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Inside Disaster

Jean-Pierre Taschereau, FACT Team Leader in Haiti

Jean-Pierre Taschereau

Q: How did you hear about the earthquake?

I was actually looking for a condo, because I just came back to Ottawa and I was looking at buying a condo and I was visiting the first one, I narrowed down my house searching, and the cab driver asked me, “Did you hear about the earthquake in Haiti?”, and I said, “When did that happen?”. [He said], “Just now.” And then the Blackberry started buzzing, so I called Isabel, who was in Panama, immediately and I asked what’s going on with the earthquake in Haiti, she says “I’ve got Franko” [who worked with us in Haiti in 2008], he was there, well he was the administrator during the mission so he was on Skype feeding her the first information, so that’s how I knew it was going to be a big one right away.

Q: What did you think when you first heard about the disaster?

I thought, “I need to get more information about how big this is, right? Something I said to Isabel struck me and it struck her, because she said – she was surprised because while we were still on the phone and she was getting information, I said, “I have a feeling I’m going to be going.” And it just came out of nowhere, but I knew at that point it was going to be something, and by the time I got to the office, hooked up on the Skype myself with Dorothy and got the whole network up, connected, and information started coming in, we knew there was effective deployment, so that was that. About, I would say, 10 o’clock at night my deployment order came, and yeah…that was that. I was on a plane the next day.

Q: From the information you were getting, and from having been in Haiti before, did you intuitively know it was going to be bad?

Well, at the end of the hurricane season in 2008, when we were wrapping up the operation and looking at contingency planning for 2009 and the prepositioning of stocks, the Executive Director of the Haitian Red Cross, Dr. Guiteau Jean-Pierre, was telling me, “JP”, he says, “ you know we can prepare all we want before hurricanes, but my nightmare scenario, my worst case scenario would be an earthquake in Port-au-Prince.” And then there we were two months later. That’s what was running in my head. What would be the challenges, logistical challenges, the security situation. And I didn’t know at that point how big it was, the scale of the devastation that it was going to be, but I knew it was going to be hard from having worked in previous earthquakes elsewhere in a capital city, that it was going to be a tough one.

Q: When you arrived at Santo Domingo, had you seen any images yet?


Q: You hadn’t had a chance to turn on the news or anything?

No, I don’t do that. I just, no. No, no. I was just preparing my own deployment and getting information, operational information, from who was on the ground, who was coming, and getting my mind into the mental preparation of what we were going to have to deploy and what we were going to be managing in the field. So I didn’t have time to—I was on TV, I did a lot of interviews but you don’t see the images because you are in front of the camera, right? I did – on the morning of, on Wednesday morning from 8 till the moment I left, because I packed up during the night, from Tuesday to Wednesday, and on Wednesday morning I was doing some briefings on the telephone, and did some media all the way till the airport, and then I took my plane and didn’t find anything else out until I got to Santo Domingo at which point I met with Isabel and you guys.

Q: What were you thinking as you were preparing to travel?

I wasn’t thinking. I was just trying not to think, just keeping that space because I knew – I was trying to calm things inside, just because I knew the next three weeks were going to be crazy and I was taking stock of what was happening, how much traffic was going down, how much traffic was coming up also. I was trying to gauge or get a sense of what was happening. The Blackberry was working, so at least the email was working for a while, until we got right to the other side of the border, so I was getting some of the updates, but it was all very sketchy in the car. And we had Alex on the ground, and Franko, at that point.

Q: What does that tell you…the traffic coming and going?

If there’s traffic, all the traffic is going down no one is coming up, maybe the roads are blocked, or people are not trying, so you’re just trying to get a sense of what’s happening, right? It’s a lot of working hypothesis that you try to connect everything. You might remember at the border, I was trying to get a sense of how edgy the Dominican Republic military or the border patrol was, because you know, population movement—it increased a lot over the next few days, because we got there early, right? so people didn’t have time actually. There were camps that were set up on both sides of the border in the few days after we crossed. I didn’t get much information from that trip, until we started coming closer to Port-au-Prince, but that’s what you’re trying to get.

Q: There were a lot of Haitians trying to get out, trying to cross into the DR.

Yeah, but nowhere near what came after, over the next few days as there was more transportation, so those who were able to leave were mostly those who had their own means of transportation. There were a lot more people, a lot more movement after. We were not really operational by the border, but other organizations that we were working with were, and there were a few and they were feeding us information and also setting up first aid stations at camps and so on, on both sides of the border.

Q: Can you describe the scene at the border, the day after the quake?

I had never crossed into [Haiti] from the Dominican Republic, I had always gone directly through the airport, so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought they’d be edgier than they were. There was lots of media: that’s something that struck me, there were many, many cameras. I thought that, you know, media is increasingly faster, they’re faster every time. There were many agencies coming down.

Q: There were a lot of Haitians trying to get into Haiti to look for family members.

Their relatives, friends and relatives. That’s true. Because communication and information wasn’t coming out. The whole grid was down, right? So, a lot of people were anxious I would say, but there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic coming out, as we were going down that I remember, but then again I couldn’t compare to what it is normally.

Q: Is it common to have an influx of people after a disaster, not just aid workers?

I couldn’t tell you, I don’t know. In my experience, it’s not often that the particular, or specific geographic conditions of having a big Diaspora in the next country, which is still an island so it’s relatively easy to access, that was the only way to go back in, right? As opposed to the Diaspora that was in Montreal, for example, that couldn’t go in or not as quickly as people just had to leave Santo Domingo and go down. So, I couldn’t really give you an educated answer on that.

Q: You left early in the morning to get into Port-au-Prince before dark, why was that a concern?

Yes, well from having worked previously in Port-au-Prince, I know—well, we had curfews before the earthquake. Port-au-Prince is a dangerous city to work in at the best of days, and even though there was this lull and insecurity because of the aftershock, literally, of the earthquake, it’s still safer to be a place where you know, and it was part security and also because you don’t want to be caught in the outlying areas, the outskirts of Port-au-Prince after dark, because this is where you have to go through to get to where we were going, the Canadian Red Cross office, and I didn’t know how damaged the roads or infrastructure was, so there could’ve been a lot more landslides or… rubble, so it was – you have to give yourself a lot of safe space to get to wherever you want to go in these types of situations.

Q: What time did you leave?

On a good day, it would normally take eight to ten hours to get from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince. So without knowing what the roads are going to be like—you don’t know if the bridge is going to be collapsed, you don’t know if there’s going to be rubble on the road, you don’t know if it’s going to be passable at all. To get to the Canadian Red Cross office, I knew we had to go through the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, which are not safe on the best of days. We had had a curfew prior to the earthquake, in some of the areas in [Martissant] so I wanted to give the team plenty of space and leeway, to make sure that we got to the Red Cross office before it was dark—that’s why we left at four in the morning.

Q: What were your impressions as you entered the city?

It was worse than I had feared because I knew it was going to be bad, it had to be bad, but it was just everywhere – kilometer after kilometer after kilometer, until we got to the office. It was rubble and dust and people everywhere. Roads were blocked and there was none of the normal street activity, you know? Which I also expected, but it was just the scale of it, and it’s… that’s what blew me away. Everything was just so much bigger than everything that I’d ever seen.

