Category: International

Haiti: waiting for Hurricane Tomas to hit


Mandy-with-kids in Haiti

Mandy George is one of our delegates currently based in Haiti and she has just sent this report:

There is an air of anticipation over Port-au-Prince this morning. Hurricane Tomas is just to the South West of us, currently hitting the Haitian coastline and is predicted to move north and have the worst impact on Port-au-Prince this afternoon. It’s already pouring with rain and the wind is picking up. The rain is so heavy it sounds like hail thumping the roof where the British Red Cross team is sheltering.

It’s just a waiting game now. Red Cross preparedness teams have done all they can over the past two days,  furiously taking advantage of the last few hours of calm yesterday to help people prepare for the storm: lining canals with sandbags to stop flooding, clearing drains, securing tents with ropes, blasting advice from sound trucks going around the camps, emergency first aid training for dealing with the most common injuries.

We all have to been back at our apartments in ‘hibernation’ since 2pm yesterday… waiting until we can get back out there to assess the damage and help people recover from the storm. Even if we only get heavy rain in Port-au-Prince, there are still going to be a lot of people that need our assistance. We have Red Cross response teams ready to go as soon as the weather eases up, and we have enough emergency stock in country for up to 17,000 families.

I have lots of food and water and am fortunate enough to have a solid building to shelter in. But for the people in the camps – I dread to think what they are going to go through. At least we will be here to respond afterwards…

It is a strange feeling to know that a disaster is coming, in stark contrast to the earthquake that had no prior warning. It is also interesting to compare public attitude towards a disaster here in Haiti to the UK or the US. Back at home people would be madly preparing, emptying store shelves of food and water and the media would be whipping the public into even more of a frenzy.

From conversations with residents of La Piste camp yesterday, many of them do not necessarily realise the potential severity of this storm, despite being used to hurricanes. Maybe it’s just that they have already been through so much, maybe it is lack of information. That is why we have drastically stepped up our preparedness information campaign over the last 48 hours, along with practical disaster risk reduction activities. At least for this disaster we have been able to do something to prepare.

As for me, I’m trying to decide what is more scary: the ground shaking on a regular basis or the anticipation of major winds and rain as I tape up my windows with masking tape. And as for the cholera epidemic…

More about the cholera epidemic

The urgent need to stop the spread of cholera in Haiti


Guest post from Alyson Lewis, head of the British Red Cross health advisory team .

Vibrio cholerae (courtesy Wikipedia)

After every major natural disaster that robs communities of their homes and forces people into conditions without clean water or toilets, fears of further deaths through disease are immediate.

Whatever the cause, be it storm, flood, or as in Haiti’s case an earthquake, the combination of having no access to clean water coupled with unsanitary conditions – where human waste can mix with water people have no choice but to drink – creates a fearsome breeding ground for disease.

While there is a vast array of possible health threats, top billing for potential outbreaks amongst those hit by a disaster is almost exclusively reserved for cholera.

But just why is this disease so feared?

A tiny bacteria, cholera causes extreme diarrhoea and vomiting.

Initial symptoms are stomach pains, quickly evolving into diarrhoea that becomes rapidly worse, eventually producing what is colloquially known as ‘rice water’ – pale, watery faeces which literary pours out of the body.

Patients can lose up to 10 litres of fluid in a single day and, untreated, the dehydration brought on by cholera can kill within 24 hours.

It is an unimaginably horrible way to die, and anybody who has witnessed the disease at first hand is unlikely to ever forget it.

On top of this, in places where conditions are ripe, cholera’s transmission can be terrifyingly prolific.

In the last year, an outbreak in Zimbabwe resulted in almost 100,000 cases in a little over six months and more than 4,000 deaths.

Passed on through dirty water, when bacteria from the faeces of a sufferer finds its way into drinking water, or through food, if people don’t thoroughly wash their hands after going to the toilet, the potential for the disease to breakout and claim lives in the wake of a disaster is huge.

Credit: Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross

But paradoxically, for such a formidable disease, treatment is simple.

Rehydration with clean water, salt and sugar should be enough to save someone’s life.

IV fluids can help in more advanced cases, and antibiotics can shorten the length of the disease, but straightforward rehydration is the major tool.

Treatment alone, however, is unsustainable without tackling the root cause of an outbreak.

