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Inside Disaster

Steve McAndrew, FACT Relief in Haiti

Steve McAndrew

Q: When did you arrive in Haiti?

I was one of the first there. I arrived within 48 hours of the earthquake.

Q: Where were you when you heard about the earthquake?

I was in Los Angeles, California, my home. And I have a service that many disaster relief workers have, that sends out SMS messages whenever there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world, over a certain magnitude. And the service provides the location, the depth, and the population areas closest to the earthquake that’s been detected by the U.S.–it’s a U.S. government service, so as soon as I saw this alert, I knew it was bad.

Q: How did you know?

Well, the distance from a major capital. The depth and the magnitude was just really, I’m not a scientist but when you get a lot of these, after receiving a lot of these alerts over many years, I started to at least have a feeling of what is going to be a lot of damage. If it’s an underdeveloped country there’s a good chance that they will be requesting international aid, so as soon as I received that alert, I immediately contacted the American Red Cross headquarters and the contacts that I have in the International Federation of Red Cross in Geneva.

Q: What was going through your mind as you set up base camp?

I’ve been through this before, so I know that if I start getting unfocused and think about a million people [being] affected and the incredible challenge that we were facing, that we would get lost. When you’re setting up the base camp, you really have to focus on the job at hand.

It’s extremely important that you create a zone – even if it’s a cubic centimeter of organization, because disaster workers are being injected into a chaotic situation. So if you’re able to go into that area, and be organized firstly just amongst yourself, have your own stuff in order, your clothing, your water, your food, where you’re going to sleep, and your communications, then you can start with your team, so you can spread that to maybe five people.

So therefore you have a slight area but it’s organized, and it has good communications, and if you spread that out, it actually attracts people, attracts resources, attracts attention. Basically a disaster zone is where the organization has been removed or smashed or destroyed; there’s a vacuum there. So the slightest, [most] minimal amount of organization, stability, attracts like a magnet. I kind of have a visual of someone smashing a metal vase on a table and there are metal pieces all over. You put a magnet in the middle, small magnet, and they start creeping towards it. So that’s the way I view a base camp. In this particular situation, the base camp was very challenging. We did not really have a proper area to set up a base camp in the beginning.

But that’s what we strive to do — get organized among ourselves. Basically, we know that over time, you can’t really help anyone else unless you can help yourself, you have to really get your house in order. You have to have enough to eat, you have to be able to sleep, you need water, and you need to be able to bathe. So that’s what I had to focus on.

Q: What were you and your relief team eating?

So we had MREs, we had these meals that are ready to eat; they’re packaged meals. The military uses them and we use them. I don’t know how all the other people were doing, you guys were filming me, you probably filmed me a lot of times where I would just stop everything and take a ten-minute meal. I’d set up my table, I’d heat up the element that heats the meal, and I would eat it, and I did that about three or four times a day. When I go on these disaster responses, I increase my caloric intake, because I know that I’m burning a lot of calories and I’m waking up early. I’m working late, there’s incredible amounts of stress and there’s an incredible amount of multitasking, so I burn a lot, and I know that if I don’t eat within three or four hours, I will be very ineffective and I will not be able to concentrate well. I’ll be able to work and I’ll be able to be there, and I’ll be able to answer phone calls and talk to people, but I won’t be as coherent or as effective on an empty stomach, so I make sure I eat, and I make sure that the people around me eat too.

Q: No one was expecting to be there for two weeks without a fully equipped base camp.  Did your team come with enough food for two weeks?

I came as part of the FACT team, but I was deployed by the American Red Cross, which also deployed a relief ERU. The agreement with the American Red Cross, who I was also working for, was that I would have access to that relief ERU, which is fully self-supporting for one month. So they do have enough food for one month.

Q: What about the other Red Cross ERUs – some had food, some didn’t?

Yes. I mean it was true — some people showed up unprepared. I think there was enough food around. There were people who just weren’t eating, to be honest, because they were overwhelmed in the moment by the importance of every minute and the amount of work condensed into a short amount of time. Some people tend to put eating and taking care of themselves as a second priority. I don’t do that. I take care of myself no matter what, because I know that if I work three days without taking care of myself, that in three days, or a week, I will be useless.

So, I eat, I take care of myself. And I make sure, or I encourage all of the people I’m working with, around, and below me, do the same. There was good sharing. Basically, people shared what they had. We were all in it together. I think the shortages — the people who did not eat, it was somewhat of a personal choice.

Q: How do rough conditions (limited toilets, no showers, food scarcity) affect morale, and people’s ability to work?

The difficulty of finding food and water and good shelter and places to bathe, they’re very important. But there’s two ways a person can look at this: they can say, “oh this is horrible, and I don’t work well in these conditions and this is very difficult,” and, “this is really hard and challenging.” Or, you can look at it the other way, and say, “hey, this is an incredible challenge.” For me, it’s a great opportunity, because we can look at it and say, “if we can get through this, there’s nothing we can’t do.” I tried to look at it on the positive side, and there’s always the underlying reality of: okay, I don’t have a good place to eat or a good place to sleep, but in any direction, there’s tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who have lost family members, lost their homes. Lives are completely turned upside down, people haven’t eaten, and are not going to eat in another three or four days and do not have water, and have no hope at all.

