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Ivan, the forgotten hurricane

Latest update : 2008-02-29

The hurricane that swept over Madagascar between February 17 and 19 has left dozens dead and over 150,000 homeless. Yet, despite the scale of the catastrophe, western media have shown little or no interest in the island's plight.

Far from the eyes of international media, Madagascar is still counting the bodies left in the wake of Hurricane Ivan, which struck the African island between January 17 and 19. By Tuesday, 60 people had been declared dead, while 17 were still missing. Back in January, the cyclone Fame had already left 13 dead.

According to the country’s National Bureau for the Management of Hazards and Catastrophes (BNGRC), some 150,000 people have been left homeless.

“People badly need water, shelter and bare necessities,” the local spokesperson for the Red Cross Mbolatina Ramaivonanana told FRANCE 24. The organization currently takes care of water supplies, medical aid and supplying materials, while also taking part in ongoing efforts to estimate the extend of damage caused. “We do not have sufficient resources,” laments Ramaivonanana.

With the country’s infrastructure disrupted and whole areas still under water, aid has so far been ferried by helicopter or plain. Thus on February 21, a French army Transall shipped 21 tons of material from the Reunion Island on behalf of the Red Cross.

“We’re coping as well as we can,” says FRANCE 24’s local Observer Avylavitra, an IT worker in the capital Antananarivo. He is presently hosting five stranded family members; who knows for how long. “Their homes have been washed away,” he explains. “Whoever can help does so freely, but the damage is massive – far greater than last year’s”.

Madagascar suffered its worst hurricane season in 2007, the Indlala cyclone alone killing some 150 people. Since then, the country has set up a warning system and organized a full-scale drill session in October. “We stored food and material in risk-prone areas,” the BNGRC’s spokesperson Dia Styvanley Soa told FRANCE 24.

The preparations helped reduce the number of casualties, but not the extent of damage caused by the category 4 cyclone. With winds racing at up to 230 km/h, Ivan matched in power its notorious predecessor Katrina, which struck the southern United States in 2005.

Agriculture has been particularly affected. “Rice, vanilla and coffee crops have been destroyed; and when rice fields were spared by the floods, the grains were simply blown off by the wind,” explains Kenneth Walker, spokesperson for Care. This international NGO is closely involved in relief operations and administers half the $100,000 donated by the United States.

“After immediate relief (plastic sheeting, food and building materials), we’ll offer food-for-work programmes to rebuild roads and bridges,” he added. “We’ll also give seeds, like faster-growing rice, and more cyclone-resistant crops such as sweet potato.”

International media show lack of interest

Western media appear unmoved by the ever-stronger hurricanes striking Africa’s largest Island. French media produced not a single article on the issue, despite the sizeable number of Madagascan immigrants on French soil. “CNN did a piece, remarks Kenneth Walter. That’s all.”

The only requests for information Mbolatina Ramaivonanana had to deal with came from journalists in the nearby Reunion Island. Dia Styvanley is at pains to explain Western media’s dispiriting lack of interest. At least, she points out, the US and the United Nations have responded positively to the plea for international aid issued by Madagascan authorities last Friday.

For Kenneth Walker, NGOs need to improve the way they communicate on such catastrophes, which hit countries too remote to attract foreign reporters. “One of the things we can improve is to get pictures and videos to news organizations quickly, within 48 hours of a disaster,” he suggests.

To achieve this aim, he and other Care workers have been thinking about investing in equipment endowed with the latest technologies. “When you’re on the field during an emergency, you don’t have access to a broadband connection. We need to find a way of working around that,” he explains.

Date created : 2008-02-26