Credit: DND-MDN/Ariane Montambeault
On the front lines of international emergency response
From the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the West Africa Ebola outbreak of 2014, UNDAC teams managed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have responded to more than 281 emergencies in over 110 countries around the world as soon as they strike.
Credits: UNDAC / Stefania Trassari
The critical work of UNDAC members is to organize and coordinate the influx of international emergency response teams that arrive at the scene to help the hundreds and thousands of people left vulnerable in the wake of a disaster.
UNDAC chief Jesper Lund has been a member for 20 years. He shared a few highlights of his experiences, talking about how crisis response has changed over the last 25 years.
Responding to emergencies is not like in the movies
Lots of people have seen too many American movies, where the heroes come flying in on planes and are met with open arms. But that has never been the case in my experience - if your house is in shambles and you're fighting with your family members, then you don’t invite the neighbours over. It is a bit the same in emergencies. We are always received with a lot of reservations and questioning: “Why are you here and what can you do for me? You've never been here before and you don't know about my situation.” I just say: “No, I don’t. But I do know disasters and their dynamics, and that is what I can bring you.” My aim is to always stay friendly but decisive.
Building trust with the locals is everything
I’ve been an UNDAC member for 20 years, and I now know that building trust with local people and institutions takes a long time. It is important to make sure you are always listening and try to understand their motivations. We must always remember just how difficult it is for leaders in those situations: people are looking to them, but it is often the first time they have been in this crisis, and they feel they cannot fail.
The hardest part of disaster management is making life-or-death decisions
For me, response is hardest when I must take very important decisions, like whether to end a search-and-rescue phase, or where to prioritize search and rescue. In Haiti, some towns further from the epicentre of the earthquake didn’t get search and rescue as we didn’t have the means to reach them, and of course I feel a lot of guilt about that. When I close the search-and-rescue phase, I'm also saying: “No, there is no more hope for finding survivors under the rubble.” These are very tough choices to make.
Even responders need help with the stress of emergencies
Never underestimate the importance of protecting the well-being of your staff. We have a buddy system to make sure every staff member gets support. We tell people it’s fine to feel sad, scared or shocked. Sometimes we refer staff to trauma counsellors. When team members return to their organizations, we stay in touch. This is the core strength of the UNDAC community. We also work with staff who come from very different walks of life. Humanitarians are full of empathy and want to deal with the victims, while disaster managers are focused on looking at resources and logistics—they take an operational approach and have more emotional distance. It’s a good balance. But I can’t mention a single incident where any member has come back and said: “I cannot be part of this anymore because I couldn't cope, I couldn't handle it.”
Winding down, even if it’s just for 20 minutes
To give myself space to wind down, I listen to Internet radio, in particular a local radio station from where I grew up. There is nothing more relaxing than listening to good 1980s music interrupted by local news, the latest offers and how to get free parking in my local dialect.
Thanks to social media, everyone can play a role in a crisis
Social media has transformed the way people respond to crises. Twenty years ago, when a disaster occurred, people would go down and give some money to the local charity -or to the Red Cross- and we would see Governments deploying their national rescue teams. Today with social media, you can not only follow the disaster as it unfolds, but you can also send donations to crises or even try to connect directly with individual disaster victims.
The pace of change will continue to speed up
Assistance to people isn’t static—it will always change. And the pace of that change will continue to speed up. In my first disaster response mission, to Bosnia in 1993, the only means of communication was by letter and then telex. We would send a weekly telex to headquarters, but never got any replies - it turns out they had the wrong number, so we just got on with it. Now, we are in constant communication, and the demands to provide real-time information are much higher. So UNDAC must find ways to embrace individuals, networks and groups and work with them. The code by which UNDAC will be judged is the speed with which we can deploy and the capacity that we can bring. There's no other mechanism that can bring that much international experience to the first phase of response that quickly. As long as UNDAC keeps changing with our environment, I see a strong future for us.
Crises in focus
Each month in 2018, UNDAC team members have been revisiting a memorable mission on its anniversary month.