Q: I remember masses of people on the move.

Yeah, people walking and I’m not sure they really knew where to go, because where was there to go? Eventually, all those people ended up making five or six hundred makeshift camps in every public space that they could find, wherever they could pitch whatever belongings they had managed to save from the rubble. Looking for relatives and friends, and trying to gather who was dead, who was alive, where could they get assistance – a disaster scene is always chaos. But it was the sheer density of it, and the small space. Again, I’d never worked in a highly populated urban area before; it was a relatively small geographic space if you compare it to the tsunami or other operations that we worked when we’ve had hurricanes that go over five or six countries. It’s big but it’s widespread. But there it was, all in this capital city… turned into rubble.

Q: You say it was the worst destruction you’d ever seen. Can you describe what you saw?

It’s hard to put into words, the destruction. I mean, entire neighborhoods just collapsed and, because Port-au-Prince is built on all these hills, it was these vast tracks of hills that were just collapsed and had turned into rubble so you know, where you had three or four streets and the houses that were two or three stories high, the top part of the hill had collapsed and slid down, and everything was down at the bottom, and you knew that you had a pile of rubble and dozens of people there as well. Roads that we would have used were collapsed or blocked from the rubble. Survivors everywhere, people looking for survivors, people pulling people out of debris, bodies wounded everywhere. That was the thing–just everywhere you turned around, there were people that needed immediate assistance.

Q: When you went into Haiti, how many operations had you already led?

This was the second operation I had led, like operational leadership. I had led the earthquake response in Peru in 2007. I had also kind of managed the hurricane response in 2008, there the FACT team was reporting to me, so I was there on the ground, called the FACT team in, but the operational leadership was by the FACT team leader, and they were reporting to me for the system and the plan of action and everything, so it was more of a management. So, I would say it was the second operation that I had led on the ground.

Q: As you realized how big it was, were you prepared for that?

I was nervous and I felt prepared, I mean that’s what I’ve been doing for ten years now in different roles. Because I’d worked so much in Haiti over the past two years, I think I was as prepared as I could ever be to lead that kind of response. I knew most of the members of the FACT team that were deployed. I’ve worked with the ERU system. I’ve worked for Pan American Disaster Response Unit (PADRU) before, so I guess it was the coming together of a number of elements.

Q: Being managerial and an operational leader are two very different things?

Oh yeah – but I led smaller scale operations, real small scale like a team of four, so it’s not this big international deployment. I led regional deployments in Chile, the earthquake or the flood, so I kind of led that, but they were smaller teams. But the big operations that I led were the Peru earthquake and this.

Q: People’s expectations of the Red Cross are enormous in a situation like Haiti – how do you deal with that?

I’ve thought a lot about how we all reacted under pressure and collectively as a team, and as individuals who were part of that team. One of the things that we’ve commented on is that there was no conflict within the team, people didn’t snap. And I think that the tremendous pressure that was exerted on us, as people needing to, first and foremost it was the needs. Like I said, you couldn’t cross the street without coming across 1500 people that needed immediate assistance, there was so much to do, everything had to happen at the same time. So that was the first pressure of responding to the scale of need.

But also you know you’re at the centre of attention of the international community. We had all the media on us. It’s also tremendous pressure. I think what it did was instead of people caving in, it just kind of had the effect of what immense pressure does to rock –it turns into diamonds, so it brought out the best in all of us, for as long as we were there. You’ve seen Panu work himself even when he was still on the IV, dehydrated. We all became sick, Steve became sick with his throat infection and he’d still be up and doing it. Just because there’s so much and you don’t want to fail, you’re just there to do the best you can. You know, people needed us to do the best that we could do.

Q: How do you steel your mind, prepare yourself mentally?

Well first, I think I personally, I try to pull the emotional plug because you get overwhelmed really quickly, I mean, you can’t – you can’t look at, at all this on an individual drama [basis], because you know that’s what it is – it’s the collective sum of  the individual dramas, right? Hundreds of thousand of people who’s life just collapsed or was shattered in many cases, so you can’t take that approach. So you focus on action. You look at it from an operational perspective and look at what needs to be done, how you can do it–it’s really a triage situation, right? But on such a large scale, so the principle in triage is the greater good for the greater number in the shortest amount of time. Because of the training, because of experience, because of having faced these kinds of situations before, even not as a team leader, but as one of the members of the team, you know that the first priority, the immediate priority, is getting the medical people, the water, the sanitation, the logistics support, and where you can make progress and keep all these balls up in the air, and build your operation.

So you focus on action. You register all the emotional charge of it, but you process it much later when you go home. Or when you’re caught by surprise, just like when that kid was brought to us in the base camp–we didn’t have time to put our defense. I didn’t have time to put my mental defenses up, so when you go out into the street you know what you’re going to see, you expect it, you shield yourself from it? That’s ok, right? But that kid –that’s why he got to us, because we didn’t see it coming, we didn’t prepare for him.

Q: When you were setting up base camp, when the ERUs started to arrive, did you have a sense at that time of how big the operation was going to be?

I never expected it to be this big. I remember giving an interview from the airport in Ottawa, and it’s kind of interesting. I read the interview when I got back because it was written for us then, I saw that what I expected was the largest one – I was expecting something about the size of Peru and the size of Haiti, the operation, so I kind of blended the two mentally and said, ok, we had 90 ERUs being deployed, so I was figuring 10-20 million dollar operating budget, maybe 60 people on the ground, and, but again I hadn’t seen it. When we got on the ground, as I saw the scale of destruction and the FACT team would go out, as the team members would go out and they would come back every day, “we need two basic health care units, we need one mass sanitation, we need another logistics, we need more relief, we need this, we need…” and I still wasn’t getting the outside images that were broadcast all around the world, but I was just getting the operational information, which it was the same, but the Red Cross Society’s in all those countries, they saw,  they were getting the images, and they were getting our reports from the field. And the money was just allowing us to mobilize all the resources that we needed.

And this is how we got through–I mean it turned into the largest deployment that the Red Cross had ever carried out in one single country.

Q: When you first set up the base camp, how many ERUs were expected at that time?

Nine were being mobilized, if I remember correctly.

Q: And you didn’t have any idea at that point how big it was going to be?

When we got to Port-au-Prince, there were nine ERUs on their way, and at that point I still had no sense of how big this was going to be. I never imagined it. And every day, I was calling in more ERUs. In a normal situation (and going back to 2008 when we’d asked for two basic health care units for Gonaïves) you’re still talking two million dollars. It’s significant resources. So there’s expectations from the national society that’s deploying that it’s going to be well funded. There’s a humanitarian imperative to this mobilization of resources. You’re accountable for the resources that are going to be deployed. But there I was, every day I was calling out for more ERUs, just by SMS–the internet–wasn’t really working on a few days.

I was calling in for millions of dollars. The German referral hospital, the two base camps. It’s a massive mobilization of resources, and no one was blinking an eye. They were just saying, “ok, it’s on the way.” I would ask for it, fifteen minutes [later] they’d confirm that Germany or Norway or someone had agreed to the do [the funding] and they were mobilizing their teams. And never being second-guessed, never being any questions, because the information was coming from the field and it was matching the images that people were seeing on TV, and people – the teams were coming in as fast, or faster even, than we could accommodate them. You saw how it was at our first base camp, right?

