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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Disaster Response

January 12, 2010 was a horrific day. The Haiti earthquake triggered one of the biggest responses we have witnessed, and surely one of the most difficult.  Not since the Asia tsunami five years ago have relief teams faced destruction, tragedy, and challenges of such magnitude.

The HumaniNet team did what was expected, thanks to some star volunteers (special thanks to Vern Gillespie) with our nonstop Help Desk. We fielded many calls and emails, the most ever following a disaster, many from NGOs who were new to us. 

Managers dealing with complex field operations like to keep their messages short and to the point, so I will try to do the same. And you should read the comments below from Andris Bjornson, who is now in Haiti.

Some observations, four weeks after the Haiti disaster:

The good.  We did not hear much from the NGOs who were prepared.  Their teams had the equipment, knew how to use it, and could communicate from the moment they arrived in Haiti.  See our Testimonial page for some of the many positive comments we’ve received from these teams.

The bad.  Too many NGOs are woefully unprepared to deploy quickly to a disaster zone like Haiti, at least where communications are concerned, and I suspect in other areas as well – coordination, security, and training come to mind. 

NGO managers should take another look at the seven-step checklist below, in my article from exactly a year ago on Comms Preparedness.

And the ugly.  In a large scale disaster in the United States, the communications in cities like ours (Portland, Oregon) may well be similarly degraded.  Everyone will depend on cell phones, even government agencies, and that is foolish.

A widespread finding in Haiti: cell coverage and Internet access were spotty or nonexistent throughout the country after the earthquake, and in most areas that is still true.  This is based on numerous reports from the relief teams and media, right up to the present day.

This should not be a surprise to relief organizations after the Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the disasters in Sumatra and Samoa in 2009.  Too many managers have a blind faith in cell phones and the fast recovery of cellular infrastructure.  Too many staff members and volunteers are utterly unfamiliar with the costly equipment that they are handed just hours before departure.   Equipment is stored randomly in boxes and on shelves; one NGO could not find necessary accessories like the AC chargers and phone handsets to their BGANs.  Some still do not understand that sim cards need to be activated before the satphones can be used.

I don’t want to diminish the hard work and dedication of relief teams and managers.  The challenge is enormous.  But a little time and attention before the emergency is a smart and professional approach to preparedness.  It could save lives in a crunch.

For those who find all of this discouraging, no need to read further; you get my message.  But you might be interested in the comments of one well-prepared guy in Haiti.

Let me share a perspective from an NGO professional, Andris Bjornson, (pictures on Flickr) now working in Haiti with Inveneo.  Andris’ note is a fresh and welcome perspective on being prepared:

“It was essential to have the peace of mind that we had a solid backup comms solution in place, functioning immediately when we hit the ground.  We have a pelican case that comes with us everywhere we go.  In addition to our tools and consumable supplies, this case carries two key items: our first aid kit, and our BGAN.  Especially in the first days of our response to the Haiti Earthquake when the cellular network was completely unreliable, I considered the two to be of equal importance: One lets you fix yourself, and the other gets you in touch with the people who can fix you when your situation is beyond first aid. 

“Secondary to that, when doing technical work missing a single digital file can mean huge delays.  Knowing that we could reach out over the BGAN data connection to pull essential data from any field location with clear sky was great when we were moving from site to site very quickly and having to adapt quickly.”

Thank you, Andris.  Good luck to you, and to the many relief and recovery teams hard at work in Haiti, and those still at work in Sumatra, Samoa, and too many other countries.

Gregg Swanson
Founder and Executive Director

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