Carmin John and her family were hanging Christmas decorations when a strong current of water flooded their home in the town of South Rivers in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on 24 December 2013.
For John, it was not uncommon to listen to the rain for hours in that eastern Saint Vincent town, where banana and arrowroot fields abound thanks to the constant irrigation of the Colonarie River, whose source is in the mountain and flows through the fertile valley until it reaches the Caribbean Sea.
What she never imagined was that the storm would pour down 12 inches of rain in just 3 hours onto a soaked island right at the end of the wet season. The winding volcanic geography of Saint Vincent, that accentuates its beauty and bounty, also intensifies the hazards.
The flood began upstream, and when John and her neighbours in South Rivers noticed the rising waters, their force was already unstoppable.
John rushed to evacuate her seven-year-old daughter, three nephews and her mother to a safe place, but the water was already up to her shoulders when she went back into the house to get their documents and some clothes.
With the help of two neighbours, the 34-year-old woman broke down the back wall of her home with a sledgehammer to let the water pass and prevent utter destruction. She lost almost everything she had.
“I think a lot of lives were saved because the power did not go off right away and we could see where we were going,” remembered John, thinking about the chaos she lived through while she was saving her family.
The flood not only left dozens of families without homes but also caused serious sanitation problems. “There was no running water, the septic tanks overflowed and the stench lasted for weeks”, said John.
The people of South Rivers town had fetch water from the river to drink, wash clothes and take a bath during weeks after the flood. But when humanitarian relief arrived, many chose to keep their daily routines like washing their teeth or cooking in their backyards near the river.
“People do not like to use the warm water that comes from the tap. They prefer the fresh river water”, said John.
The storm also swept away the crops and the livestock that sustained their economy. “We lost all our chickens. The stream also washed away our neighbour’s cows, sheep and goats,” she recalled.
John knows South Rivers like the back of her hand; and was happy to help to draw the local hazard map that will help the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Red Cross and government institutions to develop the Flow Risk Reduction project, which is part of the Caribbean Communities Organized and Prepared for Emergencies programme.
“One of the evacuation centres is the school, which is too close to the river. The school has to be relocated because the kids play in a field that ends just by the river. It is a disaster waiting to happen,” said John.
On 29 September 2016, a 16-year-old boy died in a landslide and about 300 people had to be evacuated following a heavy storm was the beginnings of Hurricane Matthew.
Neither John nor her family was affected then, but she became determined to move to a community that is less exposed to floods and landslides. “Now the most important priority is the safety of my family.”
John wants to erase the fear and hopelessness she felt three years ago by taking part in the community activities promoted by the Red Cross.
She feels happy to help and share everything she has learned about risk management. “I love people. I am always involved in the activities at school. I like to help and feel useful,” said John during a meeting with other Red Cross volunteers in her community.