Even the base camp set-up itself: I was in Santo Domingo and even before Santo Domingo when I was still in Canada, [because of] the number of ERUs that were being deployed, I asked Alex who was on the ground, and Isabel, and I said, “I think we should start thinking about mobilizing a base camp.” Because from 2008 I knew hotels were very expensive, I didn’t know how many hotels were still standing, but I knew – I had a feeling the response was going to be very bad, the accommodation was going to be a challenge. I didn’t know the Red Cross offices were destroyed, I didn’t know the hotels were destroyed.

And even then, it took us two days to mobilize one base camp and then we realized there were dozens and dozens of delegates coming. We called for the deployment of a second base camp, which is, as far as I know, the first time that we called two base camps into one operation. And the two base camps together are now providing one hundred and fifty beds. Last I checked, there were 290 people in the camp. So even that was way bigger than we could have expected.

Q: Can you speak about the people on your team? Steve McAndrew your relief FACT team leader.

Steve McAndrew, our relief coordinator, is probably the bravest man I’ve ever met. I knew and respected him before, from having met him and crossed [paths with] him previously in other operations, in the tsunami and the Peru earthquake. He was the head of PADRU, the unit I worked [for] in Panama. But after working with him in Haiti, I really grew to admiring the guy. He would go out everyday–he’s such a positive driving force, he’d motivate the crew. He’s always, “we can do it.” His attitude [is] we can do everything we set out to do. Ah, and his knowledge and intuition. I mean, this guy – he’s a master at his trade, and I have tremendous respect for the guy, even if he’s pretty hard to manage, because he’s as demanding with both his team members and his team leader as he is from himself, so he gives it all. [A] fantastic experience, working with him.

Ian [is] a very solid, tough guy. Knew him from the tsunami as well, where we worked remotely. He was in Banda [Aceh], I was in Batam, and we were sending each other emails and we were calling each other, never met, never spoken, and then finally we went, “you’re Ian,” “you’re JP,” and we just hugged each other, because like, “great to know you, it’s been great working with you.”

Steve, Ian, Panu, Hossam, Richard, Paco, Isabel, they’re all people that I’d worked with before, right? In different contexts, but they were people I knew were as solid as they came, so the team-building phase was really quick because there was already a lot of trust and previous relationships to be built on, so as soon as I knew that Steve was going to take care of relief I knew I didn’t have to be on top of relief because he’s better at doing relief than I am. Ian A. is better at doing logistics than I am. Richard Muntz, Panu, and Hossam are better at doing health than I could ever possibly be. Paco is the [water and sanitation] guy. So I knew that I didn’t have to worry about all these things because technically these guys are sound, and I knew that what they were going to do was going to be the best that we could do with what we had, so I would not have to second guess them.

And then I only had to bring it all together, right? I didn’t have to be really on, and this was echoed also in Geneva, you know? I saw that and I felt that early on, when you send an SMS by phone and you’re asking for the deployment of a two million dollar hospital and no one blinks an eye, and they say, “it’s on the way.” Just because it came from Richard, Panu, to JP, to Geneva – alright, if these guys on the ground say that’s what you need, that’s what you need and there it goes, you know? To be part of that was a tremendous experience of being able to channel all these resources.

Q: Hossam?

Hossam Elsharkawi is the guy who trained me in ERUs. He was my head of operations during the field school in Kenya, and I was his deputy. He’s a guy who is also extremely solid. He practically invented the rapid deploy hospital, he’s behind the ERU concept. He’s at the centre of it. We’ve worked together for joint deployments between the Canadian Red Cross and the Norwegian Red Cross. I’d trust my life to him without hesitation. So having him be part of the ERU, the Norwegian hospital, I knew that anything I needed to know I would know, and he knew that anything he needed he could count on from us, so, that was Hossam.

Q: Can you define Steve’s job?

Relief is the distribution of emergency assistance. All these things [needed] to meet your basic needs that people lose in an earthquake, so a relief kit is composed of plastic sheeting to protect you from the elements, blankets, hygiene kits…for personal hygiene in the family, a kitchen set: basic cooking utensils, pots and pans, a jerry can, a bucket, and mosquito nets to protect you from mosquitoes. So this is the standard, basic kit that we give out to families. So, the relief coordinator, Steve, and the relief ERUs and the relief teams, are the people who survey, who register the beneficiaries, whether its in camps or in the household depending on the situation, and they’re the ones determining what are the most adequate items that they will need to meet their basic emergency needs.

[This] methodology that was implemented by Steve and his teams in Haiti, was the one that allowed us to do what we did without needing armed escorts: the four-step methodology of first identifying community leaders in the area where we were going to distribute, explaining how the Red Cross works, empowering them and having them take ownership of the security and the distribution, explaining the distribution mechanisms, explaining that the security and the success of the distribution really depended on them, and that we were just there to facilitate and bring in outside support.

Then the registration, the actual handing out of tickets to the beneficiaries, and explaining that it’s only the people that get the ticket who will get the goods, and that we’re only bringing the number of kits for the number of tickets that we were distributing. So, these are all the kinds of things that clarify and provide context to people.

Q: This methodology was only used in Haiti?

No, but it was even more important to use it down in Haiti, because we never got –well, I can’t say we never got robbed in Peru, but security was a particular concern in Haiti, I would say, on those particular distributions. We’ve had a couple dozen security incidents, minor ones, they were ones that created such a risk or such threat to our staff that we had to stop our activities, sometimes we had to pull back and regroup and come back later. It is that methodology that has allowed us to operate without needing armed escorts. [That methodology] respects the dignity of our beneficiaries, which is just as important as the actual goods that they receive.

You cannot treat people any less than you would, than you should because they’ve lost their house, you know, you can’t strip them of their dignity on top of everything else. You’ve got to treat them with dignity.

I think [Steve McAndrew] is the bravest man I’ve ever worked with. Being out there, and such a positive source of inspiration for everyone, right? He was so driven with his “we can do it” attitude, always. At the end of the day, you debrief different people on the same event. Some distribution, some went pear-shaped and they had to evacuate, and some guys came and said “man, we can’t work under these conditions, we need to have armed escorts. This is too dangerous.” This is a bit alarming as a team leader when you get that initial feedback, right? So later when Steve comes back, I asked Steve, “Steve, what happened today?” He says, “oh, you know, they got a bloody nose, they learned from it, we’re going back tomorrow, no problem – we can do it.” And they went back the next day and things happened alright, and they would just never stop, and if Steve went back, he went back in the same role, and now the operation has an all-Haitian relief team, which is led buy a 20-year-old female law student.

So when you think that this young, trilingual woman, is leading teams where so many expats won’t even go, without armed escorts, that tells you something, it tells you something, and that’s tremendous respect and admiration for this guy.

Q: Someone got a bloody nose?

Figuratively speaking, because they went in, and if you don’t socialize properly, or if you don’t manage access to the site right, you get a bloody nose in the sense that they had to withdraw their security–no one got physically hurt. But that’s just how they would say it. They got a bloody nose, but they came back the next day. No, I would’ve been a bit more alarmed if someone had come back with a bloody nose, that’s for sure.