If we compare ourselves, if I compare myself to myself back home, it’s very difficult. If I compare myself in that base camp, struggling with those things to the people outside who have nothing, I’m doing pretty good. So, I just try to encourage the people that I’m working with, and myself, to just think of the people outside. It’s really not that bad. I’m going to go there and I’m going to leave, and the people outside – they can’t leave, they’re there. There’s really no time and no voice to let those challenges get too big. They’re big, you have to deal with them, you have to do your best, you do what you can and then you get to work.

Q: You were frustrated early on in the operation by a lack of relief items to distribute.  How did you deal with that?

I know we had a lot of discussions. We had challenges of how to prioritize, but we did come to a conclusion that our priority would be health and then non-food and food items. The early days were difficult, it was a challenge to bring in relief supplies because of various reasons, I mean the obvious reason was just the infrastructure itself was completely damaged: the airport, the sea port, and the roads were difficult, so we had to prioritize what we were bringing in. We ended up prioritizing health and hospitals first, and that’s the proper way to do it.

Q: We saw you pushing to get more relief items in.  Is it up to each team leader to advocate for their section?

We have a team leader, it was JP, and it was his decision. Different members put forth their different views on different activities…

Q: I’m trying to understand the leadership dynamic, and how decisions are made amongst the FACT team leaders.

The FACT team has different components. There are components that are health and water, relief, food, hospitals and first aid — they’re represented in the FACT team. In this situation in Haiti, we did have pipeline restrictions. There was only so much that we could bring in at a certain time per day. So there needs to be a balance, and there also needs to be prioritization. We finally decided on health, hospitals, and water-treatment, and that’s the proper way to implement this. At the same time, you want to keep a really good, broad overview on the whole operation. If we have our three or four hospitals, and we have another dozen or so health units, and we also have a bunch of other hospitals around, and at the same time it’s starting to get late and it’s starting to rain, and people are out getting rained upon, you want to really try to bring in as much as you can.

It’s a lot of pressure and it’s intense. You need to maintain your cool, and you also need to have discussions about what’s going on, who needs what, and how can we do it better and faster.

Q: Is each sector lobbying for their own cause?

We’re not lobbying; lobbying gives me the impression that we’re trying to nudge out the other sector. They’re all important, and they all have to be implemented. You can’t let any of them fall back, so I wouldn’t say lobbying, but we just have to have some really frank discussions about what’s going to come in and what are we going to do in the next 24 and 48 hours. And the reality is you’re not going to be able to do it all. So, you have your discussions, you see what you can do, you put forth your ideas, and then the team leader makes decisions, or we do it in consensus, mostly. JP was an excellent team leader on this operation, and everybody had a voice, we discussed things. And then we made decisions and moved on, and then we’d meet again a few hours later and see what had changed, see what new openings there were and what new opportunities were out there.

The main thing is to just keep your cool, be focused, be clear, be frank, but don’t really get too emotionally charged with whatever sector you’re working in. All the sectors are important. People need all those services.

Q: Did you ever feel you had too many ERUs in the field?

Well, they’re two different questions. I don’t think we had too many ERUs pushed upon us. The ERU as a response unit – it’s a really good international disaster response tool, and a tool is like any other tool. It’s really only as good as the person wielding it. We were receiving offers from more ERUs and I knew that they were going to be needed, but we had to bring them in at the right time because when you bring in an ERU, that also takes up pipeline capacity. It’s more of a timing thing, as opposed to bringing them all in at once

Q: Is that fairly critical, timing?

Yes, the timing of ERU deployments is definitely critical. In this operation it was pretty clear that there was going to be a major need for ERUs, but it was not only going to be in the first month. It was going to be long term, which is multiple months – two, three, four, possibly six months. So there’s a dialogue that occurs between the ERU Red Crosses in the world, and the headquarters in Geneva, and in the field where we are. There’s a dialogue that goes back and forth, about when to deploy these different resources. An ERU is a resource, just like a shipload or a planeload of blankets. It’s a resource that has to come through our pipeline, our supply chain. There are discussions around the timing of it. So, I think on this one it was pretty good. We knew that we were going to need those ERUs, it was just a question of when to bring them in. And not only when — there were still questions of where to deploy them, too. Not only did we have Port-au-Prince, but we also had Jacmel and Léogâne — fairly good-sized population centers that were heavily affected. So we had to have a little bit more assessment information on where we were going to deploy these resources.

Q: Who decides when and what ERUs to deploy?

There’s a chain of command. I’m in charge of the relief, so I’m the one really requesting ERUs. And then, it goes up through me, it would go up through JP, the FACT team leader, to sign off and then he would send it to Geneva, where the ERU central desk is located. And they will put out an alert, and then different ERU national Red Crosses will put forth a response saying we are available and ready to go. So, there’s a several-step process involved in that.

Q: If the request originates with you, how is it that a relief team could arrive ahead of supplies to distribute?  Aren’t you in control of the timing?

My requests are not the only requests going in, basically. There’s requests for basic healthcare units, there’s requests for water treatment ERUs and sanitation ERUs, so there’s other requests being submitted. And it’s really a capacity of the supply chain question. And there is a political element to it also. In this case we had three relief ERUs on the ground, and they were starting to establish and get up and running, and they were working with committees and camps, but the supply chain was not fully up and running. So to bring in more distribution capacity without supplies to distribute was not quite the proper decision at that point in time. But within a couple days, that had changed.

