Disaster relief in Haiti
28 February 2011
When the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on 12 January 2010, the Haitian National Meteorology Centre and many of its forecasters were among its victims. With their forecasting capabilities in ruins — and the effects of the earthquake leaving them particularly vulnerable to bad weather — Haiti needed international help. So, alongside other weather services from around the world, the Met Office stepped in to provide forecasts from nearby Martinique, and help relief agencies complete their critical work. We hear how one Met Office forecaster, Eleanore Hunt (pictured above), was involved.
"The Met Office gave us early notice of the possible risk of the hurricane, and we were able to start planning contingencies with our team in Haiti ahead of the game. So we were in the best possible position we could be."
Alf Evans, Operations Manager
In the UK, severe weather makes roads dangerous, closes schools and disrupts work - and, during long spells, even affects the economy. But when severe weather collides with a natural disaster in a developing country like Haiti, the effects can be devastating.
This was something Met Office forecaster, Eleanore Hunt faced first-hand when she joined an international weather team to help in Haiti - a far cry from her usual role based at MOD Boscombe Down.
Eleanore's role was to liaise, in French, with the two surviving Haitian forecasters, Météo-France and the Meteorological Service of Canada and provide daily forecasts and monthly rainfall predictions. The Haitian forecasters then passed this information on to charities and aid organisations. Haiti was left in a very vulnerable position following the earthquake, so accurate weather predictions and advance warning were critical to saving lives, as Eleanore explains:
"There were millions of people living in tented villages. But because of all the deforestation in Haiti, you get landslides and flash floods when it rains. And with the hurricane season running from June to November, there's also the potential for very, very strong winds as well. All of these things are huge problems for the tented villages."
Eleanore was based in the Caribbean for eight weeks, but even in that time two potential severe weather events - a tropical wave and a hurricane (Earl) - just missed Haiti. Then a third event, Hurricane Tomas actually hit the country head on, causing widespread panic and killing seven people. With the Met Office's help, officials had been able to issue warnings in time and evacuate most people to higher ground, which helped keep fatalities to a minimum.
The disaster relief effort in Haiti was a concerted effort of several organisations, including international charities, many of which relied on reports from the Met Office to do their work. One of which was ShelterBox, a Cornwall-based charity that delivers emergency shelter, warmth and dignity to people affected by disaster worldwide. Alf Evans, Operations Manager at ShelterBox, said: "The Met Office gave us early notice of the possible risk of the hurricane, and we were able to start planning contingencies with our team in Haiti ahead of the game. So we were in the best possible position we could be."
Today, Eleanore's work is far from finished. In fact, she's returning to Haiti for three and a half months - joining the international effort to rebuild and equip the Haitian meteorology centre. But she will be careful to make sure there's no interruption to forecasting services while they move. "There's still the potential for severe weather, even though the hurricane season is over. In order to save lives, it's really important we keep the people of Haiti informed."
As there are only two surviving forecasters in Haiti, Eleanore will train new forecasters until they're able to take over the reins and provide an effective, 24/7 service. Eleanore is under no delusion: "There's still a lot of work to do and it will be a long process. Things like setting up observing systems - so that there are actual observations of Haiti - could take years. But for now, the Met Office is concentrating on helping the two Haitian forecasters become confident with the new technology."
More than a year on, over 1.3 million Haitians are still living in tented camps and parts of the country are also battling a cholera epidemic. So it's crucial that the Met Office continues to do its part in helping Haiti get back on its feet. Uninterrupted weather forecasts and helping establish a new Haitian meteorological service could really help save lives in both the short and long-term.
The Met Office frequently forecasts in challenging circumstances around the world, whether taking part in initiatives run by the World Meteorological Organization, or supporting the military in its operations.
One of the ways the Met Office does this is through the Mobile Met Unit (MMU), the Met Office's military branch. Members of the MMU undergo rigorous military training that includes how to brief others, team leadership and living in difficult circumstances. They then deploy alongside the Forces, providing forecasts from war zones.
Eleanore Hunt, who is normally based at MOD Boscombe Down, trained with the MMU, so she was well placed to take on the Haiti assignment: "Going out to a new meteorological office, in a part of the world I've never been to before, working with people I've never met, forecasting in a different type of meteorology, in a foreign language, is quite daunting. In that respect all the training has been a huge help."