For Paul Desire, a fisherman from Andovoranto, the remote community on Madagascar’s east coast where Tropical Cyclone Giovanna made landfall in February 2012, a few hours’ warning and knowing what to do made all the difference.
“I was told the cyclone was coming so I took my family to a safe place,” he said. His mother, wife and four children found shelter in one of the few brick and mortar structures the village.
Desire’s mud and thatch house was flattened. But he was confident he could rebuild. He had saved his family’s main source of income: “I had time to bury my fishing nets in plastic bags.”
The cyclone warning came from Madagascar’s Disaster Management Office (BNGRC) in the capital, Antananarivo, more than 250 kilometres away.
According to Rakotonirainy Louis de Gonzague, BNGRC’s Executive Secretary, Madagascar is battered by cyclones almost every year but functional early warning systems are a novelty to rural areas. Isolated areas like Andovoranto would be reached on foot through an organised network of government structures, relief agencies and volunteer groups.
Getting the message out to those in a cyclone’s path was one of several emergency preparedness and response measures that had improved immeasurably in recent years, he said. OCHA had been instrumental in this, “offering support before, during and after emergencies.”
Besides working on real-time communication with those in need –- Madagascar’s new mobile-phone reporting system allows disaster-affected communities to relay post-flood and cyclone information directly via SMS, for free -- OCHA has helped BNGRC develop detailed national- and regional-level contingency plans and revises them annually based on evolving risks and vulnerabilities.
Lessons-learned workshops organised by OCHA at the end of the 2011 cyclone season allowed for a frank review of successes and failures, pointing the way to a more competent handling of floods and cyclones the following year.
BNGRC had also learned valuable lessons from regional counterparts. “Every year OCHA facilitates regional training workshops with SADC (Southern African Development Community) colleagues and we share our experience,” Gonzague said.
Madagascar’s disaster management system now combines reappraisal with practice. Every year, OCHA leads an emergency-simulation exercise with real-time scenarios based on genuine threats to test response techniques and tactics. The 2011 scenario pitted government and UN agencies, civil society groups and NGOs against an imaginary cyclone that cut a path similar to that of Giovanna.
The Malagasy Meteorological Service compared Giovanna’s strength and path across the island with Tropical Cyclone Geralda, which killed 200 people and displaced 40,000 in 1994. Giovanna displaced almost as many people but fewer lives were lost. Gonzague is reluctant to draw comparisons but said “35 dead is still too many.”