Q: Is there sometimes outside pressure to deploy more ERUs than you’ve requested?

There’s offers and there’s requests, so someone can offer a resource, and then we can accept or deny. If we accept, you can term it as a request. We could say it’s an acceptance or an acquiescence to an offer of help. The good thing is we’ve all done this before and we know the systems and we have people who know each other in the ERUs, in the FACT teams, and in the different Red Cross headquarters that work in the international departments, so there’s a dialogue. It’s not a strict military order, per se — the Red Cross in Haiti, we’re working with over forty different Red Crosses that are all working together, but there’s a lot of dialogue and communications that go through, and they all have different ways of working, so we have pre-established protocols that help.

But at the end of the day, that ERU will not deploy unless that order goes out from Geneva. And that would not go out unless the field requested it, the field being JP and myself reporting up to JP.

Q: So you’d never get an ERU showing up that you didn’t want in the field?

I wouldn’t say never.

Q: Where does the external pressure to deploy ERUs come from?

The ERU Red Crosses are the most well-coordinated. They are the ones that have put in the work beforehand, in trainings and standards and protocols, so they’re the ones that are the most in line with what the field is requesting. Of course there’s pressure. Every day on the news, in all these countries all across the world, you would see images of Haiti, and the local populations in different countries would say, “well, you know, x, y, z, the Red Cross, what are you doing and why are you not there?”

There’s a pressure that comes from all across the world for teams and people to deploy. At the same time, we have learned over the years that to just jump on a plane and go somewhere in order to be there and be seen, could be more detrimental to the operation than helpful. I mean, a person shows up and they don’t have any equipment, they don’t have any food, they don’t have anywhere to sleep or eat. They actually create more of a drag on the operation than they promote the efficiency of the operation. So, there is pressure. Most pressure comes from the public, in different countries of the world. That’s where the root of the pressure is, and that gets channeled up through Red Cross headquarters, and it’s not just the Red Cross that’s dealing with it. It’s government, it’s NGOs, it’s the UN. They’re all receiving pressure from the public and all different areas, to do something, to go there, to be seen there.

In Haiti the coordination was pretty good. The ERUs showed up when we asked. Of course there was pressure: they were offered to us, and we had to say to a couple of them, “wait, give us a couple more days,” and they did. Even though they were saying, “we want to be involved,” we said, “wait: we want to position you and find out where to deploy you at the right time.” And it worked pretty well.

Q: Within the first weeks of the disaster, the WFP announced a two-year program to feed 600,000 people.  Is there a danger of creating aid dependency with programs like this?

Ah, yes, there’s definitely a danger of creating a dependency, and it’s not just a food distribution, it’s all sorts of international aid that’s being supplied. So programming really needs to take a look at what you’re doing and take a look at the impact it’s going to have on civil society and on the economy. If you distribute food in anywhere for two or three years, local farmers are going to go out of business. It’s pretty basic economics, all that stuff really needs to be thought out in depth and thought out thoroughly before just launching a program for a year or two years that is going to have an impact on not only local farmers, but markets and supply chains and distributors and just basic corner market stores that sell food. They’re going to feel the impact. So that’s definitely a danger.

Q: We saw food stalls pop up in may of the camps.  Where were these supplies coming from?

In my experience in earthquakes, food becomes available fairly quickly, as opposed to a drought, or a flood, which really affect the food supply. There was food in Haiti before the earthquake. The earthquake destroyed all the warehouses and the roads and the infrastructure, but food is definitely starting to flow again there now. Some of that food is definitely coming through the UN and from the Red Cross supported food distribution. A lot of food’s coming in, but there’s still some food being produced in the countryside there.

What happens is that food is produced continually in the countryside, but the systems that bring the food to the capital cities are damaged. The trucks, the roads, the merchants who do that for a living, they’ve been removed, or killed or their trucks have been destroyed, or their house is destroyed, their warehouses are destroyed, so the whole supply chain is disrupted, but it starts to come online fairly quickly, actually. So that’s why you saw stalls popping up.

Q: Then it becomes a question of if you can afford to buy it?

That’s the second question, yes. The pricing and the impact on pricing that the large influx of external food will have, so it definitely becomes a question of if people can purchase it.

Q: The vast majority of people in Haiti are unemployed.

Yes. Most people when you talk to them there and you ask them what they need, they ask for a job. Because with a job, not only do you get income, but you get dignity. That’s what a lot of people were really requesting. In the early days, we definitely need water, food, shelter, and health. But as time goes on, those people are going to want jobs. We in the Red Cross have a large-scale cash distribution program, and there’s going to be more cash-for-work programs on top of that, so these are good programs that give people dignity, they give them something to do, and it gives them meaning back in their life, and they’re able to earn instead of receive a hand out.

Steve McAndrew

Q: Why does the Columbian Red Cross have a different distribution methodology than the American Red Cross?

