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Families Trickle into Shelters as Jamaica Braces for Hurricane Matthew

It is a deceptively sunny and mostly dry late Sunday afternoon in St. Thomas – one of the eastern parishes likely to bear the brutal brunt of the category 4 hurricane Matthew heading towards Jamaica.

Only sporadic, brief showers of rain give a glimpse of what is to come – but the impending picture is one that St. Thomas residents know all too well, living in communities that are among the most vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters.

A little over 50 shelters – the majority of them schools – are available throughout St. Thomas. But the decision to leave home to move into a shelter is a tough one for many. On top of the difficulty of leaving one’s home and possessions behind, people have to provide their own basic supplies. The decision is made even harder when the hurricane shows little sign of its arrival.

So people, and families, wait. As long as they can – while the rest of the country also waits anxiously, uncertain about when and how hard Matthew will hit the island as the system slowly makes its way through the Caribbean sea.

Shortly after 3:00 pm, only eight adults have sheltered at Morant Bay Primary in St. Thomas. Ten-year-old Jahdine Barrett, who lives close by, plans to move in with his father soon. “I think a lot of children will be here tomorrow. Right now it’s too early,” he says.

Trevor Barrett has lived through a number of hurricanes. Recognizing the danger, he is keen to protect his son – who lives only with him in a small house that will take a battering during the storm. “This hurricane is getting serious, and it’s best for us… to take shelter,” he says. “I am going there as soon as it gets more severe.”

The situation is similar in the community of Harbour View, a community in Kingston also located close to the sea and prone to flooding. O’Neil Robinson is the shelter manager at St. Benedict’s Primary, where one elderly woman lies on a makeshift bed. “I have been through hurricanes before. People won’t come out until things intensify,” he says.

Closer to 6:00 pm at Harbour View primary, after a strong bout of rain, a family of four arrives at the shelter – joining about a dozen adults. Nineteen-year-old Crystal Brown, her two-year-old daughter Shauna-Lee and fifteen-year-old sister Arriel are the first set of children to move in.

Their mother Sharon Burgess was reluctant to bring her family. “I was going to wait until the last minute,” she says. “But it started flooding on my road, so we had to hurry up and pack. We could not wait any longer.”

Scantly-occupied shelters are likely to fill up whenever Matthew’s outer bands of rain begin to pelt down. Once the hurricane passes, an untold number of persons may be unable to move back to their homes immediately if they are severely damaged.

Since most of the island’s shelters are located in schools, this may pose challenges as UNICEF and partners focus on ensuring children get back to learning as quickly as possible.

UNICEF Jamaica has activated its disaster plan for children and stands ready to assist the Government of Jamaica in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, in communities where children and their families are particularly vulnerable.

For now, those families can only watch – and wait.

Allison Hickling is Communications Specialist with UNICEF Jamaica.

Make a donation to our Hurricane Matthew Relief Fund today so that we can reach more children affected by the disaster.

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