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In place of a home

On Tanna Island, Joe is repairing his home, damaged in Cyclone Pam, with tarpaulins and tools supplied by Red Cross. Photo: IFRC/Becky Webb.


Cyclone Pam flattened homes in Vanuatu, while flash floods literally melted them in Malawi. How do you provide shelter when tens of thousands of people are made homeless?

Malawi is used to floods; they happen every year. But no one expected two months of constant rain from January 2015, leading to the largest flood in 50 years. At least 230,000 people lost their homes.

"I think people were quite shocked by it - they just weren't ready for it," says Red Cross shelter adviser Robbie Dodds. "The rain was quite heavy and persistent, and it was combined with heavy driving winds."

Traditional homes built from natural materials like mud bricks 'melted' and were washed away by floodwaters.

From Malawi to Vanuatu, Red Cross responds to people's shelter needs in emergencies: from providing simple equipment like tarpaulins and tools for temporary shelter, to helping people transition into more permanent housing. Australian Red Cross contributes through its register of specialist shelter aid workers.

During the Malawi floods, the first priority was organising temporary shelter for well over 100,000 people. This involved distributing emergency supplies- tents or tarpaulins, tools, timber poles and rope - and setting up safe and healthy places for people to pitch their tents. Two of the biggest challenges were to prevent the spread of disease and protect those most vulnerable, including women and children. Community involvement is key to this process, says Robbie.

"It's really important to consult the affected population; village chiefs, church leaders and school principals and the police as well, who can help to keep a camp secure."

Families in Malawi's north were able to go home once floodwaters receded, but for many in the south, where entire homes were washed away, people are still living in camps.

When Cyclone Pam bore down on Vanuatu in March, local communities were fortunately better prepared.

For the first time an SMS alert system updated people every three hours as the cyclone intensified and then hourly as it came closer to making landfall. Vanuatu Red Cross had helped communities to understand and act on disaster warnings. Only 11 people lost their lives - far fewer than expected. Yet Cyclone Pam still destroyed close to 30,000 homes and damaged many more, leaving up to 65,000 people in need of shelter.

Interestingly, many traditional homes in Vanuatu withstood the natural disaster while some houses built from modern materials did not. Traditional communal houses are designed to withstand the pressure of a cyclone. The roofs come down to the ground, making it hard for winds to get under the roof and lift it off. The natural materials used - including bamboo and local timber - and the way these materials are bonded, make these homes flexible in strong winds.

Red Cross shelter coordinator Tom Bamforth says that Vanuatu's building traditions have been central to the recovery process.

"We said, let's not get in the way of this. Let's actually help people to rebuild, let's give them tools, let's give them some resources which they can use, because they already know what to do."

Although initial relief efforts focussed on the outer islands, Tom soon discovered that people living in informal settlements in Port Vila had also lost their homes and needed help.

"We overlooked, in the early stages, the vulnerabilities that were right around us in Port Villa, and that was something that had to be addressed quite quickly."

Sheltering people is more than just the provision of materials or the construction of a structure. It is about creating an environment where people can rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. Thanks to the generous support of Australians who donated to our Cyclone Pam appeal, Red Cross is well placed to do this vital work.

"It could take years really if you're looking at the rebuilding of houses, the reconstruction of schools and infrastructure, at longer-term risk reduction," Tom explains. "A shelter operation is something that will go on for a very long time."

Robbie Dodds, Tom Bamforth and other aid workers share personal insights from crises around the world in our How Aid Works podcast.