WFP Ready For Hurricanes

Two thirds of the way through the 2009 hurricane season, Haiti has yet to be hit by a major storm – a phenomenon for which international aid agencies, government officials and the people of this Caribbean nation are grateful. But in case the luck should not hold, WFP is ready.

PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haiti was devastated by a series of storms and hurricanes which struck in late August and September last year. The port town of Gonaives was particularly badly hit as rainwater ran off surrounding hills, flooding the streets. Hundreds of lives were lost, homes were destroyed and agricultural land was ruined.

By the end of September of this year, Haiti was still unscathed and increasingly hopeful. Meteorologists were crediting the calming effects of El Nino for what may turn out to be a below-normal storm season.

Taking no chances, however, WFP is ready to launch a major relief effort if a powerful storm hits Haiti and wreaks havoc, as happened last year and in 2004. The director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, Jack Hayes, has pointed out that hurricanes can strike even during an El Nino.

Preparing for disaster relief

Alongside the food required for all ongoing operations in the country, 5,700 metric tons of food have been set aside for post-disaster relief – enough to supply 500,000 people with an emergency one-month ration of cereals, pulses, vegetable oil and salt. WFP has also stockpiled special, highly-nutritious food for 35,000 children and pregnant and lactating women.

This food can only be distributed quickly if the roads are passable, which will probably not be the case in the immediate aftermath of a major storm. Flood waters will have submerged roads and swept bridges away. In the days following a hurricane, it is likely that thousands of people will not even have wood or charcoal to prepare staple foods like cereals or pulses.

In preparation for that worst-case scenario, WFP has dispersed appropriate immediate-response food throughout the country – high-energy biscuits that need no cooking. The WFP inter-agency logistics office has finished stationing its fleet of 63 six-wheel-drive, ‘go-anywhere’ trucks throughout Haiti.

Trucks and helicopters

Available free of charge to all humanitarian organizations, these trucks can carry far more than food. In 2008, they also delivered a range of other crucial supplies to many of the 800,000 people affected by the storms, including construction materials to rebuild their homes. And if even these trucks can’t get through, then WFP will resort to helicopters – as it did last year – to get vital assistance to people in remote and inaccessible communities that need it urgently.

WFP is ready to respond to disasters but is equally committed to disaster risk reduction – putting in place measures that will help people prepare for and survive the worst. Particular attention is now being paid to helping communities withstand disasters provoked by climate change. By helping restore key assets such as degraded watersheds and deforested hillsides, WFP and its partners aim to improve the environment and reduce the impact of extreme weather events.

Officially, the hurricane season began in June but most storms occur August through October. In May, the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)  predicted up to 14 major storms for this season and said four to seven could become hurricanes.

Forecasts for the return of El Nino – warmer than normal waters along the equatorial central and eastern Pacific Ocean – seem to be well founded. NOAA believes El Nino is sending stronger upper-level westerly winds over the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic which are helping to reduce hurricane activity, blowing away the tops of growing thunderstorm clouds that would normally lead to tropical storms.