Florida State partners with Haitian government to create disaster plans

David Merrick, deputy director
of Florida State's Center for
Disaster Risk Policy.

Florida State University is partnering with the government of Haiti to create disaster plans for a small island undergoing new commercial development.

Florida State has helped communities in Jamaica and Belize develop disaster reduction plans, but this is the first time university experts will partner with Haiti. It is also the first time students will travel to another country for this purpose.

“It can be rough,” David Merrick, deputy director of Florida State’s Center for Disaster Risk Policy, said of life on the island of Île à Vache off the southern coast of Haiti. The island is 10 miles long, has about 15,000 residents, uses diesel-fueled generators for power and ships in safe drinking water from the mainland.

The Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program and the Center for Disaster Risk Policy at Florida State have partnered with the Haitian National Government’s Ministry of Tourism and the Florida Alliance for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas to perform the disaster reduction projects.

The Center for Disaster Risk Policy is an applied research center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State and serves as the field research arm of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program. The center’s mission is to identify, develop and promote best practices in emergency and public management.

Students taking the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program’s studio course will travel to Île à Vache for the first time in January. They will stay for six or seven days, Merrick said, collecting data and assessing needs.

“There are no formal shelters on the island,” Merrick said. “That is definitely going to be a challenge.”

Merrick said Île à Vache is not completely unprepared for calamity, but notes that the island has not been hit with any kind of natural disaster in 30 years.

According to Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism, there is a need for the local population to be better prepared for disaster and to establish a local disaster-management framework.

Students, working with professional planners and local stakeholders, will assess the island’s existing facilities and drinking water sources and create a hazard map of the area. This map will highlight locations that are vulnerable to a particular natural hazard.

“All that is going to wrap together to develop a plan for the local officials,” Merrick said.

This assessment and planning is necessary also because the small island will undergo millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements in next few years, he said. There are only two resorts on the island, but more are planned. Île à Vache’s main industry is fishing. Fishermen work out of small boats handmade on the island.

Tourism is expected to become a more robust industry in the coming years. Merrick said there’s a lot of potential for it on Île à Vache because of its beautiful beaches. He and Rob McDaniel, a faculty researcher and senior fellow at the Center for Disaster Risk Policy, traveled there in early October to perform a needs assessment.

Florida State students will make a second trip to the island at the end of the spring semester to help implement plans and train members of the local communities.

It will be quite a journey. Travelers will fly to Port-au-Prince, take a bus to the town of Les Cayes and reach Île à Vache by boat. Merrick said he is aware of the U.S. state department’s safety warnings regarding travel to Haiti’s capital and will take all recommended precautions.

The nonprofit Florida Alliance for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas will provide technical and logistical assistance and facilitate the partnering of students and faculty with graduate students from Haitian universities for field work.

Florida State students will be paired one-on-one with Haitian college students, Merrick said. These partnerships will be invaluable, he said, because Haitian college students are typically bilingual, and very few Americans speak Creole.