In the early days we had several Red Crosses show up in the operation. You’re referring to the Columbian Red Cross and the Columbian Red Cross in the early days was doing search and rescue, but they were also starting to do food distributions. The Columbian Red Cross is similar to many other Latin American Red Cross National Societies, in that when there’s a disaster –whether in their country or in the region, they raise a lot of in-kind donations, of food. They’re very good at mobilizing large amounts of food. So, with all the press coverage we had in Haiti, we had large amounts of in-kind donations in Columbia, in Mexico, and other countries – Costa Rica, Panama. They were able to receive large amounts of in-kind food donations, so the Columbian Red Cross did an excellent option in that they saw immediately that the airports and roads were damaged, so they put all their food onto boats – large ships, and along with the large ships they brought smaller ships that could actually ferry back and forth from the port, right up onto the damaged piers because they were smaller ships, from the large ship. So they were able to get a supply team moving quickly with food. Now they did that really quickly, and they also did that in coordination with the Haitian government, and other governments that were acting in Haiti. They were able to really get a lot of food moving quickly, but their methodology of doing it was different than our methodology of distributing non-food items. So they were not doing the registration and the committee forming like we were doing in the federation with some of the ERUs. We had to do a lot of work for those two sides, those two different methodologies to come together.

Q: Why is their approach different?

There’s definitely some cultural differences. Regional Red Crosses are actually far better at integrating, and they have a higher tolerance of working with large crowds than some of the non-regional Red Crosses. I myself am not comfortable with a hundred people pushing me all around, but for the Columbian Red Cross it’s no problem, they do this all the time, they do massive distributions in difficult areas. And they’re great at it, you know? And for them, it’s easy. There are definitely different cultural capacities when it comes to working in difficult environments, with security implications. In Columbia, they’ve been working in a high security zone for years, so they’re just really good at it.

We try to promote learning from each other. Right now, three months later, all the teams are using the same methodology. The Columbian and Mexican and American and German – all these Red Crosses – actually most of the distributions are kind of mixed now, so you don’t even really know, they’re all Haitian Red Cross distributions with international Red Cross teams behind them, either loading the trucks, or giving out the tickets, or registering the people, but it’s the Haitian Red Cross taking the lead in all of it, so just like in all the other activities in a disaster, there’s a lot of ambiguity and chaos in the early days. But the key is to keep moving ahead and keep doing it, because you establish yourself. When you look back after a month at what you have done, you have a base over which you can improve on. That’s where we are right now in Haiti because of all the work that was done in the beginning, by all the different Red Crosses. Some were doing it different ways – some were chaotic, others were methodical, but they’ve all traveled 90 days to where we are today, and that is a really solid base from which we can now all work together, so I’m actually quite proud. Especially in the last month when I was there, just recently, the distributions are all pretty much uniform across the way, and everyone’s working together, we’re all living in the same camp, we’re all using the same distribution tickets, we’re all using the same methodology. When all that comes together, the Red Cross is great, it’s the best thing in the world to see that potential when it happens.

Q: Why did you choose Eric in to work with the Columbians?

Eric was part of an American Red Cross relief ERU. By the time I left Haiti, we had 12 distribution teams; four of them were relief ERUs. Others were different Red Cross teams, and we even had some full Haitian teams that doing distributions. So, we had many different teams doing the same activity, and they were doing it in different ways and different languages, and so my job was trying to get the lateral conformity and standardization across the different teams, so we don’t have some teams doing it one-way, and other teams doing it a different way. In that particular case I requested the American Red Cross team leader, who was Colin, if one of his members, who was Eric, could go and work with the Columbian team, so we could kind of get some cross-pollination of methodologies. And Eric has worked in that region a long time, he speaks that language and he was the obvious choice to go and work with those guys.

Q: Had you ever worked with Eric – did you know anything about him?

Yes, I worked with Eric in Nicaragua and other places too. I worked with him in Peru. Yes, I know Eric.

Q: Can you describe one of the earlier food distributions organized by the Colombians, when your team called you out to observe?

If you had come upon that scene and you had never been in the Red Cross and you had never been in a distribution, you might have thought it was a completely chaotic, out of control, dangerous scene. When I walked upon that scene, I saw things that could be improved, but I saw work happening. I saw an opportunity. That’s what I think when I walk into [a situation like that].

That was the distribution that the Columbian Red Cross was doing. And they definitely had a strong, there was a large crowd. There was a couple of mistakes they had made at that distribution, but they kept doing it and they completed it, so they were able to keep at it with persistence and complete that distribution. [During] that particular distribution, there were definitely some things that could have been improved. At the same time, the Columbian Red Cross that was there, they were doing the job and they were getting the stuff out. It wasn’t the prettiest distribution I’ve seen in my whole life. But at the same time, I believe that that was when the World Food Program had actually made the decision to close down food distribution sites because it was too dangerous. So they were doing it, and it was an opportunity to come back after that and improve those techniques.

Q: It’s the IFRC’s mandate to work with the Haitian Red Cross, but many Haitians told us they didn’t trust Haitians to distribute aid, because of rampant corruption. What do you answer to that?

Well, in order to do this, this isn’t about us just doing a food distribution or a non-food item distribution and doing it well and going home. If Haiti’s going to truly recover and actually make this an opportunity, it’s going to have to be Haitians doing it, that’s just the way it’s going to have to be. So, as I said, we want to promote trust. We don’t want to arrive and immediately have a message, or a dialogue where we are saying we don’t trust anyone here except ourselves, except the foreigners. At the same time, you can’t just turn it all over with no controls and no technical support. You can’t expect someone who’s never distributed resources in a camp to do it well and equally if they’ve never done it before. It’s so obviously going to have problems if you don’t do the work of training them and doing it together with them.