Q: Can you talk about Gennike’s job and her role in the operation?

Well, it was Gennike’s first field mission, first field assignment. It’s important for us to have information coming out about what we’re actually doing on the ground, the actual stories that are coming from the field- not only in terms of internal reporting, which guides our actions and the mobilization of resources, but also external reporting – telling the world what the Red Cross, and what the volunteers are doing on the ground, what the situation is day-to-day, and be the point of contact for the external media as well. For the first 24 or 48 hours, I was one of the spokespeople for the Canadian Red Cross, but as we saw, the operation was scaling up so much, I told her, “well, I can’t be the head of operations and the spokesperson, I can’t do both.” And it’s too important for me, so I focused on that role. This is why you bring in a dedicated spokesperson, right? So that’s the role. It’s actually very crucial, because it’s not just to field or to react, but it’s also to put your messaging out there, and what are the priorities, what needs to happen, what are the challenges, what we’re accomplishing, and so on.

Gennike Mayers’ role as information delegate is to be the point of contact for the Red Cross with the outside world. So basically, it’s putting out stories on what we do, what we are facing, what are the challenges, what are the accomplishments, what’s the situation on the ground. And also to respond to the demands of the various media that want to know more about the Red Cross operation in the field.

Q: Did this role originate after the Tsunami?

Could be, I don’t know what the logic is, but definitely since the tsunami, the media has an increased presence in the field, and earlier than it used to be – they deploy now at the same time that we do, or sometimes even faster. Sometimes they’re already on the ground–they have stringers on the ground. And the whole CNN effect of reporting in real time–it’s important not to just be reactive and respond to the demands, but also to be proactively engaged in putting the messaging out there. Again, it comes to people who support our operations – private donors, corporations, governments, they see their money in operation on the ground.

Q: When did you start hearing about looters being shot in Haiti, and how did that affect the operation?

I don’t know, I think it was in the first week, the first reports of street justice. How it affects the operation? For me, it was a stern reminder that the pre-earthquake conditions were still there, I mean a lot of people come in on the first day and [aren’t aware of] whatever was happening before, but gunshots could be heard everyday in Port-au-Prince. It’s a reminder of the fact that it’s not because it’s a situation of exception that you’re free to go and come as you please. There are dynamics and risks inherent in the environment, and our first camp was right outside of Cité Soleil, which, before the earthquake, was a no-go area for us. So, it kind of puts security and reminds the teams that are coming in of where we’re working.

Q: Why was that location chosen?

Because that’s the only place that was available at the time. It was the first place that we found . A wood provider that we used in 2008, for hurricane response offered the space to use as warehousing, but we just had no other room to pitch our tents and set up operations, so as we were looking for a different location, this is where we started.

Q: How did you prioritize, what’s most important?

It’s health. You have hours when people come out or are pulled from under the debris or rubble, with crushing injuries, amputations. It’s a matter of hours, and you’re in life saving. So this is why it’s so important to get proper access to medical treatment, quick access to medical treatment. Water, you can only go on for a couple of days or three days without water, but also when people don’t have access to sufficient quantities of safe drinking water, they’ll drink whatever they can, and this is when you start having water-born diseases, like diarrhea. This is when they turn into epidemics, or they can turn into epidemics, and then you have – especially with children, the mass dehydration and a lot of casualties. So it becomes a public health hazard–this is why reestablishing access to sufficient quantities [and] quality of safe drinking water [is the] priority.

Jean-Pierre Taschereau

Q: We filmed a conversation between yourself, Ian and Steve where Steve was pushing for more relief items to be brought in. But you were limited by the capacity of the pipeline.  How do you negotiate the seemingly competing demands of your team?

It could have been a lot more challenging. I think one of the things, well if you noticed, Steve’s team was the best equipped in terms of whiteboards, and paper, and chairs, and stuff. I was thinking a lot of ‘it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease’; he’s demanding. He puts out a lot, he demands a lot, but he also has the overview of the operation and he knows just as well as I do that the priority is water and medical and the relief, even though they’re just as important, they don’t need to come first. Because you can go on for longer without kitchen sets than you can go on without safe drinking water, right? So even though when you’re talking about priorities, the human imperative comes first and this is based on needs, so that’s what drives the overall action. And Steve, because he’s a team leader, he’s been in my position before, he’s led many, many operations, he just knows all of that, right? So even though he was in charge of the relief sector, he doesn’t lose sight of the humanitarian imperative, and to save lives the first thing you need to deploy is the healthcare, is the hospital, is the water and sanitation teams. So this is where we focused on getting those in country, first.

Q: What would it have meant to put the German hospital on hold to bring in relief items, as Steve suggested?

I couldn’t do that, I didn’t. I couldn’t put a hospital on hold. I mean it’s just precisely what I just said – the human imperative. That’s why he probably said, “you probably don’t really want to do this,” because he said it but didn’t really mean it, because if he meant it he would have insisted. I try and remember this, there was this one thing that he kept saying over and over again every day, and I was like, “yeah, we’re getting there, we’re getting there.” It was the external coordination meeting – he would not let go until someone was at the general cluster, and he was right the whole time. He says, “we need to have senior presence at the coordination meeting, we need to have…” and I said, “I know that, we’re just too short, and…”

One of the things you have to do in an emergency is choose which ball you drop, because you can’t keep them all up in the air. And at that point I made a conscious decision of not focusing so much on the external coordination to put the emphasis on internal coordination, because this is where I thought I was getting my bigger bang for my buck, right? But Steve wouldn’t have any of it, he goes: “you might not regret it now, but you will regret it later,” and eventually I did regret it, even though I made that choice. But that’s the thing: when you know you’re going to drop a ball, and you choose which one you’re going to drop and then you suck it up.

Q: What’s the external coordination meeting?

The clusters and UN…

Q: You had Red Cross representatives at the clusters?

Yeah, we had people at the different technical sectors, but I went to a couple of the general sectors and the Red Cross people were coming in so quickly and one or two ERUs per day for the first couple of weeks, so just to go there, that meant I was losing three hours everyday, and at that point, again, I decided to focus on internal issues as opposed to external coordination. So there were other things attached to it, but that was the choice I made.

Q: At one point you considered sending Steve as your representative?

Yeah, I was considering taking him out of the relief coordination and putting him on external coordination, and have Danielle, who had just come in from Kuala Lumpur, on the relief. Eventually, Danielle took over when Steve left, but in the end we decided, again, because there was so much happening, the Mexicans were coming, the Columbians were coming, the relief was just growing bigger and bigger. It was another choice that I wish I could have had Steve doing the external coordination, but I really felt that I needed someone of Steve’s deft and level in relief, to keep the momentum going. And the people in his team were also sharing that concern, they were just like, “yeah, we understand,” but really we felt and I felt he was the one that was keeping it all together at that point. And he was.

Q: Did you ever feel you had too many ERUs on the ground, more than you could accommodate?

No.  We were calling them in, and until Geneva came back one day and said, “guys, you have to try to make due with what you have because if there’s another emergency in and around the world, we’re going to be tight.” And there was. A couple, or three weeks later, Chile earthquake happened. So that was a good call as well, so we were creative in trying to bring expanded rotations, and dividing teams and covering more ground. But if they’d thrown more at us, especially on the shelter, the water and sanitation, we could have done more with more resources.

