Hurricane Felix’s First Responders

A 50-year-old Miskito woman named Rose Cunningham, was the early warning system for dozens of impoverished Nicaraguan communities that took a direct hit from Hurricane Felix on Tuesday. Rose, who directs a small community development organization in the nearby town of Waspam, had the benefit of Internet access the day before the storm hit the country’s North Atlantic Coast. She could see on the screen what the Nicaraguan government also knew: that the Indigenous communities along the banks of the Coco River on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border were right in the path of the Category Five hurricane.

Although the sky was already black and the Coco River was raging, Rose traveled along the river shouting warnings of the coming storm to hundreds of families whose rickety wooden homes stand precariously on stilts along the riverbank. Thanks to Rose, parents were able to gather their children and run to higher ground. But most people’s homes were broken like matchsticks and swept away by the 160-mile-an-hour winds that pounded the area within hours of Rose’s warning.

Most of the families lost their homes, their harvests, and all of their possessions. With no emergency shelters nearby, people were left exposed to the torrential rains of the hurricane. Now all they can do is wait for the next phase of the assault: life-threatening flash floods and mudslides. For these families-denied adequate warning and the infrastructure and resources needed to survive the storm-the disaster of Hurricane Felix is anything but natural.

In fact, the vulnerability of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast comes from years of discrimination and government neglect. These are the same communities that were devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 10,000 people in 1998. Yet, they still have not been equipped with an early storm warning system, health or sanitation infrastructure, or any of the public services that are critical to survival and recovery in a hurricane.

Speaking with MADRE by satellite phone on September 4, Rose Cunningham commented, “The national government is obligated by international standards-as are all governments-to prevent the worst impacts of such storms. But here the people live in deep poverty, right at the edge of the river. There are no clinics or emergency workers. No phones, no electricity. We have never had these resources and now we need them more than ever.”

Natural Disaster or Disastrous Policies?

The term “natural disaster” has always obscured the disproportionate impact of such events on poor communities. But today, even the force of the hurricanes we face may not be entirely natural. Many scientists believe that storms are intensifying as sea temperatures rise due to global warming. Hurricane Felix’s landfall, on the heels of last month’s Hurricane Dean, marks the first time in more than 120 years that two Category Five storms have hit land in the same season. In fact, of the 31 Category Five storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, eight of them have struck in the last five seasons. And Felix intensified faster than any storm on record.

The main causes of global warming, as we know, are greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the unsustainable use of fossil fuels. And it’s not the government of Nicaragua-or any other poor country-that bears primary responsibility for the problem. The biggest culprits are industrialized countries, led by the US. In fact, the human impacts of climate change represent a deeply unjust dynamic: while economic polices and consumption habits in rich countries are driving global warming, the harshest consequences are being borne by poor countries, where communities continue to be denied resources for survival and recovery.

Within these communities, women are often hardest hit when disaster strikes because they are over-represented among the poor and often have no safety net. Women are also primarily responsible for those made most vulnerable by disaster-children, the elderly, and people who are ill or disabled. “We know from experience that the worst is yet to come,” said Rose Cunningham. “The flooding and mudslides will bring outbreaks of malaria and cholera. People will have no choice but to drink dirty water. Our children and elders will suffer diarrhea. It seems a simple ailment, but without clean water, diarrhea is deadly to babies and old people. The children will ask their mothers for food and water. What will their mothers tell them?”
The Day After

Across Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Coast, people’s lives and livelihoods lie in ruins. But Rose Cunningham and the women she has been organizing with for years began mobilizing an emergency response even before the storm passed. “We may not have the helicopters and media attention of the large aid agencies,” said Rose, “but we have our networks and we are doing what we can.”

Rose turned to MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization that has worked in partnership with Indigenous women’s community-based organizations in Nicaragua since 1983. MADRE immediately launched an emergency relief effort to provide temporary shelters, water purification tablets, antibiotics, mosquito netting, and other necessities to communities hardest hit by the storm.

Rose worked with MADRE in 1998, during Hurricane Mitch, when some emergency response teams didn’t know where Indigenous villages were, much less how to reach them in flood conditions. “With the resources from MADRE we were able to bring aid directly to the women and families who needed it most,” recalls Rose “and that’s what we must do now. We live here. We know which families have a new baby or someone who cannot walk. We know how to cross the river when the water is angry and we know that aid must be handed to the women, to the mothers, because they are in charge of meeting their families’ needs.”

Disasters such as Hurricane Felix may have global implications, but they are always local events. And the women in the communities devastated by this storm are not only victims of the disaster, they are also first-responders. We wouldn’t expect a fire fighter to go into a burning building without equipment, resources, and training. Let’s make sure that the women of Nicaragua have the resources they deserve to ensure their families’ survival and begin the tremendous job of rebuilding their lives and communities.

YIFAT SUSSKIND is communications director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She is the author of a book on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and a report on US culpability for violence against women in Iraq, both forthcoming.