So, what we were doing and what we’re still doing today [is] going into the camps. We’re forming committees but we’re not giving our resources to the committees. We go back with the committee and we go through the community list that they’ve formed and we still go person to person or tent to tent and make sure the person is there, with the committee member and the person, and we distribute our distribution ticket, voucher, or wristband. And then we come back with the distributions. We have the committee provide us with security, but we’re still having our people there to make sure it’s technically going sound. As time goes on, we want to reduce the international presence, but we don’t want to just reduce it and withdraw it because we want to give them the power without having them be able to stand up and do it their own, in a proper way.

I have faith in these people there that they can do this — they’re going to have to do it, we’re going to have to help them do it. It’s really our job, because the Red Cross, other agencies, we’re eventually going to leave. We’ll have a presence there but they’re going to have to do it themselves, so the more we can promote that without letting them stand alone and fall on their face, then the more we should do it.

Q: How did the shelter distribution come online?

In the early days we divided up shelter. Transitional shelter and long term shelter was separate from relief, and relief – which I was in charge of, encompassed food, non-food, health items, and emergency shelter, which is tents, tarpaulins, and shelter kits. So that’s how we divided it up and that’s how it’s still working. But now there’s more transitional shelter work starting to happen. It’s a big project, and it’s temporary housing and transitional housing that we’re starting to do now. That’s a whole separate department.

Q: Why wasn’t shelter given higher priority?

Well, we have emergency shelter. Our priority was health: which is hospitals and health units. Our second priority was water, which was water treatment, water purification, and water distribution. And then non-food items, which encompasses emergency shelter. So, tarpaulins, tents, rope and wood was starting to come online too, so people could make a temporary shelter. That was a priority we established.

Q: Within the relief teams?

Yeah. Within our whole operation, really. So, and that’s the way our operation came about. And now, transitional and longer-term shelter is the priority because now most people have water and food. And mostly they have basic health care. If they don’t have it immediately, they can get it pretty close to where they are. So those priorities are mostly covered. Now, we really need to look at the transitional shelter.

Q: Did shelter distribution start too late?

It’s just a huge challenge. I’m sure our prioritization was proper. You had to bring in health first. There were just people everywhere with broken bones and as you saw, there were thousands of people all over the place bleeding, so if you have a choice to give them shelter or give them health, you give them health. And then, after that, water. Water is a main priority. Without water, you’re in big trouble. If you have water and no shelter, you’re better off than if you have shelter and no water. And that was our basic reasoning.

Q: Is it not possible to do health and shelter simultaneously?

Definitely. Yes, it’s definitely possible to stagger. I mean, I think we did a pretty good job. We only brought in as many surgeons, as fit in those hospitals. We were able to keep our Red Cross resources pretty well coordinated. External to us, there’s another possible ten thousand organizations working there. So it’s very difficult to coordinate 10,000 different agencies, and the UN, they try to do that, they have a cluster system for coordination, and they have good systems and they have good people. And they’re trying their best, but the challenge of organizations showing up from all over the world doing all sorts of things, is a difficult challenge. It could definitely improve.

Q: The Red Cross is currently leading the shelter cluster in Haiti?

Yeah, the Red Cross is currently convening the shelter cluster. It doesn’t mean we’re in charge, we don’t direct the [thousands of] agencies that are doing shelter there. They’re all independent. Shelter could have started earlier if we had had more access. If we had more airport space, if we had wider roads. If we had more infrastructure, if we had a functioning port. So I think the question there is about supply chain capacity. I also think there’s just a reality there: a major population centre completely destroyed; several other smaller cities completely destroyed. How much can you expect? What is the capacity in the whole world to give those people shelter within 30 days? There is a limit. Somewhere there’s a limit where you just can’t go any faster, so I think we did a pretty good with what resources we are capable of moving. There are a lot of agencies doing a lot of things there right now, all with good intentions, and there’s still a big challenge too. The biggest need right now is shelter.

Q: How do you deal with half of the population of Port-Au-Prince not having a home? Where can they go?

The way you deal with it is you listen to people. You observe what is happening, instead of coming in with an idea of what you think they should do, and telling them what they should do. In Haiti, within five days, 600,000 to 800,000 people left Port-au-Prince. They got up and they walked out or they took buses. They left. That’s what they’re doing. And so we have to look at that reality, and say, “how do we help them?” Not only how do we help the people who left? But how do we help the people where they went? Where they’re in their houses and in their parks. There are cities like Gonaïves that have 125,000 people. It’s not damaged by the earthquake, but there are 125,000 people in that city that were not there before, and they’re putting pressure on the resources: the water, the schooling, the medical systems. So, we have to follow the reality instead of us coming in and saying, “this is what should happen.”

Q: I read reports that those people started coming back to the city after a couple of weeks.

I haven’t really heard about people coming back. That’s new information to me. I’m sure they want to come back – that’s where their homes are.

It’s very possible they’re coming back. The other thing is, the people in Haiti formed makeshift camps. They just sprouted up everywhere. Parks, open areas, golf courses – anywhere they could find a space, they gathered. So, it’s quite interesting in that they kind of formed whole new neighborhoods close to where they lived, but not where they lived. So we had to adjust and we still have to adjust our support to address [their needs] where they are and where they want to be. At the same time the government is looking at this and coming up with some plans for moving people outside of Port-au-Prince, to temporary cities, [so that] they can rebuild the city and move them back in later.

