Signs point to success: reducing disaster risks in El Salvador

By Elizabeth Stevens
Fundacion REDES, a key member of the MPGR coalition, helps a village in the Bajo Lempa region fumigate for mosquitos following heavy rains of Hurricane Adrian.

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As the crow flies, the community of San José Costa Rica, El Salvador, isn't far from a smooth, paved road, but reaching the village is extraordinarily difficult. The cobblestone track that leads from the paved highway to the tiny settlement on the shores of Lago de Ilopango winds its way over a mountain and along a narrow ridge before descending to the town. Washouts and steep, treacherous turns along the way make the road barely navigable on a dry, sunny day. Not surprisingly, when hurricanes and earthquakes strike, the community of Costa Rica tends to lose access to the outside world.

On January 13, 2001, a powerful earthquake shook El Salvador. In San José Costa Rica, houses collapsed, many residents suffered broken bones, and a four-year-old girl was killed. The main road was destroyed, so for a time the community was cut off from outside help.

In the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake, Oxfam teamed up with local partner REDES with the goal of helping Costa Rica and many other Salvadoran communities prevent future earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural events from becoming full-scale disasters.

The REDES program in Costa Rica is grounded in a community emergency committee whose members have taken charge of evacuation, communications, shelter, first aid, and other key tasks. After mapping out the risks and resources of the village, REDES and the committee developed an emergency-response plan designed to ensure that everyone—including those living in hazardous locations and people with limited mobility—could reach safety in the early hours of an emergency. A two-way radio was installed, providing the community with access to the REDES base, which is staffed 24 hours a day to handle emergency communications. REDES trained community members in first aid and other skills that are essential for first responders, and the community held drills to simulate emergencies.

In October of 2005, Hurricane Stan pounded El Salvador and put Costa Rica's preparations to the test. High winds, heavy rains, landslides, and washed-out roads that isolated the village all portended tragedy, yet the town suffered no deaths or serious injuries. At a gathering of the community's emergency committee and Oxfam and REDES staff, we heard about what happened from the people who lived through it.

As quickly as possible after the hurricane struck, Claudia Dalila Sánchez, who headed up the evacuation committee, led her team on a tour of the community. They evacuated people trapped by landslides and caught in other precarious situations, and they monitored the rising waters of Lago de Ilopango. "When the earthquake happened, we didn't know enough," she said. "For Stan, we had better information about how to take people out of danger."

"In both the 2001 earthquake and Hurricane Stan, the roads were destroyed so no vehicles could come in," explained Miguel Martínez, San José Costa Rica's emergency committee coordinator. "But the difference with Stan was that we were organized. After the earthquake, people didn't have the consciousness to help each other, but after Stan, the community was united. We scheduled turns so people could work on the road, and in a short time, we were able to clear it."

Carmen Sosa is a shy woman who waited until all seven of the committee leaders had spoken before telling her story. "During the earthquake, we didn't know what to do. My house fell. My husband was hurt by a roof tile that fell on his head. And since I didn't know what to do, I just cried. I saw all my things destroyed and thought, 'This is it. I don't have anything left.' But since REDES has given us training, we now know what we can do in these cases."

Carmen concluded with a self-assured smile that left us feeling that something about this program—either the new skills she's learned or the knowledge that she no longer has to face emergencies alone—has added a measure of confidence to her life.

Oxfam's partners work in many communities around the country, helping them take charge effectively at times of emergency. But our program goes far beyond teaching the nuts and bolts of emergency response: one of our partners co-authored a law that has created a role for communities in El Salvador's national system of disaster preparedness and response, and which requires for the first time that disaster preparedness be incorporated into development planning.

"We are working to help impoverished communities gain both the skills and the voice in the political process that they need to prevent future emergencies from becoming disasters," says Michael Delaney, Oxfam America's Director of Humanitarian Response. "So far, signs point to success."

Working through REDES and other partners, Oxfam America's disaster risk reduction programs in El Salvador are now reaching an estimated 200,000 people.