As they share their accounts of being on the front lines in some of the world’s most memorable disasters, they are also sharing their personal stories of help and rescue. They even give us a sneak peek into their “go-bags”, those essential emergency bags that are “ready to go” with them as soon as the call to deploy to a disaster arrives.
Jan - 2010
The Haiti earthquake of 2010 is considered this century’s deadliest. Striking the densely populated island on 12 January, the 7.2-magnitude earthquake and its aftermath killed over 220,000 people, including 102 United Nations staff, and displaced 1.5 million others.
Credit: Fabio Trebbi
OCHA / David Ohana
UNDAC Team Leader, Haiti Earthquake
Member since 1998
Jesper Lund was on the third plane to arrive in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, landing just 16 hours after the earthquake struck. He found destruction and shock all around.
“The sight that met me there, I will never forget,” he said.
Music and Mars bars
Jesper’s go-bag style is simple and to the point. His must-haves are Mars Bars, instant soup, his sleeping bag and a blanket. Other basics include soap, shampoo and lots of UNDAC shirts. Jesper always carries his headsets – Internet radio transports him to his hometown station from wherever he is deployed, helping him to relax as he listens to news from home and his favourite 80’s music.
Feb - 2016
Fiji: Cyclone Winston
On 20 February 2016, Winston became the most powerful tropical cyclone to ever strike Fiji. Packing winds of up to 320 km per hour, the cyclone killed 44 people and affected 350,000 others—thats 40% of Fiji’s total population.
Credit: UNICEF / Sokhin
Credit: OCHA / Danielle Parry
UNDAC Team Leader, Fiji Cyclone Winston
Member since 2008
“The destruction was very severe in certain areas: 100% destruction of the houses, 100% destruction of crops. That will have a significant impact on Fiji going forward.”
Sebastian and his UNDAC team had been monitoring Winston as it strengthened from a tropical storm to a Category 5 cyclone. When Fiji’s Government called for help the day after Winston hit, they were ready to board the next plane and deploy.
Never out of sight
Sebastian is very particular about his go-bag, its contents and even its whereabouts – it never leaves his sight. There is some gear he finds indispensable: communications gadgets, torches, a good pocket knife, a couple of carabiners and some decent rope. But his absolute must-have is Biltong, which is dried South African meat. Without it, he simply can’t function.
Mar - 2017
In 2017, El Niño Costero brought over 10 times the usual amount of rain to Peru during the rainy season. The resulting river swells, widespread floods and landslides lasted for nearly three months, causing 162 deaths, affecting over 1.5 million people, and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes.
Credit: OCHA / Rebaza
OCHA / Ramos
OCHA / Ardon
UNDAC member since 2008
“I was working in OCHA New York. I'm Peruvian, so I was monitoring the news and seeing how horrible these floods were, the worst in the last 30 to 35 years… Seeing those harrowing scenes of people really affected by the floods, I decided I can't keep sitting here - I’m an UNDAC member and I should be there. So I contacted UNDAC about joining the team that was going there.”
An important reminder
Fernando’s go-bag is always on standby, waiting for the deployment call to arrive at a moment’s notice. Before going, he adds a few last-minute items specific to the region to which he will deploy—mosquito repellent and a mosquito net in the case of Peru. He takes particular care to ensure his house keys are never left behind. They serve as an important reminder that at the end of the exhausting experience of responding to a disaster, he will be able to return home.
UNDAC member since 2011
"By the time we got there in March, Peru had been experiencing floods for a long time, since December. We were in the city of Piura, one of the most affected by the floods. At one point, the floods interrupted our capacity to move for one and a half days, and we were stuck in 1.5 metres of water throughout the city.”
Martin Miguel Torres
José Luis Germán
UNDAC members since 2011
“In any crisis where people have died, people are suffering. They have lost all their belongings, and that hits you hard, it’s very saddening. But we have been able to turn that sadness into a strong motivation to try to reduce the suffering – even to try to make it end altogether.”