Q: Do you think there will be forced evacuations?

No, I don’t think you can force them to move. They will not be forced. There will be movements that are incentive-driven. So the current planning, as I know – and I’m not quite up to speed on it, is there’s several large areas identified where camps are being put up outside the city, and they’re going to have resources, like water and trash and sanitation and schooling. So people should want to go there. And if the resources are directed towards there, the people will go there. It’s actually a pretty good plan when you think about it.

Q: You helped save the life of a baby when you were in Haiti.  Can you tell me about that?

Yes, I remember that baby well because it was an incident that I was personally unprepared for. I was walking towards our one latrine that we had in our camp and a truck came by and it almost ran me over. It came really close and I saw some people in the back of it, it was a pick-up truck. I heard a woman say in broken English, “sir can you help me? I need a hospital.” and I just looked over and I saw her and a couple other people and she was holding something but I didn’t know what it was because it was below my line of sight. And at that point in time, like everyone else, I had 10,000 things in my head, I had multiple emails, I had three radios and cell phones, everything going on. And I actually just said, “this is not a hospital, you’ll have to find one of our hospitals.” And I just kept walking; I actually blew her off, to be honest. Or, I was short. My thought was, “how did they even get into our camp?” Because we have guards at the front gate — this is an operational headquarters and a relief – a logistics centre. It’s not a hospital or one of our basic health care units.

So that’s what happened. And then I took a couple more steps and she screamed at me, and you know, it still gives me chills…the way she screamed, you know, it went right through my soul and I just froze and she said, “sir, you have to help me!” And then she started to cry, and I turned around and then I really looked at what was in the truck, you know, and I realized she was holding a baby and the baby was taped to a wooden board, and I guess it was, he was a little boy and he was maybe two months old, maybe three. And he was taped to a wooden board and his leg was, you know, twisted all the way out to the side and he had dust all over him. He was obviously just pulled out of the rubble, and he wasn’t looking good. And there was a type of person there, a paramedic in the truck, that had put some type of tube. But when I looked at this baby, I’m not a medic and I’m not a doctor, but I don’t have to be to know that this kid was really, really in bad shape. You know, and it just – when I finally realized it, you know, I froze in my tracks. I was completely unprepared for this, so when I finally saw what was going on there, I could immediately tell this baby was dying, his heart was pumping up and down, a mile a minute. And he had foam coming out of his nose and his mouth, and his eyes also had white foam and stuff leaking from his eyes, and his leg was twisted all up. And so I immediately said, “wow, I gotta do something here.” So, I immediately went and grabbed our health coordinator, who is Panu. And we all went into action without really thinking. Panu came over and took a look and we pulled the baby into the warehouse. We got another medical health professional there, Richard. He looked at the baby, and I let those guys do their job, and then we came to the conclusion that this baby needed immediately to be in one of our hospitals. It was very critical in this situation – that’s what they confirmed to me. So, you know, the mother was there and I reached out and I grabbed the little guys finger and I told her he’s going to be alright and we’re going to get him to one of our hospitals.

[We] had to transfer the baby to one of our Red Cross vehicles, and it was a sudden burst of adrenaline that we all had to get this baby to one of our hospitals. While we were getting the baby into the hospital, I realized that to get out of our base camp, (and not only our base camp but the surrounding area was heavy [with] traffic) that we had to make a path. So I ran ahead and I just started kicking trucks to move over and screaming at people in English to get out of the way, and even though they speak Creole I think they understood what I was saying. And the truck was coming behind me with the baby, and I was able to clear some traffic. I was on foot, and then once there was an opening off they went. And they got the baby to our hospital where he was stabilized I understood, and I was able to follow up later on, just inquiring about what happened to him and apparently he was then moved to the U.S. naval hospital ship, that was offshore in the port, and the last word I got was that he was going to be alright, that they were able to get him some serious treatment in our Red Cross hospital and then move him onto this ship. So [that story] ended up having a happy ending.

But it was very traumatic for me because I just was not prepared for that. We’re working out our limits when we’re in these situations. Food, we’re not eating right, you know, we’re not sleeping well. We have tons of things going on and there was dust everywhere. Three hundred people in that warehouse, all talking at the same time, and we’re doing our job. So anything that’s out of the norm kind of tips over the…it’s like putting that one last drop of water in a full glass and the glass runs over. That’s what happened to me in that moment, but it ended up ok, so that’s the story, you know. I hope he’s – I know he’s alright; it’s just another day in Haiti.

Q: We were filming at the hospital when they brought in that baby.

Really. Wow.

Q: He made it, and he’s back with his parents in Carrefour.

Really. Oh, that’s great news. It was pretty chaotic. It was just a surge of adrenaline during a three-week adrenaline-surged operation. So, after that happened, I kind of just, it took a lot of gas out of my tank for a couple hours after that. I just had to go sit down for about an hour and a half, and take a nap. So I’m glad to hear he did alright.

Q: Has that happened to you before?

I’ve never had something quite [like] that, you know, plopped right in my lap. I’ve been in a lot of operations, I’ve seen a lot of injured people and people that come up to me and are asking us for help, and I’ve been able to direct them to our hospitals, our basic health care units. But I’ve never had one baby where it was kind of just out of the blue, landed right in front of my area and was right on me, so…

Q: When your mission in Haiti was ending, how did you feel?

