When Hurricane Mathew was just a tropical storm beginning to form over the Atlantic in September 2016, the Red Cross was already fearing the worst. Haitian Red Cross volunteers mobilized to warn communities about the approaching hurricane, and what they could do to keep safe.  These volunteers had been trained as recently as that same month as part of the Canadian Red Cross Capacity Building for Emergency Response in the Americas Initiative (CERA). They worked to rapidly train local volunteers and support the pre-positioning of relief items for 3,500 families.

In Honduras, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Disaster Manager for Central America Felipe Del Cid also began to prepare. Del Cid has long been supported in his role by the Canadian Red Cross, through its project to strengthen IFRC disaster response mechanisms. He knew he would likely be asked to help, and finally received a call over the weekend of October 1st to make his way to Haiti. The fear was that the island would bear the brunt of the storm. 

“There weren’t any options to fly directly to Haiti, all the flights were cancelled because of the strong winds,” said Del Cid. “The only option was to go from Honduras to Panama to Dominic Republic and then maybe get a flight once there.”

Once he arrived in Santo Domingo, all flights were cancelled. So he embarked on a six hour overland journey to the Jimani border crossing between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Upon arrival to the border, the rains were so heavy that no one besides Del Cid was trying to cross. He walked for nearly a kilometre to get to the Haitian border control. Everything he carried became wet—his computer, passport, clothes.

A Red Cross driver was there to pick him up on the other side. But this was only part of the journey as he then had to travel from the border to Port-au-Prince, a three-hour drive, through many flooded communities, rivers that flowed over bridges, and thousands of people with their houses flooded and crops destroyed.

“I took one minute to think whether we should stop traveling because of the risk, but I knew that was not an option because we had to start helping people as soon as possible,” said Del Cid.

Haiti was the country most impacted by the storm – an estimated 2.1 million people in the southwest of Haiti were affected by Hurricane Matthew.  It’s the largest humanitarian emergency in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. Del Cid knew that people living in already vulnerable conditions would be the most at risk from the storm.

Once he finally arrived in Port-au-Prince, he met with the Canadian Red Cross head of delegation in Haiti, Brigitte Gaillis. The Canadian Red Cross has a long-term presence in-country supporting the Haitian Red Cross. Gaillis had been pulled from her regular duties and seconded to join the IFRC Field Assessment and Coordination team (FACT) as the deputy team leader. The FACT team is the first international team to be sent by the Red Cross should a disaster be big enough to warrant additional support.  Gaillis and Del Cid began to prepare a response plan while waiting for the rest of the team to arrive.

Needs on the ground

In Montreal, Canadian Red Cross communications delegate Nicole Robicheau anxiously prepared to join Gaillis and Del Cid while watching Matthew move closer and closer to Haiti. She’s part of a roster of delegates who can be deployed as part of the Canadian Red Cross public engagement project.

“In times of disasters, especially in the early days, it’s important for us to be able to show the needs on the ground, what the Red Cross is doing to support, and how Canadians can help,” said Robicheau.

On October 4th, she went to the airport early in the morning hoping to catch a flight to Port-au-Prince, only to be turned back because the airport was closed. The following day, she tried again, and finally made it.

A few days later, two more Canadians joined the FACT team, this time, health specialists. Dr. Lynda-Redwood Campbell, a family doctor and longtime aid worker based in Hamilton and Laura Archer, a nurse with several years of experience working overseas who now works on health for the Canadian Red Cross in Ottawa. The two were tasked with assessing health needs on the ground.

Once the FACT team was all together, they travelled to the town of Jeremie, one of the worst hit areas, to establish a base there and provide support to the local Haitian Red Cross branch.

“We saw huge needs in villages and towns up and down the western coast and people desperate for help,” said Dr. Redwood-Campbell. “Because of the damage, many areas were cut off by the storm so we had to helicopter in to some towns and reached others by boat and foot.”

The Red Cross was the first to arrive in many of the places they visited, so while the team was assessing the devastation to medical clinics and other infrastructure, they were also handing out relief items, shelter kits and hygiene items to people in need with the support of local Red Cross volunteers.

Field Hospital

After completing more detailed health assessments, Dr. Redwood- Campbell and Archer realized that the local health facilities were overwhelmed, and there was a need to bring in additional support.
The Canadian Red Cross had its field hospital and trained aid workers, which is supported by the Government of Canada, on standby. The call was made and very quickly the Canadian Red Cross sent equipment configured to be used in a mobile clinic setting as well as trained and specialized aid workers.

“We wanted the teams to have the ability to be mobile, to get to the last mile and make sure remote hard to reach communities could be helped,” said Archer.

The mobile clinic treated more than 3,500 patients in two months of operation. It also provided much needed psychosocial support to more than 220 people. Emilie Gauthier-Paré, an expert in psychosocial support from the Canadian Red Cross, provided essential comfort to people traumatized from the hurricane. 

“Many of these people had seen their belongings, their crops and their homes disappear under their very eyes,” she said. “Their entire lives changed overnight, and it was extremely difficult to cope with.”

Red Cross Distribution

CERA trained Haitian Red Cross volunteers carried out damage and needs assessments in and around Jeremie using the software Open Data Kit (ODK), which allows information to be gathered rapidly on mobile phones. They also supported the first Red Cross distribution of aid relief using Mega5, a system to analyze data. Both ODK and Mega5 have been financially supported by the Canadian Red Cross project to strengthen disaster response mechanisms. 

Augustin Jean was the first person in line during the Red Cross’ second day of distribution of much needed relief items in Anse D’Hainault, a town on the southwestern coast of Haiti. The roof blew off her home when Hurricane Matthew made landfall. She was inside at the time, and had to leave quickly, but she has since returned. 

"I covered part of the house with a tarp, but because of the rain, I had to stay upright all night so I would not get wet. I used containers to capture the rain," said Jean.

Despite the discomfort, the two tarpaulins donated by the Government of Canada that she received from the Red Cross made a big difference for Jean. She could be in her home again, and remain dry. 

In the first two months, the Red Cross distributed approximately 900,000 relief items Including 5,000 water purification tablets, more than 6,400 blankets, 9,000 hygiene kits, 14,300 kitchen sets, 21,100 tarpaulins and more than 13,000 mosquito nets.

Through the Canadian Red Cross, the Government of Canada donated relief supplies to meet the immediate needs of up to 2,000 families and contributed funds to the Red Cross Movement appeal to support the provision of immediate humanitarian assistance after Hurricane Matthew.

A total of 34 Canadian Red Cross aid workers were deployed to support the Red Cross Movement response in Haiti. 

Much of this was made possible through the Strategic Partnership between the Canadian Red Cross and the Government of Canada. This collaboration is not unique to the Americas, it also occurs in Africa, where many more stories like this one could be told.