"The cyclone came at night," says Piera, a villager living on Bangladesh's coast. As the wind grew stronger and water engulfed her village, she and her neighbors fled their homes, trying to make it to high ground. Many people started to hold on to trees—until the trees themselves were uprooted by the surging flood.
Piera and others struggled through neck-high water to reach an electrical utility tower they could climb. Soon, however, Piera was too tired to hang on. "I couldn't fight the water anymore," she remembers.
Some men took part of her sari and tied Piera tightly to the tower above the waves. As the night wore on, Piera lost consciousness.
"If they hadn't tied me, I would have been lost," she says.
Piera and thousands of other villagers were facing Super Cyclone Sidr, which struck Bangladesh in late 2007. Some of her neighbors suffered unthinkable losses. "My 5-year-old son was swept away," says a man named Muhammad. "We couldn't find him."
Another woman was carrying her 1-year-old grandson, but lost hold of him during the worst of the storm. "I tried to carry him on my shoulders to the embankment, but the embankment was broken," she says. "I slipped." Thankfully, someone else found her grandson and resuscitated him at the cyclone shelter.
When the waters receded and survivors returned home, they found devastation. Cows and chickens were drowned; houses were damaged or destroyed; and the tools they used to earn a living, such as fishing nets, were gone. Already poor, villagers now had nothing.
'If Cash for Work Didn't Exist, I Would Be Begging'
CRS' local partner Caritas Bangladesh moved swiftly to provide water and food. Helping villagers rebuild their livelihoods was the next step. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and Catholic Relief Services, Caritas paid the poorest survivors to improve village roads and embankments, helping to protect their neighbors' lives—and their own—during future storms. Thousands of Bangladeshi villagers have raised roads and plugged small embankment breaches as part of the cash-for-work program.
"If cash-for-work didn't exist, I would be begging for food," says Asiya, a single mother of three teenagers. Like Piera, Asiya was tied to an electrical tower during the cyclone that swallowed up her small mud house, her three goats and her chickens. Asiya had another fear to contend with as the storm raged: She is partially blind. "I was so scared, but God saved me," she says.
Asiya now helps with roadwork as part of the Caritas program, one of the few in her region that employs women as well as men and also employs people with disabilities. Day care for the female workers' small children is provided, as are special latrines for privacy.
Livestock for Livelihoods
The USAID-CRS program is supporting Asiya in another way—it gives survivors items they need to earn a living. Villagers look at a picture list with carts, livestock, fishing nets and other goods, and select the one they could best use.
Asiya chose a cow. "The cow will help me make money in the future," she says. "I can sell the milk."
Caritas has distributed more than 8,000 cows via livestock fairs. Villagers receive a voucher and can choose the cow they want. They also learn how to plan for future cyclones and identify safe places where they can take their livestock when early storm warnings sound.
At one cow fair in a village called Mahipur, dozens of villagers led their cows home after receiving instructions on care. Children sometimes accompanied their parents, excitedly petting the family's new addition. "I'm going to name our cow Meni," says 12-year-old Rita. "There's a story in my schoolbook about a cow named Meni."
"We never had any livestock, not even a goat," says Minara, who levels earthen roads in the cash-for-work program. "We were all so happy about the cow, we bathed it in a special ceremony."
Independence for the Poor
Cyclone survivors who don't choose livestock often pick specific tools. Twenty-year-old Nurun selected a sewing machine. "I stitch shirts and make about 300 taka [$4.50] each week," she says. It's enough to buy 10 pounds of rice and 2 pounds of beans—an important supplement to the income of her husband, a day laborer.
Nurun is grateful that she can earn money at home. "I used to work as a maid in two houses, sweeping floors and cleaning. I'm pregnant, and that work was much harder," she continues. "Without this sewing machine, I would have more difficulty getting food."
Rekha, 37, ran a small shop out of her house before the cyclone, selling things like flour and crackers. CRS and USAID funding helped her restock her flooded store and open it again. "I am proud I can earn money and am not dependent on others," she says. "I don't have to borrow."
Rekha's success also shows that one program innovation—a complaint box—worked. Cyclone survivors who were not included on original benefit lists—usually due to absence—can use the box to appeal the decision.
"I wasn't there during the selection process, so I used the complaint box," says Rekha. "Caritas got in touch with me."
The program, dubbed Somriddhi ("Self-Sufficiency") has helped 10,000 impoverished Bangladeshi families support themselves. They are working hard to rebuild.
Minara, who received the cow, is determined to care for it well. "Someday I will show my cow to Caritas and they'll see it's a good, healthy cow," she says. "I always pray for all people who work for Caritas.
Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.