In 2015, Jina Fungo and her family were completely surprised when a raging flood ripped through their village in the southern Malawi with no warning. They escaped in a canoe, managing to find safety upland.

Jina’s husband made a desperate attempt to return to their village, Chilanga. “After dropping us off, he paddled back to try and save some of our belongings,” says Jina, a mother of four. “But the floods were so strong, and they washed away his canoe.” Tragically, Jina’s husband drowned.

In all, the floods of 2015 claimed more than 170 lives in Malawi.

Two weeks ago, the waters started rising again in Chilanga, as Cyclone Idai swirled across Mozambique and into Malawi.  Jina said the floods were even worse than those she experienced in 2015. “From the uplands, you could see the houses being swept away like papers,” she says. “It was scary.”

But this time, Jina not only knew what was happening — she knew exactly what to do. Families in the area were warned about the approaching storm by members of the new local civil protection committee.  Jina and her family immediately relocated to a recently constructed evacuation center at Ndamera.

Despite the massive destruction of property, no one in Chilanga died due to Cylone Idai’s flooding, which has killed at least 60 people in other parts of Malawi. The community was prepared. “The 2015 floods taught us many lessons,” says Jina. “We lost our loved ones and our property. When we went back home after the floods had subsided, we resolved to prepare better but we didn’t know where to start from.”

Last year, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), CARE introduced the UBALE project in Chilanga, which supported the creation of civilian protection committees. The committees were trained in disaster preparedness and response. Committee members learned how to interpret and disseminate weather-related information to the community. CARE also provided the civilian protection committees with whistles, which they blow to alert people of an impending disaster.

After the training, as the next phase of the project, the civilian protection committee identified their greatest need: an evacuation center upland. They built it just in time, not realizing the center would become a life-saver so soon.

Chilanga, which borders the marshes of Shire River, is extremely prone to flash floods. It’s part of what attracts people here: the flooding enriches the soil. Strong crop yields created by the fertile soil continue to entice the people of Chilanga to remain despite the constant threat of high waters.

In the wake of Cyclone Idai, more than 4,000 people have moved to the evacuation center — the majority of them women and children. Although the three-room structure is overwhelmed with the number of people, Jina feels it is better than sleeping in a tent.“We can cook in the evacuation center even when it’s raining,” she says. “But when you are in a tent, it’s not possible as it can catch fire.”

So far, there have been no deaths reported due to flooding in Chilanga. And government officials here say the community’s efforts to better prepare for disaster played a large role in saving people’s lives. “This was a unique idea and it has helped a lot in making the lives of the displaced people better,” said Emmanuel Mbenuka, a government Social Welfare Assistant based in Nsanje.

And he pointed to another benefit: school children will be able to return to the classroom faster. “In the past, when we had such a disaster, people would sleep in classrooms, disrupting the education calendar,” Mbenuka said. “But the building of this center has changed all that.”

Joseph Scott