Within four days of Cyclone Pam’s landfall, American Red Cross disaster specialist Daniel Joseph was on a plane to Vanuatu, a small island nation that was badly impacted by the category five storm. Daniel is supporting information management and reporting activities—essential assistance for an emergency of this scale, which can overwhelm local Red Crescent branches. Daniel spent 24 hours and 13 minutes in the air to arrive in Vanuatu. Below, a Q&A about his experience there. Thus far, the American Red Cross has deployed two disaster specialists to the country and contributed $100,000 and 1,000 kitchen sets to the help people in need.
Q. What are you seeing and hearing in Vanuatu?
From a distance, if it weren’t for the tropical heat, you’d think it was winter. The trees over large swathes of land were completely stripped of their leaves. When you get closer you see that most trees are also missing all but the thickest branches and many are completely toppled. Trees are slowly pushing out new leaves and the vegetation is returning, but the scars on the landscape will likely be visible for some time.
Many Red Cross specialists are working in the field with people and communities most badly damaged by Cyclone Pam. I am working from the Vanuatu Red Cross headquarters office in Port Vila, so I don’t have much direct contact with the worst affected people and places, but it definitely seems like people are overwhelmingly positive. Grateful for assistance, and understanding of the difficulties in reaching some parts of the country. The Vanuatu Red Cross already had a good reputation and presence—the wider Red Cross network has stepped up to provide support (staff, financial support, supplies, etc.).
Q. Why is information management important?
Disaster responses are complex for any number of reasons. In Vanuatu there is devastation across many small islands; limited (even before the cyclone) communication and transportation infrastructure in many affected areas; and heavily damaged infrastructure (damaged cellular towers on hard-to-access islands; blocked roads on islands lacking heavy machinery or stocks of things like chainsaws; boats and ferries destroyed during the cyclone).
As an information management delegate, I keep detailed data on Red Cross relief operations and then use this data to create things like maps, charts, and reports. These information products help us coordinate with other agencies (reducing duplication of efforts and mitigating the chance that an affected area is overlooked); help the Red Cross manage ongoing operations; and communicate our work to the people we are helping.
Q. Are families in Vanuatu still suffering?
Households with smaller incomes are the worst affected. Makeshift houses and those built from local materials had little chance of standing up to the winds. In Port Vila most of the missing roofs and damaged walls are seen in informal settlement areas. Lots of families, especially on the islands, depend on home gardens and small farm plots for subsistence but their crops were damaged or destroyed.
It’ll be an interesting challenge figuring out how to best address needs moving forward. For instance, the many downed trees might be utilized for building materials if communities are trained and provided with chainsaws or other equipment.
Q. How is the Red Cross helping these families?
We started by distributing emergency shelter supplies like tarps and shelter repair kits that include things like tools and nails. In the past few weeks, we have been distributing relief items such as sleeping mats, water containers, solar lanterns, hygiene kits, blankets, and kitchen sets, as the government and other agencies are providing food and water. The Red Cross has successfully connected members of 63 families, helping people know the state of their loved ones after the disaster. We also want the people of Vanuatu to be better positioned when the next disaster hits, so the global Red Cross network will focus on strengthening resilience as we move forward.
Q. What’s one thing you’ve seen that shows the resilience of people in Vanuatu?
From the first day after the storm, many people have volunteered their time--despite many of them having damages to their homes and businesses. And the volunteering has stayed strong. The sustained dedication and positive energy of all the Vanuatu Red Cross volunteers is impressive.
Q. You deployed to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. How is this trip different?
The effects of the storm and the needs of the people differ slightly. Vanuatu, in terms of population and geographic size is much smaller (but the challenges certainly don’t seem smaller!). The dedication of the Red Cross staff, volunteers, and deployed team members to Red Cross’ seven fundamental principles has been very much evident in both situations.
Q. How does your family feel about you being in Vanuatu so soon after the Cyclone?
When I first called and told my parents that I was being deployed to Vanuatu my mom’s response was that she had heard about the cyclone on the news and was wondering if I might be sent to help. If she was worried, she did a good job of pretending otherwise. I think she trusts me to be safe and is proud of the work I’m doing.
Q. Can you tell us one thing you’re so glad you packed for this trip?
I’ve got a backup laptop, and while I haven’t had to use it yet, it’s good for peace of mind. There aren’t enough hours in the day to track, tabulate, and analyze everything going on with just pen and paper.
American Red Cross also sent me with a printer that can take Tabloid/A3 size paper. Being able to print color maps and summary tables on larger paper has been really great.