PRACTICE makes perfect. That old saying has new relevance for the Caribbean, five weeks after Hurricane Hugo ripped through some of the palm-covered islands. Learning from previous hurricanes, the islanders believe they were faster and better in coming to each other's assistance this time. Neighborhood and community organizations, they say, are going a long way towards reversing the effects of the most recent disaster.
``There is a real spirit of interaction, and the stricken islands were the first to come to one another's assistance,'' says Philippe Boulle, director of the Office of United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator in New York.
Hugo, with winds of 135 miles per hour, was the most destructive hurricane of the Atlantic season. It killed 33 people in the Caribbean and 29 on the US mainland, and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Experts say the islanders learned from Hurricane Gilbert, which took its toll in Jamaica in September 1988. This time the Jamaicans were offering advice and help to other islands.
For 10 years Antigua has been the headquarters for the Pan Caribbean Prevention and Preparedness Project. It was established to ``sensitize people and governments to hazards'' before a disaster hits and to direct all aid efforts afterward, Mr. Boulle says.
Thus a fully staffed civil preparedness force was ready on Antigua for the crisis. For the most part, this leeward island of the Lesser Antilles escaped Hugo's wrath. Its telecommunications and transportation system were functioning adequately to start distributing the donated goods, services, and money that began to flow soon after the hurricane hit.
The Project is sponsored by the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization, which has provided some $50,000 of its own cash and is coordinating the disbursement of more than $10 million from governments and international organizations, plus donations-in-kind and technical assistance. Donors include the United States Agency for International Development, the Pan American Health Organization, the United Nations, and Caricom (the Caribbean Community).
Boulle likes to talk about the more spontaneous, indigenous aid efforts. Many of the donations by countries in the region arrived faster than the aid from North America and Europe. Guadeloupe, suffering extensive damage itself, immediately sent supplies to Antigua for redistribution. Two days after Hugo, President Joaquin Balaguer of the Dominican Republic ordered the purchase of generators for Puerto Rico. A company from Santo Domingo sent thousands of gallons of liquid for purifying water. The Dominican Republic dispatched 100,000 pounds of fruit to Puerto Rico.
On Puerto Rico, where the US Federal Emergency Management Agency has played a key role in the island's repair, grassroots help from the churches, civic groups, and civil defense organizations have provided shelter, clothing and food.
Private businesses, including wholesalers, retailers, and distributors, have not interrupted credit for necessary building materials, according to Alex Vallecillo, manager of the Washington-based Caribbean Basin Development Corporation. He recently returned from the island. Luxury hotels have opened their doors to give shelter to the homeless and facilities for medical crews.
``There have been offers from other countries that we must convert into deliveries,'' says Amadeo Francis, Puerto Rico's Deputy Secretary of State for International Affairs. ``Colombia offered cement; Mexico, roofing panels; Spain, technical assitance, and Nicaragua even offered to ship something.'' Since Hugo struck September 17, he says, ``we were distracted by our own mess; now we are contacting other islands and asking what we can do to help.''
``Perhaps the greatest legacy of the storm,'' says Adrianne J. Dudley, President of the St. John-St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce, ``is our renewed community spirit. Neighbors are working together to help each other clean up, repaint and retore.''
On St. Croix, which suffered the worst damage of all the US Virgin Islands, simple communication still presents a challenge. ``Two hundred-year-old majestic mahogonies uprooted, obstruct the path of [volunteer] runners taking messages back and forth,'' says Ron de Lugo, delegate to Congress from the US Virgin Islands.
But according to Eric E. Dawson, Commissioner of the Department of Economic Development and Agriculture of the US Virgin Islands, ``not even the massive force of Hugo could dampen the caring and sharing of the island.''