In virtually every case, this is a lack of access to clean water and clean toilets, and a lack of hygiene.

Since the earthquake in Haiti, agencies have been working continuously to minimize the threat of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

Every day, the Red Cross trucks 2.4 million litres of clean water to more than 300,000 people living in camps in Port-au-Prince, and has built more than 2,500 latrines, serving almost a quarter of a million people.

There have also been mass hygiene promotion programmes reaching tens of thousands of people living in camps.

That cholera has not raised its head before is in no small part to the massive international aid effort.

In response to the current situation, the Red Cross has already sent vital medical supplies to the main hospital in Saint Marc, in the affected area, and is trucking tens-of-thousands of litres of clean water, along with chlorine, to help stop further transmission of the disease.

Red Cross teams have also been reaching people with hygiene information, including through mass SMS messaging.

All of these are effective, common sense emergency steps, just as the nine months of water distributions and latrine construction and servicing, have been sensible, effective measures to prevent an outbreak.

Longer term, are the issues of development and reconstruction.

Pre-earthquake, sanitation in Haiti was already some of the worst in the world – last year, the UN reported that less than half of people in Port-au-Prince had access to clean water and only around a third had access to adequate sanitation. The earthquake has only made things worse.

To prevent cholera and other diseases being a constant threat, permanent infrastructure needs to be put in place, but this is long-term recovery which will take years.

Right now, the Red Cross will continue its work, delivering lifesaving help to those in need and desperately working to protect communities from outbreaks of disease.

Read more: Red Cross responds as health concerns grow

This week's headlines


Some of the headlines that have caught our attention this week.

As usual, these links may contain views and opinions with which the British Red Cross might not necessarily agree with nor endorse.

138 dead after cholera outbreak in Haiti – CNN

Haitian Health Ministry officials have informed the World Health Organization that 138 deaths are a part of a fast-moving cholera outbreak north of Port-au-Prince, a U.N. official said.

Asylum seekers may have to pay towards cost of appeals – The Scotsman

Asylum seekers and migrants who want to appeal against decisions made against them will be charged under new plans.


David Cameron was last night forced to defend the Government’s massive hike in overseas aid while slashing public spending in Britain.

Typhoon Megi heads for China after striking Philippines – BBC

Typhoon Megi was the strongest to hit the Philippines for several years and caused significant damage, tearing the roofs off houses and cutting power. It has now passed over the main island, Luzon, and is heading towards the southern coast of China.

Big increase in drunken 10-year-olds who need an ambulance – Evening Standard

London Ambulance Service figures today reveal that the number of 10- and 11-year-olds requiring medical treatment for alcohol abuse has more than doubled in the past two years.

In the news this week


Starting today, we’ll be doing a weekly roundup of some of the headlines that have caught our attention over the past 7 days. They all relate to our core areas of work – emergency response, first aid, refugee services, volunteering, and resilience – but they don’t necessarily reflect our own views on the subjects covered.

Feel free to leave your own thoughts on these topics in the comments.

Pakistan flood damage at $9.5 bln

“Pakistan’s recent floods inflicted $9.5 billion in damage to property, crops and infrastructure, according to an Asian Development Bank and World Bank assessment, Finance Ministry officials said on Wednesday.”

Senegal takes in Haitian student refugees

“It is one of Africa’s poorest countries, with simmering discontent over power cuts and unemployment with nearly half the population living in poverty. But Senegal has made good on a promise to give free homes and education to a group of Haitian students who lost everything in January’s devastating earthquake.”

Global hunger index: see how the world compares

“Is global hunger getting worse? According to the 2010 Global Hunger Index (GHI), published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in many countries nothing has changed over the last decade.”

7/7 bombs acts of ‘merciless savagery’, inquests told

“The 52 victims of the 7 July 2005 bombings were “murdered” in acts of “merciless savagery”, the inquests into their deaths has heard.”

Child asylum-seekers targeted in Home Office budget cuts

“Thousands of child asylum-seekers are to be removed from Britain under savage budget cuts being drawn up by the Home Office ahead of this week’s comprehensive spending review.”

We will need ‘2 Earths’ to sustain our lifestyle

“Our take up of food, land, natural minerals and animals has doubled in under 50 years, says new research.”

