About the Impact of Hurricane Georges (Advanced)
By Natalie Woodward - Peace Corps Staff
On September 22, 1998, Hurricane Georges hit the Dominican Republic. The hurricane did serious damage to the infrastructure of the country: Homes, roads, bridges, dams, and airports were destroyed or were seriously damaged. The official death toll was approximately 300.
Most of the people who died in the storm were poor. Many of them lived in lowlands and had built their houses in dry riverbeds. The storm was unusual, in that it carried a large amount of rain into the mountains. And when it hit the mountains, it dropped a tremendous amount of water in a very short period of time. This caused mudflows and severe flooding, and was a serious threat to the people who lived in villages close to the base of the mountains. The people I talked with in the shelter said they had less than a minute to run out of their houses before the homes were destroyed by the mudflows pouring down the mountain.
The damage was extensive. You could actually see how the rivers had flooded their banks destroying whole towns. People came to us and said they had lost their town, they had lost their way of life, they had lost their way of living. They had no idea what to do. But they wanted to continue to stay together. They asked: Could you help us?
The staff at the Peace Corps office in Santo Domingo realized very quickly that we had people who could help. We had people who were experienced in community organization, spoke Spanish, were well-educated, and could step forward and do some things. We joined with the Dominican government and the Red Cross to assist them in setting up refugee shelters. And for a period of time, we managed 16 of the shelters. We worked together.
During that time we were able to acquire a small plane and do an initial flyover to assess the damage. We did this for several days thereafter. People were isolated in the rivers—on "islands," so to speak—created by the rivers. We knew that international assistance might take a while. And we also knew that people needed water and food immediately. So we worked with AID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) and chartered a plane to drop food to people who were stranded.
We began packing two-and-a-half-pound bags of food the night before the flyover. We packed throughout the night. The next morning—I think it was six or seven o'clock—the first plane took off with the bags of food. We flew out into one of the worst hit areas and dropped the food. We couldn't land yet; for a week, we dropped the food to people who were in pretty bad shape.
The most amazing thing to me—the most gratifying thing—is that by the time the first flight had returned, the news had gotten out in the local Dominican media and people were coming from everywhere to try to help. Dominican businesses offered help. People who sold sausage and people who had milk companies donated food. People appeared at the airport to help us pack the food bags. The U.S. Embassy employees helped. People from other organizations, like the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity, and people from other countries volunteered to help get food to those who needed it. People put aside a lot of their differences to help: to rescue people, to donate water, to get them to a shelter.
International nongovernmental organizations were also coming in to help. The French arrived with Puma helicopters at the end of the week. Now the airlift was able to go on for two or three weeks. There's an amazing photograph that shows the French pilot, the American pilot, and the Dominican all hugging. It was a hugely emotional moment. People were feeling like they made a difference and were able to get food out in drastic conditions.
You experience enormous amounts of generosity during a disaster like this.