How the Leading Food Agency Helped Dominica Families Reconnect After Disaster

Displacement Emergency Response Innovation Logistics

In the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Irma, the World Food Programme (WFP) provides food assistance to the most vulnerable. But it also leads the entire humanitarian community in both logistics and telecommunications.

When Hurricane Maria hit Dominica a few short weeks ago — the strongest to hit the island in about 85 years — and killed at least 30 people, WFP sent an assessment mission to determine which communities were most badly hit and what their needs were.

What WFP found was an urgent need for telecommunications support, as phone and Internet connectivity had been cut and left the nation in a complete blackout. Entire communities could not communicate with one another or with the outside world. With some 80 percent of buildings damaged, families separated and displaced from their homes, getting back that connectivity was critical.

Downed phone lines across the island nation mean no connectivity for a population of 71,000 — forced to use just a handful of small generators to charge their phones.

WFP’s Phyza Jameel describes the scene around pockets of generators in the port city of Roseau:

“Near each generator is a maze of wires, one power supply connected to various extensions and then almost 10 to 20 twisted, entangled wires attached to it. That’s where all sorts of mobile phones, iPads, laptops and more are charging.

 

Next to them is a crowd — some edgy and impatient, some yawning and bored of waiting so long. When the battery is 20 percent done, they have to remove it and then stand again in the queue. Sometimes it takes hours to get this done.”

As the leader of the U.N.’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), WFP sprang into action.

WFP and its ETC partners — Ericsson Response and the government of Luxembourg — set up 13 Internet connectivity hubs, where individuals could access the Internet free of charge. For many people, these hubs gave them the ability to get in touch with family members for the first time since the storm had hit. Some were even able to locate missing children.

Shergill sits on the ground and looks down at his cell phone, holds his cigarette in one hand
WFP/Phyza Jameel
Shergill checks his phone at the ETC hub in Charles Douglas Airport.

Shergill, a single father of four boys, could not get in touch with his 12-year-old son who had been visiting his mother.

“The first search helicopter couldn’t find him,” he recounts. “Oh God, I was devastated.”

After a week without information, Shergill found out he could connect to the Internet at an ETC hub set up in Charles Douglas Airport. He immediately got in touch with friends and family, who helped him locate his son’s whereabouts.

“I sat here for three days at the airport, arranged for transportation and got my son back,” he says. He got his four children on a flight to the U.S. thereafter.

Without WFP and the ETC, families like Shergill’s could not have been reunited.

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