Madagascar : Living Through Cyclone Enawo

Enawo. I’ll never forget that name!

Enawo. I’ll never forget that name! It may sound like an exotic destination with peaceful white sand beaches, but it was anything but peaceful. Cyclone Enawo struck the northeast coast of Madagascar on 7 March 2017 with Category 4 force.

“We expect Enawo to be one of the strongest cyclones to strike Madagascar in the past five years,” said the weather report, 24 hours before it hit. I felt anxious, but not panicked. Every year, Medair prepares well for the cyclone season. We had already called back all our relief workers still in the field. We secured the office by strengthening the roof with ropes and storing our equipment inside waterproof barrels. We found a safe place to store the vehicles, motorcycles, and boats—and we replenished the safe, in case the banks had to close for some days. I knew my colleagues had gone through many cyclones in the past and were fully prepared. They were full of good advice, so that really kept me in peace.

At the end of the day, I left the Medair base one last time to check around the town, to make sure people had found safe places to weather the storm. The rain was already pouring down. I saw many families who had evacuated to schools and churches. “We left everything behind to seek refuge here,” said a mother, as she and her family tried to make the best of a little corner in a school classroom.

I noticed the level of the river had already risen quite a bit. It was going to be a long night for everyone.

Back in my room at the base, the wind blew harder and the rain pounded on the roof and windows. I tossed and turned in my bed, exhausted from the frantic activities of the last 24 hours, yet unable to sleep. I kept thinking about my Malagasy colleagues and friends. Would their wooden houses withstand the strong winds? Would their houses be spared from flooding?

When dawn finally came, I peered outside and saw that the river had risen by almost a metre. Determined to start assessing the damage, I stepped into the street and quickly realised that my boots were of no use. The muddy water came up to my thighs! The streets had become rivers themselves. I slowly waded my way to the office. Some houses had been destroyed or no longer had roofs; most had been flooded. Many of the wells were also underwater, and certainly contaminated. My five-minute walk to work took 20 minutes through the flooded streets.

When I opened the office door, I sighed with relief. It had not been flooded—at least not yet. One by one, my Malagasy colleagues arrived. Many informed me that their houses had been flooded or damaged, or both. I felt a rush of pride in my peers and renewed energy within myself, realising they had left everything behind to help others first.

Our first priority was to save lives! Our teams rapidly assessed the situation all across town, and we assisted the authorities in evacuating people from dangerous areas.

The next 48 hours were a blur of constant activity. We continued to assess the damage by foot, by boat, and by air. The powerful winds and heavy rains had left Maroantsetra unrecognisable. The sand on the beaches had become mud and debris. Flooded streets had become rivers, carrying torn branches and random belongings.

Medair had pre-positioned emergency WASH kits (buckets, soap, and water treatment solution) so they could be delivered quickly in the event of a cyclone. In our first 48 hours, we organised the first distributions of those emergency WASH kits, ensuring safe drinking water for vulnerable families.

Though my body was aching and my mind was overloading, I was fuelled by adrenaline. We had accomplished as much as we could in the first 48 hours. The Medair team went above and beyond to save lives, especially my Malagasy colleagues who had been personally affected by the storm. Their inspiring effort in the face of hardship is something I will always remember; it’s a story to tell my future grandchildren.

Cyclone Enawo affected more than 400,000 people nationwide, none more severely than the people of Maroantsetra, who bore the brunt of the flooding. By the end of March, Medair had distributed more than 2,200 WASH kits and disinfected more than 400 wells to ensure safe drinking water and prevent the spread of disease in Maroantsetra. We also led a rapid assessment of 87 villages and shared the results with the authorities and other partners so that appropriate rapid responses could be implemented.

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About the author: Ketsia, 30, is French although she has lived most of her life overseas, including Mauritania, Chad, England, and Uruguay. In 2015, she joined Medair and worked in Haiti as logistician. In February 2016, she joined the Medair Madagascar team as project manager of Rano Tsara 2, a WASH project in Maroantsetra. Enawo was her first cyclone. 

Medair’s work in Madagascar is made possible by the generous support of European Union, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Swiss Solidarity, Zurich Zoo (CH), Agence de l’eau Rhône Méditerranée Corse (FR), Canton of Aargau (CH), and generous private donors. 

This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views  expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.