Q: What about the order in which the ERUs arrived?

Yeah, because it should follow the actual operational priorities, right? But there’s so many elements over which we did have control, like who was given landing clearance in Port-au-Prince as opposed to Santo Domingo. For example, the German Red Cross hospital was split in two, if I remember correctly. Part of it landed in Port-au-Prince, but the first modules that you needed to set up landed in Santo Domingo, but we didn’t make that call. Other people did. So there are things that you just can’t control in the environment. The base camp took longer than we wished to mobilize and deploy because–those were the living conditions that we were working with that you saw and felt. We were also calling them in as we were getting information from the ground, because every day we were covering new areas, so again, I don’t think anyone really expected the operation to become this big. I don’t think anyone did. I mean, we knew it was going to be big, and everyday we knew it was going to get bigger, but 21 ERUs? 215 on the ground within 12 days?

Q: Were all of the ERUs able to be effective the moment they arrived?

Well, effective out there. We were certainly not in a position to absorb them effectively and set up and provide them with all the tools. The teams that went out to Léogâne for example, they were cut off. I know we were not providing the support they should have had, that we should have provided for them. Even the Norwegian Red Cross field hospital was working on it’s own a bit. The German Red Cross hospital in Carrefour was a bit self contained, even the FACT team, which is normally six to eight people grew to 29 people at some point. So despite having a team of 29, we focused on coordination and implementing a plan of action right away, as opposed to going out, assessing, getting the right information, and then making a plan of action. We were implementing as we were getting the information.

When Paco and his teams would go out they would immediately see a need for 15,000 people to get water immediately, so you mobilize one, and you know that this is going to be an area, so they go and they assess the next area, you mobilize a second one, and so on, so it was immediately implementing what we were bringing them in. The teams were not waiting and fiddling their thumbs and looking for needs, which is sometimes the risk of deploying a team and not being able to use them. But they were hitting the ground running as fast as they could with the material that they’d get through.  A few of the teams, the Japanese basic health care unit came in and their gear came later, so it took them a couple of days, but that’s just the logistical constraints you work with on the ground. If your airplane gets rerouted to Santo Domingo, or doesn’t get landing clearance, what are you going to do?

Q: Did you feel after shocks, tremors after the earthquake?

Yeah, there were many aftershocks throughout the first few weeks. I remember a particularly strong one at six o’clock in the morning that actually sent people in the Norwegian-Canadain Red Cross field hospital out running. Collapsed more structures. We were sleeping outside and most of the time we were outside, so I didn’t feel threatened myself. Or it wasn’t a threat to our safety.

Q: What does it feel like?

There were a lot of aftershocks during the first few weeks. They registered a few hundred, I think, but at some point you don’t feel them. You’re not even sure. Some of them, you stop and you take stock of what’s happening because it’s really, and one in particular, was a big one at six o’clock in the morning. I’d been through a number of earthquakes before and aftershocks, and in Indonesia, and in I forget where else, but it’s an eerie feeling like a wave or something. But I’ve never been in those that actually throw cars around and I’ve only been in aftershocks… oh, no that’s not true, in Indonesia there were a couple that were really strong. But yeah, I don’t know how to describe it. I just don’t know.

Q: What is the psychological impact of dead bodies rotting next to survivors? Because even today bodies remain trapped in the collapsed buildings.

I don’t know – psychological support is a relatively new sector. The first real programming I heard of was after the Gujarat earthquake in India, where American Red Cross put together a lot of psychological support programming, and they brought those teams from India to Indonesia, to [Aceh], to accompany those people in their grieving and mourning process. I’m not sure that it’s the actual dead bodies that have the most profound impact as much as the disappeared, because people don’t want to acknowledge the fact that their daughter, or son, or parents have died. And when you see the dead body, you have evidence, you can’t deny that, but as long as you don’t, as long as people are under the rubble or they’ve been buried in a mass grave without you knowing, there is still that hope. It’s that they might be alive somewhere. It’s the grieving and the mourning process that I am not too versed in…

Like I said, I had to detach myself, because you know what it is, but you don’t  – I think it’s hard to act and connect, so to be able to act, I disconnect myself emotionally and then process it later on. I don’t know if we spoke about this when we were down there, but at one point, for some reason, I got an email from a woman whose daughter… (yeah, I told you this). We got the whole chain around, search and rescue teams went to the building and they pulled out 20 people from under the rubble, and they were alive. But I didn’t know if her daughter was alive or not, the woman’s daughter. And she contacted me three weeks ago, asking about her daughter again – it had been two months at the time. She hadn’t heard from her. If her daughter was alive, I think she would’ve known by now, right? But she hasn’t. But she’s still hanging on to the hope that for some reason, her daughter might be alive and still hasn’t given signs of life, even though her son is there and he’s alive. So it’s this whole thing. I think her daughter was buried and no one will know.

Q: Can you talk about the politics of the job?

What can I say? You’ve got the operational imperatives where all you care about is getting results in, getting the media assistance is also needed, but you can make [an] abstraction of the environment you’re working in. Politicians, or even celebrities, they come, but they can generate a level of public interest, which translates into concrete support, that we cannot ignore, right? So it has to be factored in, but you have to find the right balance between keeping the operation going and attending to those people who can mobilize more resources, or unblock some of the things, whether it’s public opinion or even customs. It’s finding the right balance. But, generally it kind of detracts resources at a time when everything is a priority. At the same time, you can’t really not deal with it.

Q: You mentioned one of your colleagues, Alex, has a knack for negotiating political quagmires, where do you feel most comfortable?

Alex is also very much frontline. He was in Pakistan. He was front line for a while but he’s reached that level now where it was very complementary roles that we had. I focused on the operation, because the politics at the strategic level work at a very different speed than the operational level, right? But they need to communicate well, so in that sense it was great for us to work together because even though he was involved in the political and strategic side, he understands and knows what the operation is about because he comes [from the operational side.] So even though they were two speeds, the two sides really worked well. And that’s actually one of the things that came out as a very strong point of the operation, where the political, strategic side worked in perfect harmony with the operational side, and those two sides were working at different speeds.

Where do I find myself? Even though I say I pull the plug on the emotions, I’m still very sensitive. I have a lot empathy, and I don’t think I have the right personality for doing what Hossam or what the nurses [do], just day in, all day, [being] there with people who are dying, having to carry out amputations, and deal with the direct pain – I think I would overload at some point. I think my strength is connecting people, having strategic overview, a good sense of priorities, and knowing where we need to move things, and who does what. So, I would spend most of my days connecting people, and/or resolving problems and making decisions. But most of the time would just be [spent] knowing who can, and who needs to connect together to resolve logistics and shelter, water and sanitation, or health, or who has the key to what. And having this oversight and steering everyone pretty much in the same direction–that’s a coordination role.

Q: Why don’t you like the political aspect of humanitarian work?

