For five days, representatives from National Red Cross Societies in Central America and the Caribbean, as well as from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, have been meeting in Panama to review and update their contingency plans for the upcoming hurricane season, as well as defining coordination mechanisms between the different actors that will be involved in a disaster response operation in the region, in close cooperation with external actors and donors.
"Last season was very active, with four major hurricanes cutting a swath through the Caribbean, and the Red Cross response system worked very well. Once again, this year we are ready to respond professionally and quickly," said Santiago Gil, head of the International Federation's Americas department.
For the last six months, the Red Cross has been working on its disaster preparedness mechanisms, which have shown their worth several times in recent years. Disaster preparedness was crucial during last year's hurricane season, and it is playing a key role in saving lives again in 2005.
Indeed, the Red Cross has already faced its first challenge this year, with the early arrival of the first hurricane, Adrian, at the end of May.
With Central America and the Caribbean regularly affected by the annual hurricane season, contingency plans were in place well before Adrian hit, and the Red Cross throughout the region was on high alert and well prepared, despite the fact that the hurricane season usually does not begin until June.
Although hurricane Adrian was not very destructive, the implementation of a set of well-organized emergency procedures ensured rapid and orderly evacuations from high-risk areas, greatly reducing the impact in those communities that were hit.
The Red Cross emergency response system in the Americas was activated. Regional and National Intervention Teams and all National Red Cross Societies in the affected countries coordinated closely with their National Emergency Committees to better respond to the disaster.
Relief stocks were pre-positioned, along with human resources. In El Salvador, thousands of people were evacuated and the Red Cross mobilized lifeguard brigades and teams trained in first aid, search and rescue and psychosocial support throughout the country.
Also last week, the International Federation, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Colon Free Trade Zone in Panama signed an agreement to establish a warehouse where humanitarian supplies will be stored and dispatched more quickly to the disaster-affected communities.
Since 2002, the International Federation has had a cooperation agreement with UNICEF on the pre-positioning of goods in its Panama-based Pan-American Disaster Response Unit (PADRU). Now, UNICEF will also store its goods in this warehouse.
"This collaboration between UNICEF and the International Federation reflects the commitment of all humanitarian agencies and the United Nations system to work on natural disaster preparedness that so tragically affects our region," said Nils Kastberg, UNICEF Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. "With coordinated and joint action we can act more effectively, so each year less people, adults and children, see their lives cut short because of natural disasters."
Last year, the International Federation sent a total of 350 tonnes of humanitarian aid in 12 flights chartered by PADRU to hurricane-hit countries in the Caribbean. More than 200,000 people received direct assistance from the Red Cross.
Hurricane season in the Atlantic officially started on June 1st and meteorologists have predicted that this season will be particularly active in Central America and the Caribbean. According to the forecasts, this season, which runs until the end of November, is expected to bring 11 tropical storms, of which six could become hurricanes.