Defying the Force of Nature: Rehabilitating Cyclone Shelters in Madagascar

Having a baby can be a stressful event in the life of any woman.

Having a baby can be a stressful event in the life of any woman. Worrying when it will happen, if the baby will be healthy, and how much pain it will cause are typical concerns most women can relate to. Having a baby in the midst of a cyclone? Now that is another story.

On 7 March 2017 at 11:00 am, Jolita, 26, gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Tania in one of Medair’s cyclone shelters in Madagascar during Cyclone Enawo, which struck the northeast coast of Madagascar that day with Category 4 force.

“My water broke the day before. We knew we couldn’t stay in our house – warnings about Cyclone Enawo were going out. I was very anxious. I wanted to be in a safe place for my very first delivery, especially if it was going to happen during a cyclone! We knew the cyclone shelter was our best option.”

Jolita is one of 200 people in the village of Ambinanitelo who found refuge in one of Medair’s cyclone shelters when Cyclone Enawo hit. The following days, heavy rains caused destructive floods, leaving her village under three metres of water.

Right after Cyclone Enawo’s passage, Medair travelled to the devastated areas to assess the needs of the people affected, and to distribute emergency water and sanitation kits and disinfect contaminated wells. Alfred Ralaimboa, 40, was part of a Medair team that went to Jolita’s village. “When we arrived, Jolita’s cyclone shelter was completely full,” Alfred remembers. “In other villages, people were so desperate to find refuge that the number of people in the shelter far exceeded the recommended capacity. In one village, 380 people stayed in the cyclone shelter!”

People told the Medair teams that many lives had been saved because of the shelters, which Medair had built between 2011 and 2013. Alfred had supervised the construction of seven of those shelters. He felt real joy and pride when he saw that the shelters had played such a crucial role in keeping so many people safe.

“Although the district of Maroantsetra is often hit by cyclones, flooding is what makes this area particularly vulnerable,” he explains. “When a cyclone hits, the heavy rains are trapped in this basin and the whole area quickly floods. This region is the wettest in Madagascar – 3,000 ml of rain a year!”

The Medair shelters are five years old now. The communities have tried to maintain them, but many need to be rehabilitated. “We want to avoid an accident the next time the communities use the shelters,” says Alfred. “Rotten wood needs to be changed and foundations need to be reinforced. The doors must be repaired and the locks changed. In several, the latrines and water reservoirs need to be repaired.”

By the next cyclone season in November 2017, Medair will rehabilitate 11 shelters. Alfred is supervising the rehabilitation work of four of them, including the one in Jolita’s village. He hopes the next cyclone season will be mild, but should another major cyclone hit the area, he knows people will be safe in the newly rehabilitated cyclone shelters.