NEW YORK, 21 October 2005 - Still reeling from the devastating effects of Hurricane Stan – the worst storm to hit Central America in a decade -- a number of countries in Central America are bracing for a potentially worse storm as Hurricane Wilma hits landfall on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula as a Category Four storm. Responding to Hurricane Stan, which struck Central America more than two weeks ago, UNICEF rushed emergency relief supplies to the region, estimating that well over a third of the victims are children.
"We don't have exact figures yet, but the demographics of the affected areas suggest that more than a third of the victims of this tragedy are children, who are always the most vulnerable in floods and mudslides, especially in poor communities," said Nils Kastberg, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. In many indigenous villages hit by the disaster, children and adolescents make up close to 50% the population.
The torrential rains, flooding and mudslides caused by Hurrican Stan left hundreds and possibly thousands of people dead, and close to half a million people homeless, from southern Mexico to El Salvador, in what experts described as the worst disaster to hit the region since Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
UNICEF is seeking close to $9 million for the humanitarian effort and has already diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars from its regular development programmes in the affected countries to help governments and NGOs respond to the crisis.
UNICEF staff are supporting assessment missions to gauge the needs of children and families in disaster-struck communities. Damage to social infrastructure, including health centres, schools and water and sanitation systems, has been widespread. In this first phase, assistance provided by UNICEF has been directed at improving conditions in the shelters through interventions in the areas of health, nutrition, water and sanitation and child protection.
In the first days of the emergency, UNICEF was able to distribute more than 290,000 oral re-hydration salts and 128,000 antibiotic tablets in the shelters. A plan to monitor the nutritional status of children and lactating women in shelters was put in place with national authorities and the availability of safe drinking water was enhanced through the donation of a water purifying machine. With a view to ensuring protection against abuse of children in shelters, UNICEF has cooperated with national authorities to start data collection and action planning regarding the condition of temporary shelters and affected communities with emphasis on the protection of unaccompanied and separated children. As part of this effort, information materials are being produced and distributed and teachers have been trained to assist with care and support to children in the shelters.
"Like the terrible earthquake that struck Pakistan, this tragedy also has a child's face and we are calling on donor governments, companies and individuals to help UNICEF respond to both emergencies," said Kastberg.