In the seven years since the so-called ‘once in a 100 years storm’ generated off the coast of Africa, crossed the Atlantic and wreaked havoc for seven days in the Caribbean, killing more than 60 people including two in Grand Cayman, the local chapter of the international relief organisation has come to realise its rightful capacity in assisting the nation and has grown by leaps and bounds.
Hurricane Ivan did more than anything in recent history to change the way things are done in the Cayman Islands.
Seam metal roofs, houses on stilts, businesses with charter service evacuation plans and skyrocketing insurance rates all are by-products of the powerful Cape Verde storm laying waste to Grand Cayman in September 2004. There is even an entire government bureaucracy, Hazard Management Cayman Islands, that emerged in the aftermath of the disaster as the howling winds were silenced and storm surge floodwaters receded to reveal $2.8 billion in losses.
But few organisations have been as profoundly influenced on a positive note by the lasting legacy of the crippling storm as the Cayman Islands Red Cross.
Roughly 200 volunteers and five staff members strong, the Cayman Islands Red Cross is at the forefront of disaster preparedness and response throughout the Island, as well as being responsible for supplying first aid training, HIV/AIDS awareness education and the operation of a thrift shop to sell and distribute second-hand clothing and furniture.
This year, the local chapter turns 50 and, though the need for fundraising remains constant to support an annual budget of roughly $500,000 and the development of its principal programmes is never-ending, the Cayman Islands Red Cross has earned a moment for reflection.
“I came here the year before Ivan and there were not that many volunteers,” said Jondo Malafa Obi, director of the Cayman Islands Red Cross. “There wasn’t a ‘need’ per se. We did our first aid training and we had the thrift shop. There were a couple of volunteers here or there. We just sort of carried on with our business.
“But the following year we get this massive disaster that destroys the whole Island,” she said. “All of a sudden the Red Cross is in the forefront in terms of the national response.”
Though facing the same kind of unique challenges brought on by its geography and size, the Cayman Islands prior to 2004 had long been largely lucky in skirting the kinds of natural disasters that routinely plague other Caribbean states. Hurricanes and tropical storms regularly cause widespread housing and infrastructure damage, business disruption and the displacement of coastal communities throughout the region.
Not only do the small island countries experience high economic losses relative to their total economies, but they also often lack the necessary redundancy in critical infrastructure to soften the blow. The impact of the disaster is magnified significantly if it destroys the only hospital, the only airport or the only road into a community.
Hurricane Ivan hit Grand Cayman on 12 September, 2004, and although the storm sustained wind speeds in excess of 130 mph across the Island for more than 24 hours, it was water from storm surge flooding that did the most damage. Nearly all the housing and commercial property on the Island sustained some form of damage and more than 70 per cent of that was severe, according to estimates by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The ECLAC team estimated per capita damage and losses at US$75,700 or 183 per cent of the Cayman Islands’ gross domestic product, the highest ever encountered by the ECLAC. With electricity and clean running water scarce for weeks, relief efforts began in earnest almost immediately with the Cayman Islands Red Cross coordinating with local authorities and support groups from organisations abroad. The local Red Cross began distribution efforts with supplies reaching all districts across Grand Cayman.
“That really taught us a lesson,” Obi said. “So that is what this is really all about. Before Ivan, there were things we didn’t really even think about. Things we ended up needing, but never really gave any thought to. So we learned quite a bit. Between 2004 and 2005 we were recruiting volunteers, doing serious training and getting organised. We were preparing as if the storm was coming back in September. Luckily that didn’t happen. It just made us grow. We continue to grow.”
Since Hurricane Ivan lashed Grand Cayman, preparedness has been the name of the game for the relief organisation as well as for government authorities. The Cayman Islands Red Cross has initiated community response teams, consisting of volunteers throughout the Islands, to address emergencies wherever they may arise. Containers stockpiled with nonperishable goods and supplies are located throughout Grand Cayman. An organisational support structure has also been headquartered in the neighbouring Sister Island of Cayman Brac. The system was called upon in 2008 when Hurricane Paloma missed Grand Cayman, but levelled Cayman Brac.
“We were able to get supplies over there really quickly because we had the plans in place,” Obi said. “We had community disaster response teams, which we initiated in 2006 with the support of the International Federation of the Red Cross and the European Union. That worked very well with the containers we had.
“It kind of died down after 2008 because we didn’t have any funding, but Hazard Management Cayman Islands liked that initiative and we just signed an agreement with them to partner with us. It’s the same kind of community response teams in different areas of the islands. If we join together we can really use our resources.”
The chapter, for which the principal responsibility is disaster preparedness and response, is frequently sought out and requested to train businesses and organisations in first aid and CPR, one of two ways, along with the thrift shop, the group generates income.
The organisation also provides water safety and lifeguard training, as well as HIV/AIDS peer education and awareness through the local school system. Obi said manpower hasn’t been an issue of late.
“I don’t think we have ever done a recruitment drive,” Obi said. “Almost every single day somebody is coming in to volunteer. So we had to put in a system to teach these people. Everyone volunteers for six months before they become a member. In every given year we have a database of just under 200 volunteers. We always have volunteers. They are the backbone of our organisation. The only requirement is, ‘if you can work, you are in’”.
This month, the Cayman Islands Red Cross is celebrating its 50th anniversary with its annual charity fundraising golf tournament and gala dinner dance. The organisation put on a fashion show in February and is planning a ‘Run For 50 Years’ marathon for December. Maximising limited resources and raising as much funding as possible always will be targets on the horizon for operational and logistical matters for the overseas branch. But at least equally, if not more, important is the continued recruitment and development of a network of volunteers trained and capable of responding to the changing demands of, not only the vulnerable but, all of the communities in the Cayman Islands. The past two years have been difficult financially for the Red Cross, as is the case for nonprofits and charity organisations worldwide. Battered by a lingering economic recession that has strained the usual channels of acquiring funds through donations, both corporate and private, manoeuvring the tough times and positioning itself to be prepared to emerge better off in the days ahead has to tops among priorities.
“Training people and making them more familiar with their surroundings is what it’s all about,” Obi said. “Between our training and the theories behind things and the practical application of doing things, our volunteers are always ready to go and be able to respond. The growth and the enthusiasm of our volunteers is something to really be proud of.”
The Cayman Islands Red Cross is an overseas branch of the British Red Cross established in 1961 under the leadership of Ethel Cook-Bodden. As the first chairperson of the Cayman Islands Red Cross, she worked to convince the public of the need for its presence to help with hurricane preparedness.
Its duties expanded from building a small inventory of disaster supplies to assisting with the care of patients in the hospital, to advocating and fundraising for better healthcare facilities. Over the years, the chapter has gained a larger level of autonomy from its parent in the British Red Cross to evolve and meet the changing needs of the most vulnerable communities in the country, in part by building new facilities.
“When supplies came we had nowhere to put it,” said Roy Grant, a longtime member of the Cayman Islands Red Cross, about the early days of the organisation. “So really we decided to build a building. In 1988, we laid the foundation stone. The building was built in two stages. Initially we built the top section, and the bottom was on stilts. The reason we did that was because we realised in a major hurricane the Island would be flooding and people would need to be sheltered here.”
The Cayman Islands Red Cross building is across the street from Owen Roberts International Airport in Grand Cayman, giving its operations easy access to transport supplies.