When a hurricane hits, training turns into practice
Months after La Soufrière erupted on St Vincent, the volcano remains active and ash continues to fill the air. Around 20,000 people are still displaced due to damage to their houses and ashfall. Still recovering from the eruption, we were soon faced with another emergency as, last month, we received a warning of a tropical storm-turned-hurricane.
As IsraAID international staff, our temporary home-and-work-space became a shelter. After checking we had enough water and food, we trimmed trees, cleared escape routes, and followed emergency protocol. Then, we waited. Despite the predictions, the storm didn’t pass through the southern part of the island where we were sheltering, but it did hit the north of St Vincent, the area most affected by the volcanic eruption just a few months before. It’s hard to determine if displaced communities were fortunate to not be in their homes when the hurricane hit.
After receiving the green light that the hurricane danger was over, I was exhausted. I had barely been affected, but for almost a week I was ready for the storm, like being braced for a punch without knowing if and when it will hit you. As I lay in bed processing it all, I was thinking about the 150 children we worked with in our Child Friendly Spaces. Are they afraid? How will they sleep tonight?
Home is a familiar and safe space, which is so important when crisis hits. When the children were evacuated from their communities and displaced across different shelters for months, after a year of no school because of COVID-19, their trauma was only worsening. What they need at this time is routine – a return to as much normality as possible. For many, the hurricane that destroyed their houses increased their feeling of uncertainty and fear. It dramatically slowed down their healing process and brought new potential traumas into their already-vulnerable lives.
When we support communities in their recovery process, sustainability should always be at the forefront of any activity. Whether it’s providing emotional support for displaced children or self-care training for displaced teachers and frontline workers, we should always be thinking about how to empower the community and provide the space for them to shape their recovery. When I arrive in a disaster area, I don’t know what I will encounter and how long our services will be needed. What I do know is that we have a golden opportunity to turn the crisis into a better future for the people affected. Like in any disaster, after the first overwhelming shock, the community is rebuilding itself and we are supporting them to build back stronger than before, increasing their resilience and strengthening community support structures.
To do that, we worked with displaced communities and trained community volunteers to help children manage their stress in times of crisis and beyond. When the hurricane hit, our training turned into practice, and we could see how communities we worked with had a new perspective on the situation, and therefore, responded faster and better. As the adults feel more in control over their situation, they are in a better position to support their children, crucial in unstable times. Helping others in times of crisis can help us as much as it helps them.
Crises are part of our lives, we all have them, and, like individuals, communities and societies need help to overcome the situation. This is my passion and this is why I do what I do: work to support communities to become more resilient.
Guy Shrayer is the Head of Mission in St Vincent and the Grenadines and was previously Head of Mission in northern Greece.