Well, I felt good –  leaving Haiti I felt good because I knew we did a good job, I knew we did a very good job under extreme circumstances. I was really proud of my team members, the team I was on – I couldn’t ask for a better team. The FACT team was really full of professionals. It was a team that was up to the task. And you know, I walked away proud, I walked away feeling good. I also felt good with the work that the ERUs and the other teams that were there [did]. Everyone there, all the Red Cross teams really put in a solid effort. And I walked away from that proud and tired, of course tired, but I was somewhat happy to do that work.

Q: Is it hard to leave?

It is hard to leave, but it’s correct. I could have stayed and there are other people that could stay there. There’s plenty of work, but when you work that intensely for three or four weeks, almost around the clock, you really need to be honest with yourself with what your limitations are and your efficiency and your capacity to do a good job over time. It’s hard to leave because you get so much into the work, but then it’s not hard to leave because there’s a logic and a reason for me that I know it’s time to go. Time to give this to someone else who’s coming in fresh with a fresh point of view, and they can pick it up and move it into the next phase.

Q: How many disasters have you responded to?

Off the top of my head, I don’t know. I’ve been involved in dozens of disasters. Me, personally on the ground in disasters? Probably forty or fifty. And I was involved in positions in the Red Cross where I was coordinating teams or I was in charge of response units that were overseeing disasters so there’s dozens more there. I’ve been in a lot of disaster operations in all different capacities.

Q: How will you remember your time in Haiti?

I think I’ll remember it because of the good team we had. That’s what I’ll remember about Haiti. It was an extraordinary disaster, but I saw – I worked in the tsunami, which was also extraordinary, and I worked in earthquakes in Bam, Iran, and earthquakes in [inaudible], India. In terms of the disaster itself, it was quite large, quite extraordinary. But I will mostly remember the feeling of pride and the good feeling I had working on a team of international Red Cross members from Red Crosses all over the world. And we worked together and we worked as hard as we could to do a good job. That’s what I will remember about that.

Q: What got you started in this kind of work?

I started with the Red Cross in Central America. I started in Nicaragua, with hurricane Mitch. It was just kind of coincidence. I happened to be there right after the hurricane hit. I worked for the Peace Corps, the U.S. Peace Corps in Central America, and I was in Mexico at the time. I wanted to go visit where I was in Central America in the Peace Corps. I remember I went to the airport in Mexico City, to buy a ticket and get on the plane, and the teller said, “you’re going to fly to Honduras? There’s been a hurricane there, it’s pretty bad.” And I thought, yeah so what, some rain. Alright, maybe the beach is closed. I said, “yeah, I don’t care, just sell me the ticket.” And when I got off the plane in the capital of Honduras, it was about two days – I found out it was the first commercial flight into Honduras after hurricane Mitch, and the capital was completely destroyed like nothing I’d ever seen in my life, ever before. It was incredible – whole neighborhoods destroyed. Cadavers strewn about, police shooting looters. It was total chaos. I couldn’t find a hotel with water in the whole city.

So, I was there and I just knew a person that I was in the Peace Corps with that got a job that had started working with the Red Cross in Nicaragua. They sent me an email and asked me if I wanted to work in the Red Cross in Nicaragua and I said sure, and I went over to Nicaragua and I started there — I was basically loading some trucks, and working in a remote area, which I really enjoyed and I was just doing it for the fun of it. I wasn’t getting paid or anything. I was actually a truck driver and started working there. It was a food distribution program, and I started to get an idea of how things work, just doing a good job, trying to work hard and I ended up working in several other projects there.

Q: What do you get out of it?

I get a lot out of this work. I get lessons that can’t be learned in any school. I have a lot of people, friends who say, you know, say, “thank you for doing this great work and thank you for helping all those people.”  Especially lately, since I’ve returned from Haiti, since I was on the news, the television a lot, a lot of people I know and haven’t talked to in a long time have contacted me and my family members and friends and they say, “oh thank you for doing such a great job, thank you, thank you.” The message I get is that I’ve done something for other people, but to be honest, I receive  a lot more than I give to this work. I realize that for any activity and endeavor to be fruitful, there needs to be an exchange. So, I think what is missing in a lot of this story in Haiti, is this exchange: what I get out of it, and the people who donate – what they get out of it. And I really need to thank these Haitians here. I will go into some of these camps and I see these people starting to form committees and I see the women getting together and helping each other build houses. And I think of where I live and [how] I don’t even really know my neighbors, and I look at the way they live and I say, “these people are living in the lowest standard of living in this hemisphere and they’re actually implementing and expressing the highest ideals of humanity that we have as humans.”

I mean the way they help each other, the way they treat me when I come in. They give me hope, which is priceless. I can’t learn that in any classroom. Or I can’t get that anywhere else so, you know, this is a good job and I get paid when I do it and people say thank you, but really what I get out of it is [something] I can’t get it anywhere else. So they give me hope that we can all work together like this. If they can do it with nothing, surely we that have can do it, so we can learn from them, so that’s what I get out of it.

Steve McAndrew

Q: What is the most challenging part of the job?

For me one of the major challenges of doing this work is the unpredictability of it. I never know where or what is going to happen next, and that can be a challenge but it can also be an opportunity. It keeps me on my toes. I could complain about never knowing where I’m going to go, or how it’s hard to make plans. At the same time I can say, “well, I get to work with the earth and the wind and the weather, and I respond to the earth.” The earth is my boss in a strange type of way, all disaster workers [are like] that, we follow the real need. It’s a challenge to make plans, it’s a challenge the unpredictability of it, but it’s also an honour to be able to adapt and work where needed whenever.