Credit: OCHA / Marinos
Apr - 2015
On 25 April 2015, Nepal was shaken by a severe 7.8 magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and loss of life. It was followed by 300+ aftershocks, affecting 8 million people – a third of the population – and killing more than 8,880.
Credit: OCHA / Marinos
UNDAC member since 2005
“We arrived among the first. There were hundreds of search-and-rescue teams, emergency medical teams and humanitarian organizations on their way. Our job was to make sure that we were going to be able to provide coordination for those incoming teams. As they were arriving, they wanted to know where they could be of best use, where the needs were and how they could get set up so they could start saving lives immediately.”
UNDAC member since 2015
The Nepal earthquake was Marcus’ first deployment as an UNDAC member.
“I remember wondering, such a big emergency, such difficult terrain, how do we develop good and timely assessment analysis? So we pulled in our colleagues and said: ‘OK, there’s so much information floating around – satellite analysis, from the media, the field, other organizations… Let’s capture, analyse and feed it back to the humanitarian community, the Government and eventually to the affected people as fast and as regularly as possible.’ And a simple idea took off in the very first hour.”
Over the years, Markus has refined the art of preparing the perfect go-bag. He has learned that, in addition to the critical basics for survival in a crisis, he also needs more formal, professional attire to show respect and decorum when he meets with Government officials.
Always ready with wet wipes
Marcus’ go-bag is always on standby in his cellar, ready to be taken out. He pays close attention to the small practical items that can actually make a difference. His number one must-have? Wet wipes, because you might need them to clean in suboptimal toilet conditions and/or use as a makeshift “shower.”
May - 2008
Myanmar: Tropical Cyclone Nargis
In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis became the most powerful cyclone to ever strike Myanmar. Its slow-moving path of destruction over a densely populated part of the country killed over 140,000 people and left 2.4 million without homes and livelihoods. It was considered one of the world’s deadliest cyclones.
Credit: IRIN / VJ Villafranca
OCHA / Mahmood
IRIN / VJ Villafranca
UNDAC member since 2004
“The international humanitarian community couldn't get access into Myanmar. When I went out to the delta, I could immediately see that people were receiving assistance—from the monks, church groups, local civil society and local organizations on the ground doing the work. This is why I'm really passionate about localization, because I've seen in reality how local community groups really help each other in a circumstance like Myanmar, when there was no choice but to use local staff or organizations.”
The doctor is in
For Jemilah, the most important go-bag item is her medical bag, which is always fully equipped and ready to go. She likes that it’s not only useful in crisis situations, but that it also helps bring out easy conversations with strangers. Another item that’s always in there for this Malaysian national? A bottle of Malaysian chilies.
Being an UNDAC Member
This month, we turn our attention from stories of the challenges and struggles of particular disasters to focus on what it means to be part of the incredible UNDAC family of international first emergency responders, as told by UNDAC members from around the world.
Credit: OCHA / Palacio
UNDAC member since 2004
“Being an UNDAC member is an opportunity: to meet other people, to have a network of colleagues who share the same advocacies, to have an understanding of how other cultures cope with a disaster situation.
“The best part is that anything you contribute you know is for the greater good… that you are also advocating for the needs of the entire community. The worst part, or the most difficult, is having to separate yourself from the emotions that the affected population are feeling.”
Papua New Guinea
UNDAC member since 2008
“I feel so privileged to be an UNDAC member, but it also comes with a sense of responsibility and certain level of accountability. Going on mission can be very stressful, so it is very important to have great sense of humour and ability to remain calm despite working in a high-pressure environment.”
A multi-purpose malong and saltine crackers
Agnes' most essential go-bag item? Her malong, a tube skirt worn in the Southern Philippines. Because of its shape, she uses it as a scarf, a blanket, a sleeping bag, a towel, and even a dressing room. Another item she can’t do without: Skyflakes, a Filipino brand of saltines she keeps handy in case she needs something to snack on.
An item from home helps keep a sense of self
Vini makes sure to always take a traditional string bag from Papua New Guinea called a bilum. When she is on deployment, working like a machine, her bilum helps her keep a sense of identity, reminding her she is one person under the pressure of deployment.