You get an immediate impact working in the operational side. You bring in the hospital, you set up the hospital, the hospital team starts attending [to] people, they’re saving lives. You bring in mass sanitation or [a] water treatment team, you start pumping out millions of liters [of water] to people everyday. The strategic level is at least equally important, but it happens at a different level, and it’s the longer term, so it’s a different set of, I don’t know… It’s not immediate and it’s not as tangible, the impact. I can do it, I have done it, but my personal inclination is still on the operational side. Immediate decisions; you can’t ponder, you can’t consult, you do to a certain point, but then you need to make a decision. In operations you have to make decisions on incomplete information with[in] a very fluid situation. Things change, I mean going back to that too, part of that conversation that we were talking about with Ian and Steve. At one point we’d get the priorities that were allowed in country in the airport, and they would be switching around sometimes every day or even twice a day, when different people would say, “oh, now its tents, no don’t bring in tents anymore, bring plastic sheeting, or… but we still need…” So you need to adjust in real time and make those decisions knowing that you can make a mistake, because you made those decisions based on incomplete and very fluid information. But then you adjust, right? Whereas if you’re planning, if you’re working on a five-year strategic plan, you need to consult [with] everyone, all the stakeholders, and you need to make sure you get everyone’s buy in, whereas in the emergency, you can’t afford that – time is a luxury you don’t have. So, you need to make [decisions], and [if] you have a problem, then you deal with it, then you move on. You sort out 200 different issues in the day, but then you don’t think about them. You just think of the next set of issues that your decision created, because and that’s how you move forward and that’s how you eventually get those tents to the people who need [them]. That’s how you get those water systems up and running – because you solved a bunch of different issues that you had no idea [how to solve], so you have to be able to wing it all the time. When I do my presentations, I just go in I start speaking and whatever come – it’s getting the flow of the operation, getting the feel, and a lot of it is based on intuition, coupled with training and experience, I would say.

Q: Given the approaching rainy season, why wasn’t shelter given higher priority?

Well, the emergency shelter was part of the relief team–remember one of the last relief ERUs was focused on shelter? It’s the tarp, lumber and ropes. The transitional shelter – what we’re putting so much emphasis on right now, only came later for a number of reasons, including the fact that to this day we’re not sure where we can put them. We have no physical space to put them up. You’ve seen the overcrowding, the overpopulation in camps. Even the kind of tents that we brought in are not the standard tents, so we could put up more of them in a smaller space, instead of having ropes, which take a lot more space between the tents, you bring in aluminum structures, so you can put them closer. We definitely could’ve improved our response in shelter, that’s for sure. We know that.

Q: How could you have improved that?

I don’t know. But we could have. Be more operational, scale up quick – scaling up the shelter response more quickly is what I would have done, what I would do again, if I would do the operation again, I would put a lot more emphasis on bringing dedicated resources to shelter, because the shelter ERU was the fourth one we called in. I’d bring in the dedicated shelter area from day one. I didn’t expect all the other problems to shoot forward. We brought four relief teams, and only the fourth one [that] I asked for was dedicated to shelter, as opposed to say the second or third one. That would be day twelve or something.

Q: What do you do with a million people in a city that’s as congested as Port-au-Prince?

You advocate. Because it’s up to them, the Haitians themselves, to make those tough decisions as to where they want to go as a country, as a capital city, where do they want to relocate? How they want to do it. We can only advocate for them. We can provide technical advice on what needs to be done, on the preparation of land, on sanitation, trenches, proper evacuation routes, on the conditions, right? But on the actual management– because they’re political decisions based on humanitarian considerations, but they are political choices – do you want to relocate the capital city? Do you want to clear it? How do you want to rebuild it? It’s the Haitians that have to take ownership of that and implement it, with our support. So we can only advocate on the urgency of it. We can deal with the humanitarian impact of the earthquake in the meantime, to alleviate the suffering of those who are impacted, but we’re not going to resolve anything. It’s up to them.

Q: Are there too many NGOs responding to large-scale disasters like the earthquake in Haiti?

The number of actors on the field really makes coordination more challenging, because of the sheer volume of people that want to get involved in the same operation. You have 820-something actors on the ground, as opposed to when you have 12 or 15 agencies that do a lot of work. It’s a lot easier to coordinate with fewer players, than with a large number of smaller players.

Q: Would you still get as much done if you had fewer NGOs?

I think it boils down to [the] professionalism of help. It takes more than good intentions to provide effective assistance, and I’m not saying everyone needs to have access to a global logistics pipeline, airplanes and all this, because there are many things that need to be done at the community, at the grassroots level, building capacity, building resilience, but in the first days, weeks of an emergency, you need more than good intentions. You need capacity, you need knowledge, you need to have a sense of priorities. And you need to be able to function in an environment where you’re not adding to the complexity of a problem. You need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. So, if everyone’s rushing into–for example one of the very challenging issues that we had early on was the number of planes that were coming into Port-au-Prince, and to the Port-au-Prince airport, which was operating at some point at 170% capacity. Who makes the call as to what is a priority and function of what? But that’s the environment that we work in.

Q: Are water and sanitation part of the same ERUs?

They were separate, actually. It’s mass sanitation, so water is really on collection, treatment, and distribution of drinking water. And sanitation is everything that comes out at the other end, so building latrines, trenches for evacuation of grey waters, campaigns for hygiene promotion and so on. They’re separate teams but sanitation was happening at the same time. I mean, we’re bringing in mass sanitation, we had two for 20,000 people each. During the first days, they were called in as well.  They’re part of what we call the “WASH clusters” – water and sanitation and hygiene. And they were under Paco’s lead. The immediacy is on drinking water but at the same time you have all the sanitation, building latrines, those were going up as well, very early on. It’s the hygiene promotions and campaigns that take longer because you need to find people in the community, train them, translate your training material, find the right vectors. But you know the SMS texts? That’s sanitation, right? It’s hygiene promotion – it’s wash your hands before you eat, after you go to the bathroom. It’s digging trench latrines, getting the sludge trucks – that also took a while to get on because we had to bring them in from the outside and they’re expensive. And it’s dirty work but it still needs to get done, you know we have 15,000 people in a very small area. It produces a lot of excreta, which you have to dispose of factoring environmental considerations as well. So that’s another layer of complexity.

Q: Were there any trucks operational in Port-au-Prince when you arrived?

Not that I know. Doesn’t mean that there wasn’t but we had to bring in two sludge trucks externally, to dedicate resources to that, so we have two trucks pumping excreta out of the camps everyday.

Q: Can disasters like these be turned into opportunities?

They have to turn these disasters into opportunities because – and this is where the political and strategic level come in place, right? You have to take stock of what were the pre-existing conditions that compounded the gravity of the event, whether it’s a tsunami or it’s an earthquake, and look at not only rebuilding back better, in terms of construction codes, but also how it impacted the economy, how do you have a more sustainable, more humane situation after. We talk about recovery: you have to rebuild an entire economy in Haiti, environmental protection, food security –these are all things that go way beyond the scope and mandate of the first, immediate response, and they’re staying…the impact of these interventions has to be measured and considered over years.

You need reforestation programs. You can rebuild schools, but if you don’t have the students because they can’t afford to go, because their parents don’t have jobs, or if you rebuild hospitals but you don’t have qualified personnel to go there and they’re not being paid, then you have empty buildings which you use as a hurricane shelter every now and then. So it’s all encompassing. You need to look at all these aspects, and to rebuild back better, not just the infrastructure, but the whole community [surrounding] it, and the whole of society. So out of the tragedy, the ultimate success or failure of the operation will be measured not by what we did early on, but by what will be done over the next few years. And that’s vastly more complex than what we did.