Q: Can disasters be mitigated?  Is there anything we can do to reduce suffering?

Yes, most disasters I have been involved in do not have to be as bad as they are. They could be better with preparedness, with risk reduction activities, with awareness, with even personal preparedness and planning. The thing is, they seem to be increasing.

Q: In intensity or number?

In both. In my short career, I mean ten years of doing this – I feel as if they’re becoming more frequent and bigger disasters over time. So, if that’s just in ten years, what’s it going to be like in 20, or 40, or 50 years? We’re starting to see major population increases in urban areas, and we’re seeing trees being cut down all over so we’re seeing flooding all the time now and it’s increasing. In order to actually continue, we’re going to have to get smarter, we’re going to have to work together. We’re going to have to do this or else we’re going to continue needing to do work like we did in Haiti. We’re going to continue to need people like me and my coworkers, to respond.

I would rather not do disaster response. I’d rather see a world where my phone doesn’t ring, and you know we’re smarter in the way we prepare, we’re smarter in where we put our housing, we’re smarter in how we build our housing, and we reduce the vulnerability. We’re going to have to pay for this one way or another. We can pay for it after the disaster, by rebuilding cities like Port-au-Prince, or if we’re smart and we’re all working together, we can put our resources before disasters so that they don’t even happen, or they’re highly reduced.

Q: Is that a cheaper alternative?

Very much cheaper.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I would just say that I think that we need to — we in the Red Cross and other organizations — we very much thank our donors. There are official thank-you’s and the message goes out, but I also think that we need to thank the Haitian people and the donors themselves need to thank the Haitian people. I’ll give you an example, there are schools all over the world. There’s a school in Thailand, and there’s a school I know of in Montana, where the students – the 8th grade students got together, and they saw the earthquake on the news and they got together and they raised some money and they gave it to the Red Cross. And they sent it to the Red Cross, and we helped some school in Haiti. The conventional wisdom is we thank those 8th grade students for what they’ve done, and we do, we thank them for the work. But I don’t know if anyone has really thought beyond that simple thank you for those 8th grade students to thank those Haitians. Because of the suffering and what the Haitians have went through, they all know now what it’s like to work together, they learned lessons they’re not getting in school, they know what it’s like to do something not just for yourself. They got a lesson that they won’t get anywhere, because of the Haitian suffering.

And they learned how to work in a team, and they learned how to strive for humanitarian ideals, and how to do something that is outside of their own ends and their own sphere of friends, so those students, they might have to sit back and say, “hey, let’s thank the Haitians. Because of their suffering, we’ve gotten these late sessions.” And if I had anything to add, I would thank all the Haitian people for what they’ve gone through, and what that has enabled the rest of the world [to do]. It’s given the rest of the world hope, and it’s given a lesson to people all over the world about how they can work together.

Q: You managed to communicate with the Haitians, even though you don’t speak Creole, or French.  You really seemed to enjoy the people.

The best part of a disaster is the people. Every disaster I’ve been in, I’m always amazed at how well I’m treated. Every time, I still really am touched by it, and it’s hard for me to actually picture myself – how I would be if my house was destroyed, half my family was lost, and I was living under a piece of plastic. Would I be so nice to people I didn’t know? I don’t know if I would. But especially in Haiti, you know the Haitians — every camp I went into they’re just so nice. When you initially go in, there’s a tension and it immediately dissipates as soon as you portray a dialogue of trust, and I extend an open hand to them, and it’s always responded with an open handshake back. Yeah, that’s definitely the best part of my job, meeting all the people. It’s great.

Q: Did you expect that?

I have been to Haiti before. I was there several times on short missions. I’ve been around long enough to not have any expectations, and I have enough experience to not believe the messages I get about a place until I go there. So, most of the information coming out of Haiti before I arrived there, and still a lot of it coming out today is how dangerous it is to do food distributions and how insecure the mobs are, and how, you know, they’re attacking distribution, and how hard it is for international aid agencies to work there, and you can’t trust the people, they’re uncontrollable, they have no organization. All these negative messages, I don’t believe [them]. I didn’t believe them before I got there and I walked into those camps, I didn’t believe them there, even when people were saying that right into my ear.

And I was right. I mean, you go into some of those camps today where we’ve been working. It’s just wonderful. Women, groups that are, the last time I was there, the last day I was there, we went into a camp where we had distributed twice, and we knew they were coming, and they had 40 women singing songs, thanking us. Where am I going to find that? So my expectations are that I have no expectations, that I expect that anything’s possible, and I’m never let down by the people that are affected by disasters. There’s a funny thing with disasters – you’ll hear stories about Mexico City, the earthquake in Mexico City. I think it was about 25 years ago – I was not there, but people there told me that for two or three days, the whole city came together where there’d be hundreds of people working together to help someone get out of the rubble. And [there were] hundreds of people helping in food distributions. That gives me hope. In disasters under the worst conditions, people seem to bring out the best. And that’s what I like. That’s what I’ve learned to expect, to be honest. I don’t expect people to act worse in disasters. They actually have a tendency to act better. We should all be able to act like that all the time.