On May 20th, Hurricane Adrian hit land in El Salvador with 63-mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain. The storm caused coastal flooding before moving into Honduras, leaving behind flooded homes and two dead.
Ever since Hurricane Mitch killed 9,000 people in 1998, Central Americans have been highly alert to the potential damage from another strong storm. Earthquakes in 2001 further raised concerns about natural disasters. Since then, vulnerable communities working with Oxfam America in El Salvador have invested time and energy into building shelters that can stand up to a strong hurricane or earthquake, and forming emergency committees that evaluate risks to their communities, and design evacuation plans.
The result: when Adrian threatened, evacuation plans kicked into gear and not one life was lost in the areas participating in disaster preparation projects. Emergency committees in more than a dozen communities successfully moved people safely away from flooding areas in the path of the storm.
"Since Hurricane Mitch, we have been implementing risk management projects, and there has been more commitment to disaster prevention and preparedness. People are a lot more aware of the threats of natural disasters," said Oscar Andrade, Oxfam America's Senior Program Officer for Humanitarian Response for Central America. "Hurricane Adrian was a live simulation for our partners and the communities with whom they work. And for the first time, local organizations were asking for guidance on how to handle the emergency, instead of for money," he said.
Planning for the Worst
Oxfam America has been funding disaster prevention and preparedness projects in four different departments of El Salvador. Communities in each carried out their evacuation plans, utilizing their emergency communication networks and following established evacuation routes.
One area that is particularly vulnerable to storms is at the mouth of the Lempa river that divides Usulutan and San Vicente Departments. Seven villages with more than 150 families evacuated during Adrian to safe areas and returned the next day without any loss of life, thanks to early warning systems developed to weather storms and periodic releases from an upstream hydroelectric dam. Their planning and communications systems, developed with Oxfam America's help over the last 10 years, helped them avoid the worst of Adrian.
Coordination is Key
Another important improvement seen in El Salvador is the coordination between local and national emergency assistance organizations and official government agencies. Oxfam America funds a coalition called the National Forum for Risk Management (Mesa Nacional de Gestión de Riesgos or MPGR). During the natural disaster, the MPGR's 12 members played an important role coordinating information between municipal emergency committees in areas at risk of flooding, and the specific organizations in the MPGR coalition that could best help them with emergency medical assistance or other aid.
Oxfam America helped train the members of the MPGR, and gave the coalition a $25,000-grant for emergency equipment such as shovels, pick-axes, flashlights, blankets and first aid kits. To improve MPGR's communication network, Oxfam America provided funding for radios, antennas, and walkie talkies that proved crucial in MPGR's information coordination function.
Hurricane Adrian was a serious threat, but it was also an opportunity for communities to test their assumptions about risks, evacuation plans, and communications networks. "Our partners showed they can help communities increase their security and reduce risks, and deliver disaster relief," Andrade said after the storm. "They all carried out their responsibilities smoothly, and worked together well in all phases of the emergency."
The MPGR is also advocating for national legislation that will devote finances to risk reduction and mitigation measures. The recent successes in reacting to Hurricane Adrian should help prove that an investment in risk reduction will save lives in even the most impoverished places.