International Day for Disaster Reduction 2010

“This year a number of major disasters have captivated the attention of the public and media: the January earthquake in Haiti, the massive earthquake in Chile one month later, the summer heatwave and wildfires in Russia and months of continued flooding in Pakistan.”

The British Red Cross is neither responsible for, nor endorses, the content of external websites.

Pakistan floods: from writer to relief worker


Last week I was writing about our Pakistan Floods Appeal from my desk in London and this week I find myself deployed to help with the distribution of emergency relief in Sindh province – this job is never dull!

A young man in Pakistan carries a box of relief itemsWhen the floods began in the north of the country in July the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies responded quickly, co-ordinating the emergency response with Red Cross National Societies around the world. A number of emergency response units (ERU) were deployed immediately to help with the distribution of food, tarpaulins, blankets and other items as well as to provide medical attention and clean water.

Over the last couple of months as the floods continued south and the disaster has grown (now affecting huge swathes of the country and one in eight people), more emergency response units have been deployed, including the British Red Cross logistics ERU.

Early on, the Finnish and Danish Red Cross set up a warehouse in Mardan, Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa province from which they continue to distribute emergency relief items to people affected in the mountainous north.

Last month, the British Red Cross set up two warehouses in the south of the country – one in Multan, Punjab province and one even further south in Sukkur, Sindh province. After working flat out to get the warehouses up and running the four member team has been reaching up to 14,000 households a week with food parcels and other emergency items. Each household has approximately seven people.

The first team has now returned and a second team is now in place – which is where I come in. I am replacing Kate Thomas – who has been blogging about her role in responding to the floods over the past month on Posterous.

Like Kate, my role will be to keep on top of what emergency relief items we are expecting to be delivered. This means tracking every movement of every aid item from the moment it arrives in the country by sea or air, it’s transport to our warehouse and finally delivery to the people who so desperately need it.

Hundreds of boxes of relief itemsTracking the goods is vital so that the rest of my team can keep the flow of aid smooth. The challenges when dealing with such huge quanities of stock include making sure there’s enough room in the warehouse when it needs to be delivered and stored and enough trucks, time and people to load the aid when it needs be distributed.

It may sound strange that the Red Cross has sent me – as someone who works in communications – to help with the delivery of relief, but it’s not quite as random as it sounds!

I also have a background in the operational side of the Red Cross’ work and I have undergone the training necessary to join our logistics emergency response unit. In 2006, I was deployed to Indonesia after an earthquake in Yogyakarta and in 2007 I worked in the Maldives on the tsunami recovery programme.

So, today, I’m in Islamabad being briefed about the operation and tomorrow I will go to Sukkur. I am here for three weeks and I know it’s going to be busy as already the plans are to ramp up our distributions to double the amount. But after sitting in London writing about the floods for the last couple of months it feels good to be here and to get stuck into the emergency operation.

Although the floodwaters are beginning to recede in most areas, the emergency is far from over. Millions of people have lost everything and desperately need ongoing support with food, clean water and healthcare.

So much land has been damaged and it’s unlikely it will be fit for the next planting season, which is fast approaching.

Although the Pakistan Red Crescent, with support from the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, has already reached more than one million people with emergency food and other aid, this support will be needed for months to come.

If you want to keep up to date with the work we’re doing in Pakistan, I’ll be uploading photos and blogging on our emergencies blog.

Images © Olav Saltbones/IFRC

Returning from deployment in Pakistan


This is a guest post from Kate Thomas, a member of the British Red Cross logistics emergency response unit in Pakistan. Kate has been blogging from the field on our emergency blog.

I’m new to relief work, and have been overwhelmed at all the factors to consider to ensure quick and efficient distribution of food and relief items – things like road safety, labour and security at the distribution point. It is also difficult to estimate when consignments are expected, and therefore to plan the labour and trucks.

Food has to be laboratory tested before dispatch to ensure it’s not substandard, or more importantly, at risk of causing harm. Distributing mosquito nets without education is dangerous – they are impregnated with repellent which can causes rashes and even worse, breathing difficulties in youngsters if they are not left to hang for 24 hours before use. Also, public holidays like Eid when no workers were available!