Q: For an operation to be considered successful, does the recovery phase have to improve lives in the long term?

No. The way I look at an emergency, at a large-scale disaster response, is the same way I would look at the whole process of every single person that was pulled out of the rubble with massive injuries. Or someone who’s involved in a car accident: we’re the paramedics. The response team, the FACT and the ERUs are the first responders on the scene, we come in when it’s a matter of lifesaving urgency. You don’t concern yourself so much about…[what happens afterwards].

Q: But if they aren’t able to improve people’s lives in Haiti, and make them less vulnerable to the next disaster, does that somehow devalue what you were able to accomplish in the emergency phase?

Well, that’s the whole philosophical dilemma, right? You save people’s lives, but for what? When I’m asked that question, I always ask: what’s the alternative? Letting people die? I can’t do that. At least you give them a chance that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, to build a better future, and recover from something. The impact of what we do in an emergency phase is limited [by] the overall reconstruction of the country. The overall outcome of the earthquake, and the opportunities to be found, or not, does not depend on what was done in the emergency phase. It’s really up to the Haitians to take ownership of the [recovery] process.

You come into an emergency knowing the scope of what you can do is limited. And its limited time but it’s also limited in the impact, it’s immediate life saving. I’ve been saying that from the start. The longer-term recovery process belongs to the Haitians, first and foremost they will be responsible for the ultimate success or failure, and finding the opportunities–or not. As an international community, we need to accompany them, support them. Whatever actions are taken by the international community need to be driven for the Haitians, for the greater good, but they need to be driven by the Haitians themselves. And it’s up to them. It’s their country, it’s their life, it’s their society.

Q: You’re quite familiar with Haiti?

I’ve been there a few times over the last few years. Humanitarian intervention is a small part of a bigger whole or a greater whole, and it’s a vital part, it’s a lifesaving part, but it cannot be construed as a substitute for political action, or reconstruction of the social fabric. You need to look at school, you need to look at education, and not just schools but the school education system. You need to look at the health system, you need to look at the economy. That goes way beyond the mandate of the Red Cross, which is to help provide immediate assistance to the most vulnerable in times of need, in times of emergency. We build the capacity, we’re in for the long term, we’ll build the capacity of the Haitian Red Cross, we do disaster preparedness, disaster risk reduction, provide shelter and all this, but it’s still a small drop in all the areas that are impacted by the earthquake or any other disaster.

Q: Was it hard for you to leave Haiti?

Well actually I think one of the things that you need to accept when you go into that line of work is having a lot and dealing with a lot of contradictions and paradoxes and ambivalence, that’s a word in English? Ambivalence. I left Haiti knowing I’d done all I could and wishing I’d done so much more. But staying longer might have not been the best thing, because basically we were all tired, got sick at some point, got better. And it was time for, it was moving into a new phase, so you need to recharge your batteries, I mean you can only go on for so long on pure adrenaline. The working hours were long, the living conditions were difficult. Normal rotations are for four weeks; this time we took it down to three. We encouraged the ERUs to consider three-week rotations at least at the beginning. There were a couple of three-week rotations, just because it was such a hardship mission.

One of the things is accepting you’ve got limits and knowing that you’re reaching them so you don’t go beyond, because you don’t want to start making mistakes of judgment, errors of judgment, because you’re tired or because of the level of stress. You get irritable, you get edgy, so you need to know your limit and stay below them, otherwise you’re not helping anyone. So then, when you’ve recovered a bit, you can go back. And Steve and I both went back.

Q: Is there anything you would do differently next time?

(Re: calling the base camp in early) I didn’t call in – I was thinking about it. That’s one of the things –it was my intuition that was telling me but I didn’t act on it. Because mobilizing the base camp is over a million dollars I think, and you know, you don’t make a million dollars, well, I could’ve, maybe I should have, but making a million dollar call on a hunch? I chose not to. Paid for it. Ah… but again, that’s the thing –we’re all geniuses in hindsight, right?

Q: When did you request the base camp?

I don’t know, but I should’ve called it before. The first time it occurred to me, I was still in Ottawa. I was looking at it and I was thinking 2008 was tough, there were a lot of people in rooms, the hotels in Port-au-Prince are very expensive, so I was trying to do the math. We had 40 people on the ground, how many hotel rooms is that? How much does that represent for how long, how big is that deployment going to be? I was trying for, and I floated it – I said, “should we consider a base camp?” And then I could have insisted, I could have said, “we need [a base camp],” but I didn’t. Again, partly because I didn’t expect the operation to be so large, but also because I’m very aware of what happens if you call in resources then you can’t justify it, you know? Because it’s a big mobilization. It’s a big infrastructure, it’s hard – well you’ve seen the base camp now. At the time it was half of what it became. But those few days: did it impact negatively? Did it have a humanitarian impact? Maybe not, but on the quality of living conditions, maybe less people would have gotten sick, [if the] improved living conditions earlier would’ve allowed for longer rotations, so you keep more memory and so on and so forth…And so it’s not as dramatic as not calling in enough basic health care units, or the second hospital. But it’s one of those things that’s been nagging at me: follow your intuition more even though I’m usually pretty good at following my instinct, my intuition, but this time I said “no.” But again, I think it’s a moot point because it’s on the logistics and infrastructure, but more critically to the operation and humanitarian would be focus more, provide more, no – allocate more resources on operational shelter earlier in the emergency. And I think that’s a lesson learned for a lot of people.

Q: Is it because shelter is not life threatening, that it was put on hold?

There’s actually still no dedicated relief shelter ERU – it’s always been construed as a component of relief. And there’s a lot more operations where we don’t have the resources to go from beyond emergency shelter to transitional, and it’s longer term. So on a large scale there was tsunami, and it’s been done elsewhere, but large scale doesn’t happen that often. It was obvious as it was getting big and there were so much resources, it became rapidly obvious that we would eventually be able to transition from emergency to transitional shelter. We did bring in the resources, but we could’ve done more earlier.

Not the kits, the people. There’s the shelter kits and all these, but we don’t have a transitional shelter kit, because it’s not as standardized as the rest of the relief items or the ERUs are, that’s the thing. So the solutions that are being implemented in Haiti are significantly different from the ones that were implemented in the tsunami. Transitional shelter also creates a different set of issues, and I wouldn’t say problems or constraints. Let’s say, for example, the procurement process, you need massive amounts of wood, millions of dollars worth of wood, to erect thousands of small houses, even though they’re transitional. To procure that, you need to make sure you follow proper tendering processes, because you’re accountable to the public and the donors [in regards to] how you use these funds. You can’t just go out and purchase millions and millions of dollars worth of wood without due process. You need to make sure it comes from environmentally sound sources, you can’t procure in-country, because in Haiti it means you’re killing whatever forest is left.

