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MADAGASCAR: Cyclone Giovanna struck with little warning

BRICKAVILLE, 20 February 2012 (IRIN) - In a cyclone-prone country like Madagascar, which feels the force of about 60 percent of the storms that form over the Indian Ocean every year, being prepared for disaster makes all the difference.

The Malagasy National Disaster Office organizes annual simulation exercises in vulnerable areas to test the preparedness of local authorities and communities. However, in Brickaville, on the east coast of Madagascar, power lines had been down for two weeks - a regular occurrence in the island's outlying provinces - and news that the town lay directly in the path of Cyclone Giovanna, a category-four tropical storm, could not reach the people in time.

The cyclone destroyed and damaged thousands of homes and killed at least 23 people, but this number is expected to rise as more remote locations are reached.

"By the time the ‘chef de Fokotany’ [administrator of the district] came to warn us about the cyclone, it was already here. All we could do was run to the church for cover," Jean Noel, 48, a mother of six who lives in Brickaville, told IRIN. Nearly a week after Giovanna struck on 14 February, she and her neighbours are trying to rebuild their houses, which were among the 70 percent damaged by the storm.

The water pump was damaged and people have resorted to drinking water from an untreated well. Food is also in short supply. "We need rice, oil and soap," one resident said. "On the other side of town, aid workers have given out supplies, but we didn't get any yet."

Emma Zafiarisoa, of the local NGO, St Gabriel, told IRIN: "The [aid] supplies come in waves. We managed to get drinking water to the first 2,000 flood victims, but it's not enough. We have materials for 5,000 people, but after our evaluation there might be as many as 50,000 victims who need supplies."

The NGO installs water purification plants, and households can also subscribe to clean drinking water for 500 Ariary (US$0.20) per 20 litre. "Through our subscription system we already know the households, and so it was easy for us to identify who needs water the most. When the cyclone hit we worked with the chef de Fokotany to make sure those households with the biggest need will be helped first. We will stay here for a month. After this, the people will have to find their own way. "

Colin Radford, of the NGO, Help, arrived in Brickaville the day after the cyclone struck and was in front of the town hall distributing rice, oil, beans and high-nutrient biscuits, donated by the UN World Food Programme (WFP). "We thought we needed food rations for 4,000 people, but by now we have discovered that it is much closer to 6,000, so we have new rations coming in," he told IRIN.

Rations

"Today we're handing out rations to the people who live on the outskirts [of Brickaville]. Yesterday it was to the townspeople," he said. "We had to close down the whole operation two times this morning, as people became angry easily. Some were trying to get more than one ration, while some local officials here tried to get all their friends and relatives on the list. But we have zero tolerance for corruption, so with help from the people we soon figured out who needed food the most."

On the other side of the square, Jean, 65, who only gave his first name, stands with an empty basket and ID card, waiting for assistance. He told IRIN that Giovanna was much worse than Geralda, the 1994 cyclone, which all but destroyed the town. "My house is completely broken and I'll need to raise about 100,000 Ariary (US$50) to rebuild it," he said.

''The day of the cyclone it was very hot and sunny, so we didn't think there would be a storm''
In Vatomandry, another severely affected town, Bernadine Ravaonasolo, 67, told IRIN: "My husband is a fisherman, but our pirogue [dugout canoe] and supplies all washed away. He's now rebuilding the house, and after that we'll try to get by doing odd jobs."

In neighbouring Manambato, villagers did not believe reports about an impending cyclone, even after the village leader received a cellphone text message. "The day of the cyclone it was very hot and sunny, so we didn't think there would be a storm," said Florette Rabearivelo, 25. When the wind started blowing she and her neighbours sheltered in the main building of the hotel where she works. "When we came out in the morning, everything was destroyed."

"It's important that local communities are prepared in case of a cyclone," Dominic Stolarow, an emergency officer with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN. "Once a cyclone alert is launched, people need to ensure that they have a supply of food and water at home so that when the cyclone hits, they can stay indoors."

UNICEF runs a programme at schools on how to prepare for disasters. Information is also broadcast on radio and television. Dean Deely, a UNICEF consultant, was in the field to evaluate the disaster preparedness programme when Giovanna hit. "We saw how the [trained] school teachers told children how to prepare for the cyclone. They had some very simple, but important messages like, 'Weigh down the roofs with sandbags, reinforce the walls, put important belongings in plastic bags, and store water'. When people don't have this knowledge they will sit and wait for the disaster to come, and afterwards they'll wait for help to arrive," he told IRIN.

Cyclone preparations

Deely said there was much less damage in places where schoolteachers had been trained in disaster preparedness. "We went through one village where they had weighted down the roofs and reinforced the walls, but apart from this you saw that there was an empowerment, an increased awareness. People were able to mitigate the damage."

In Brickaville the storm would have come as a complete surprise if aid workers from neighbouring towns had not travelled there to warn people. "I showed local officials the [satellite] pictures of Giovanna," said Herizo Andrianaivosoa, a regional technical assistant with UNICEF. "We had just a few hours left, so from three o'clock in the afternoon until the storm hit at 8 p.m. we went around warning people, cutting trees, and setting up shelters. We contacted all the district heads in the surroundings towns and told them to get their post-storm reports to us as soon as possible. Then we turned off the electricity and waited," he told IRIN.

Andrianaivosoa also enlisted the help of 15 people from the National Disaster Office.

''I've been through three cyclones so far, and this is the worst one yet. It went on the whole night''
Giovanna raged all night. "I've been through three cyclones so far, and this is the worst one yet. It went on the whole night. When we came out in the morning, everything was flooded, our shelters were filled with people, and there was no communication," Andrianaivosoa said.

The UNICEF team is now headquartered in Vatomandry, another coastal town hard hit by the storm, trying to collect data from the surrounding communities. "There are 19 communes surrounding this town, and right now we have news from four of them. Some are as far as 85km away, and there is no road, you have to go parts of the way by pirogue," said UNICEF logistics assistant Naina Rasoanaivo.

Ranirisoa Andriamandrindra, a local education official, said there was a total of 774 classrooms in the area and so far he had counted 275 that had been destroyed, and 107 that had been damaged. He told IRIN: "We don't have a budget for reconstruction at all."

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Theme (s): Natural Disasters,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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