As initial assessments shed light on the extensive damage caused by Cyclone Ivan earlier this week, Madagascar is bracing itself for another onslaught as Cyclone Hondo picks up and heads for the island's east coast.

Ivan slammed into Madagascar's northeastern coast on Sunday, 18 February, with winds of up to 210km per hour, leaving a trail of destruction on its way across the island until it slowly diminished in strength and dissipated in the Mozambique Channel on Tuesday.

Ivan brought "two levels of disasters: destruction caused by the intense wind first, and now the flooding", said Dia Styvanley Soa, spokeswoman for the National Office for Natural Disasters Preparedness (BNGRC). "And we can expect more - we are in the middle of cyclone season you know - Hondo is now threatening our coast."

Hondo developed into a full-blown category four tropical cyclone in the centre of the Indian Ocean at the beginning of February, but quickly lost intensity and never threatened to make landfall.

But Styvanley Soa said that according to Madagascar's weather forecasters, Hondo was making a comeback. "Hondo is now 1,600km from our east coast. It does not affect the weather yet, but we must be alert to its evolution."

Taking stock of the damage

Assessment missions were still being carried out by the BNGRC, with the help of UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), like the US-based Care International. "The biggest problem now is access - many of the roads have been cut," she said.

On Sainte Marie, a 60km long island off Madagascar's northeast coast, which bore the brunt of the cyclone, "75 percent of the houses have been destroyed," Styvanley Soa said.

"Yesterday we got the results from the helicopter assessment. It is an assessment done from the air, so it only gives us an outline of the damage. All I can say now - because I don't have precise data yet - is that almost all the regions of Madagascar are flooded and accessibility is a real problem."

The initial assessments indicated that nearly 15,000 people had been affected - already double the estimates made on Tuesday - with over 8,000 left without shelter and two people dead. An additional nine victims are thought to be buried under the rubble of a collapsed hotel.

"The cyclone damaged road infrastructure and houses and blew down trees. In many parts of the country, especially the northeast, the electricity is cut off and rivers are reported to have begun flooding," said Volana Rarivoson, public information officer of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Madagascar.

Concerns have also been raised over food security after large areas of rice fields were flooded in the Ambatondrazaka region, where most of Madagascar's rice, the staple food, is grown.

Limited food distribution has already started in accessible areas. "WFP is planning to distribute one tonne of high energy biscuits in the most affected areas, taking advantages of the assessment teams that will be deployed with the helicopter/small planes," Rarivoson said. The UN's Children Fund (UNICEF) was providing the district of Toamasina with non-food items like shelter material, the Malagasy government had made 20 tonnes of rice available in Toamasina through the BNGRC, while CARE had 600 tonnes of food available in Fénérive East.

The cyclone season was overlapping with the lean season between harvests, and the precarious food security situation was worrying, Rarivoson said. "After the passage of the cyclones, many people lose their harvest. This situation would likely cause a severe deterioration of the situation in the coming months."

Well received

Despite the severe damage, Madagascar could not have been much better prepared: a contingency plan and cyclone simulation exercise in October 2007 brought together all the relevant authorities, UN agencies, civil society groups and NGOs.

"The participants unanimously identified cyclones on the east coast, followed by floods, as the main risks," Jean Marie Stratigos, of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Madagascar, told IRIN. The simulation exercise "took place on the east coast in Foulpointe - Fénérive East - Soanierana Ivongo [north of the second city, Toamasina], exactly where IVAN struck; everyone is familiar with the location, people know one another."

Madagascar has a history of devastating cyclone encounters: the previous one, Fame, claimed 12 lives in late January 2008; in the 2007 cyclone season, the worst in living memory, six of these storms ravaged the island, killing over 150 people.

During 2006/07 there was unprecedented flooding in the centre and north of the country, with chronic drought in the south. The island nation faced an unusually difficult period and by the end of March 2007, the combined effects of the disasters had left nearly half a million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

"The pre-positioning of food and non-food items was organised according to the plan, with the positive result that the relief [items] were already on site," Stratigos said. This was particularly important when transport by air, road and sea were all impossible for a couple of days. The BNGRC commented that the destruction of infrastructure had already severely hampered assessment efforts, let alone the distribution of food and shelter.

"Nevertheless," Rarivoson said, "the intensity of the cyclone was such that even if precautions were taken, damage was inevitable. Pre-positioning has proven to be efficient for an immediate food aid intervention."

Inviting the country's mobile phone operators to the simulation exercise had been important Stratigos said. "[Mobile phone operator] Orange called us on Monday and their technician was transported to Sainte Marie, hence bringing back the network much faster."

Styvanley Soa said Madagascar's population had been well prepared. "They have reinforced their houses, alerted each other about the coming of cyclones, and regional authorities have also shouldered their responsibility." She also commended the resilience of the people, as communities had already started rebuilding and clearing affected areas.

"Recurrent disasters are making people vulnerable. Precautions have to be taken for the future, especially in terms of construction," Rarivoson warned. "People should choose carefully where and how they should build houses that can resist shock."