a total of 500 radios was distributed in the six provinces where the project was implemented.

To reinforce this, partnerships with community and local radio stations have been established and radio spots on disaster preparedness have been distributed.

Building Trust Through Knowledge

"Information, education and communication is what the project is all about," says Dianka. "What it is innovative is that we work together with the community, building a list of what needs to be done in an emergency. We built trust through knowledge."

The most difficult aspect of an emergency is when people need to be evacuated. This is when Haitian Red Cross volunteers work together with local authorities to persuade people to recognise the threat. "It takes time to make them understand that they need to leave their homes and possessions," explains Colo. "We have to persevere. Time is of the essence."

For some people, the choice is clear. "When news of Ernesto started coming through, I took my kids and left for the shelter," says Monette Petithomme.

"I would rather save our lives than material things". But for many living in vulnerable areas, losing kitchen utensils, mattresses, a pig or their chickens can mean they might never be able to replace them. "It is a hard choice and we understand it," says Colo.

The project covered six provinces but aimed eventually to reach the whole country. "If there is no hurricane, there is no money for Haiti," emphasizes Dianka. "But we are very positive about this project and we are already designing the second phase."

The project has been supported by the American, Canadian and Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian and Swiss governments.


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