22/02/2012 – EU humanitarian aid experts, Sara McHattie and Inmaculada Vazquez Rodriguez, were in Madagascar when cyclone Giovanna made landfall early this February. Here is their account.
In a country prone to seasonal cyclones preparedness matters a lot, but sometimes, Nature lends a hand. We witnessed a mix of both in Madagascar this February.
A category 4 cyclone dubbed Giovanna was furiously approaching the east coast of Madagascar. It was widely feared that the cyclone would cause massive destruction, severe flooding, and, inevitably, loss of lives. The scale of the disaster was being equated to that of cyclone Ivan in 2008, which left over 200 000 people homeless.
Fearing widespread destruction, early warning messages were hurriedly sent out via radio, sms, and the so-called “town criers”. People responded by placing sandbags on the roof tops – extra weight to force the roofs downwards in the face of strong winds.
Cyclone Giovanna made landfall on 14 February. She tore through six regions of Madagascar, including Alaotra Mangoro, Moramanga, Analamanga, (which hosts Antananarivo, the capital city), Itasy, Bongolava, and Menabe, before exiting into the Mozambique Channel on 15 February.
Fortunately, Giovanna only landed as a Tropical Storm, her effects being weaker than initially predicted. Still, she had devastating effects on the poorest and most vulnerable population
Destruction along the coast
While Giovanna was much weaker, she packed strong winds. The winds came whipping the coast at 105km/hour; strong enough to rip roofs off houses and flatten weak structures. And this is what happened especially in the rural villages.
It would appear that while early warning messages were well received in the urban areas, the warnings did not reach the remote villages along the coast.
In any case, even if the warnings got there, people had no means of reacting. Most homes in rural villages are made of timber and straw, which are not cyclone resistant.
The region between the coastal cities of Brickaville and Vatomandry took a heavy beating. The coastline between the two cities stretches for about 120 kilometres and is dotted with settlements. In these villages, there are very few secure places to store possessions or food stocks; not even in the administrative buildings, because these too are not cyclone resistant. Authorities estimate that the winds partially damaged or totally destroyed more than 50 percent of homes in Brickaville and Vatomandry districts.
When we flew over these areas, we saw at least five villages of 20 to 70 homes completely flattened – not a single hut left standing. Some villages sheltered by hills suffered less damage; those directly exposed were not spared. Over 3 000 people are still living in temporary shelters.
Brickaville city is the largest urban centre caught in the direct path of cyclone Giovanna. Here, gushing winds tore roofs and uprooted trees. Falling trees further destroyed homes and blocked access roads. Electricity was cut off and water supply disrupted. The city houses about 22 400 people and almost 80 percent of the homes were significantly damaged.
Yet, lady luck smiled again. The heavy rainfall associated with cyclones did not occur and therefore very little flooding followed. Flooding causes a second wave of damage, especially to property not affected by the wind, and also increases risk of diseases.
After the storm had passed, the next day was sunny. Many families took advantage of the sun to dry out soaked possessions.
The National Disasters Office says that Giovanna damaged or destroyed over 30 000 homes. Shelter is the immediate emergency need, but many families also face the difficult task of erecting their houses again.
In a shanty town near Vatomandry city, only three out of 48 houses were left standing. The poor are more affected because their homes are often of a poorer quality.
In Brickaville and Vatomandry districts, about 100 000 people are in direct need of emergency humanitarian assistance. They have lost their houses and most of their possessions and will need help in rebuilding homes, wells and schools; as well as in restoring their livelihoods. Nearly 50 000 were rendered homeless; their houses entirely destroyed.
Aid agencies are assessing the best ways to help. In the medium term, communities will require food, medicine, drinking water, and sanitation facilities. Together with our partners, we are getting ready to act on these needs.
Danger not over yet
Giovanna has steered clear of the coast of south Madagascar and is powering her way into the Indian Ocean, but the cyclone season is not over yet. The season normally runs from January to April, although February is the worst month.
We must continue strengthening the coping capacity of populations at risk. One way of doing this is by investing in training members of local risk management committees so that they will be better prepared to respond to the impact of cyclones in the future. We must also take into account the constant risk of cyclones while undertaking any development. Schools and hospitals in particular should be built to resist these storms.
By Sara McHattie
European Commission, Nairobi, Kenya
and by Inmaculada Vazquez Rodriguez
European Commission, Harare, Zimbabwe