Security has been another issue: events like the threatened burning of the Koran on 11th September and the conviction of Dr Aafia in the US meant there were days were we were advised not to leave the hotel. Some days we could have left if we’d accepted an armed police escort, but we are the Red Cross and our fundamental principles of neutrality, humanity, impartiality mean we should never be protected by weapons.

Challenges present themselves, and we have to deal with them. This is not to dramatise the situation, or to patronise your understanding of relief work. Hopefully just to help you understand my newcomer’s view on what some of the challenges are, what is important and why things happen when – and also to stress that although sometimes we just hear stories about what hasn’t happened, not what IS happening.

All that said, we achieved a great deal in our month. Sourcing and setting up 2 warehouses, refurbishing one of them, employing and training 2 reliable local labour forces, engaging 2 truck fleets, recruiting and training excellent local staff, ensuring a good relationship with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, working with the relief team to distribute over 12,000 food and non-food parcels, and handing over to the new team who we wish the best of luck!

Is all this too little too late? Definitely not. The needs of the flood-affected people will continue for years. Those who have been able to return home have returned to damaged houses and ruined land; they cannot support themselves. What we do now is critical for their livelihoods, and personally I have felt very lucky to have been given the opportunity to contribute, even if just in a small way.

10 things you didn't know about the Red Cross


1. During the Second World War, as well as sending food parcels, we sent artificial limbs to wing commander Douglas Bader in a parcel while he was a prisoner of war. We also sent more than 14,000 musical instruments to POWs, resulting in orchestras at 100 camps. Books were also provided for recreational and study purposes.

2. When celebrity supporter Stephen Fry tweeted about our Pakistan Floods Appeal recently, he helped us reach 2.5 million people on Twitter.

3. We have one web-footed volunteer – a dog called Loki. The Newfoundland is a member of the water rescue team in Northern Scotland and prized for his life-saving prowess in water, in case of  floods.

4. Agatha Christie was a voluntary aid detachment for the Red Cross during the First World War  and Second World War.

5. As well as donations to our emergency appeals, we receive some more unusual things in the post from the public, such as a prosthetic leg..and tea bags.

6. Our fourth most profitable charity shop – taking nearly £100,000 profit already this year – is situated in a sunken car park, off the beaten track, in Banchory, Scotland.

7. Percy Lane Oliver, a British Red Cross volunteer, set up the UK’s first blood collection service in 1921. The Red Cross supported the NHS with blood transfusion until 1987.

8. Rudyard Kipling helped with our war library, which supplied free books and magazines to sick and wounded soldiers and sailors in the UK and abroad during the First World War.

9. The Red Cross worked with the Department of health to produce dressings made of moss throughout the Second World War. There was substantial demand from hospitals which led to a huge saving in the use of cotton wool. The dressings were made by Red Cross work parties throughout Scotland. By June 1945, there were sufficient stocks. During the war 83,616 dressings were dispatched from Ayrshire, 35,475 from the Glasgow regional centre, and 35 sacks and 2037 dressings from Lanarkshire.

10. It may only be October, but our Christmas cards are already available  online.

How would Britain cope with an earthquake?


earthquake rubble and Red Cross personnelUnlike poor Pakistan and Haiti, the locations of the world’s biggest recent disasters, our lives are pretty safe in Britain, by comparison.

Our extremes of weather and natural disasters pale when compared to those of many less fortunate countries around the world, whose inhabitants tend to be much less able to cope when these extreme events  strike.

Luckily, the Red Cross is well practised in emergency response both in the UK and overseas, and helps countless people in crisis each year.

It was shocking to read in newspapers recently however, that normally relatively cosy Britain, is at risk of being hit by a devastating earthquake, according to a leading geologist. ‘This may happen in London – and we’re not ready’, screamed the Independent headline about it. It was an interesting point.

While the Red Cross is not in the business of predicting whether such a disaster would be likely, we are concerned with the UK’s ability to respond effectively in any emergency. That’s why we recently commissioned a report exploring the legal and operational implications for the UK, should a large-scale event happen and we needed help in the shape of international relief from abroad.

One recommendation the report makes is for the government to clarify the different roles of various departments should major disaster strike. While the Cabinet Office would arguably take the lead, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office might also be involved through our network of embassies and consulates abroad.

The key to a coordinated, smooth response is preparation. And that’s where fake earthquakes can also come in handy.

Image © Alessandra di Meo/Italian Red Cross