It was a problem that we had in Indonesia. It’s all these things that absolutely have to happen but happen at a very different pace than the one that you’re trying to keep in the emergency. This is why as you’re bringing that up, you go for the interim solution, which is distribution of shelter material, shelter kits. So it’s all these things, it’s all these things that we have to keep in the air, but moving at different speeds. We would’ve gained time by already bringing the transitional shelter kits and teams focusing on that, but at the time, the approach and the emphasis was on providing plastic sheeting because the rainy season was on us, or we knew that it was coming, so this is where we could have tweaked the response.

Q: What ball could you have dropped to do shelter in those first weeks?

I don’t know. I don’t think it would have come [at the] cost of others–it’s all theoretical. But I don’t think we could have done more in health, I don’t think we could have done more in sanitation, I don’t think we could have done more in water, in relief. So, where I wish we could have done more is in the shelter.

Jean-Pierre Taschereau

Q: How did you get started in this line of work?

I joined the Red Cross. I was one of those what we call walk-in volunteers, there’s hundreds of those in Haiti who joined the Red Cross at a critical time. I joined the Red Cross when my home town was flooded, in 1991. The Canadian Red Cross opened a shelter and a high school, and I walked in to see if I could help, and they said, “yeah, could you give blankets to people coming in, register them,” and during the evening shift things calmed down a bit, and I looked at the fliers and I saw what the Red Cross was doing overseas, and I never walked out.  It’s a little town called St. Marie Bose outside of Quebec City. There’s spring floods. It doesn’t always flood the river, it’s when all the little rivers, the ice thaws, and it just comes down. Sometimes the ice piles up in one place and then the water level rises. [From what I remember] it’s flooded the city maybe four or five times, but that year was one where I was old enough and the Red Cross came, and that’s where we met.

Q: When did you start going overseas?

I joined the Red Cross in 1991 as a volunteer and I became a delegate after hurricane Mitch in 1999. January 1999 was my first mission. I’d gone to the United States to support the American Red Cross [in] New Orleans, after the floods and tornados in 1995. That’s still considered domestic disaster response, because of proximity and language. But I became an international delegate in January 1999, so I’ve been doing that for eleven years now.

Q: What do you get out of it?

It’s more than just work. What does the army say? It’s a lifestyle? It’s a passion, it’s a calling. I don’t like that…It’s so clear, but it just kind of dissolves when you put words on it, trying to explain it because it’s a feeling – it starts here, it’s not there. But it’s something that stimulates you here and there, and that’s the thing. The stimulation it draws on, you need to draw on your heart and on your head, to be able to do it, so you need to analyze, you need to think. It’s critical thinking, its strategic thinking. Its many things: you need to establish priorities, you need to make decisions, you need to exert leadership, you need to train, you need to understand issues. But at the same time, you need to be passionate about it. You have to commit yourself, so it’s something that demands dedication. I mean it allows you to live things and experience things from a first person perspective. You’re right at the centre of situations where it’s critical to do things, and if you’re the right person to do the right thing, you can make a difference, even if it’s only a small difference or a big difference in that case, with the operation – being part of this whole thing.

Eventually we were two-hundred-and-something people, coming from thirty different countries. You see people coming from Israel, from Iran, from Turkey, from the Congo, from Latin America, from Columbia, and we’re all coming in under the same idea of the Red Cross, and that’s helping others in times of need. And you’re all coming for the same reason: to provide help to those who need it most at the time that they need it most, so just for me, it gives you the opportunity to bring out the best in what we can offer. For me, it also balances out, because I’ve worked in armed conflict, and armed conflict brings out the worst of what humans are capable of, so bringing that light, that bit of light in that darkness, for me it’s a privilege and an honor to be able to make a career and a living out of something I’m so passionate about. And I started as a volunteer, and now I can make a living out of it.

Q: You’ve never worked in another profession?

Yeah, this is it. I’ve often thought, what do you do after this? For a lot of people, it’s a second or third career for people, humanitarian assistance, but when I was in university, the closest thing that came to what I’m doing, was international relations. Now you look at kids in college or high school, or university; there’s a masters degree in disaster management and there are studies in development, because it’s diversified and it’s become a lot more advanced and professionalized. So it’s a career now, whereas before it was a little bit more…I don’t know. But you need to become professional in the environment that we’re working [in] now. I’m lucky enough that I’m one of those professional humanitarian aid workers, so to speak. It’s kind of hard to brand it. Because I think it starts with wanting to make a difference, a positive contribution. It starts with a strong dose of idealism, but you can’t just [have] good intentions; you have to have skills and training to do it properly at the scale we’re doing it [at].

Q: Do you think the world is going to get better at responding to these events?

We are. We can improve, but we’re learning. I mean, we saw lessons learned from the tsunami, how efficiently we mobilized people and the resources we brought, and from disaster to disaster, I mean just the fact that Steve and Ian and Hossam and Panu and Richard and I worked together before, it created a whole lot [of] synergy, and that’s personal but if you’re talking about institutionally it does as well, because institutions are the sum of the people that work within the institutional memory. So yes, we are getting better.

Q: Do you see a difference in the way we responded to the Tsunami and Haiti?

Yeah. Because I was involved in both, I can see the difference. I can see where things worked better, where we worked more quickly, were more focused.

Q: What did the Red Cross do better?

Mobilizing the right resources quickly. The disaster was different, the affected country [was different], there were a lot of things that were different, but collectively as a movement we pulled together a lot more quickly. One of the things that stands out from Haiti was one coordinated response; we all came together under the one umbrella federation, whereas it was as strong in the tsunami affected countries, there was a bit more [of a ] scattered approach as opposed to having one master plan in support of the Haitian Red Cross, on the ground. You had cohesion and coherence in our intervention, right from the get go.

Q: Will you return to Haiti to work in the recovery phase?

I was told, “don’t go back, never go back.”

Q: By who?

One of the vets there. When I came out he said, “You’re back.” I said, “yeah.” He said, “you should never go back.” And I said, “why?” He says, “because it’s never going to be the same, the operation isn’t the same.” The initial cohesion—again, one of the things is there’s other stakes that have caught up with the humanitarian action imperative, the emergency, so there’s a lot of things at stake, you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars so there’s diverging interests. It’s what I call the initial, acute emergency, the first response. We call it the ‘honeymoon’ phase, that’s when you get support from the media, that’s when you get support from the authorities, that’s when you can bring things in, clearing customs is no problem, because just everything goes in, but then the system catches up and also the preexisting conditions catch up with humanitarian action, right? So whereas before it was so easy to move things just on a phone call, I could not mobilize a two million dollar field hospital on the phone now. No way. I’d have to justify it, and, you know, it’s hard because you’re not in the same phase. But when you were engaged in that first response, going back three months later or six months later… For me and for the others, the operation stopped on the day we left. We would resume on the day we left, but three months have changed, or six months have changed, the operation has changed, the expectations have changed, the situations have changed, it’s raining now. Hurricane season is coming, there’s a lot more stakes about the rebuilding, the recovery, you’ll see when you go back in June. It becomes more complicated. It’s very black and white in the beginning: Get stuff in, get it up, life saving. Now, the question of land. We set up the base camp on someone’s word that we could put our stuff there. But now we need to formalize that, and when you start formalizing that, it takes on all kinds of different implications. Who is the legal entity? Signing contracts. Can you employ people? What’s your liability, employee insurance, all these things, which are secondary considerations during the first week because its all about lifesaving actions.