Aid Worker Diary: UNDAC deployment to Typhoon Haiyan
“Frankly, I was a little bit scared,” says Tsukasa Katsube. “There was a very fine line between local people devastated by the disaster and relief workers like me who had just arrived.” Tsukasa, a disaster response expert from Japan, was part of a team that landed at Tacloban airport in the morning of 9 November, less than 12 hours after Typhoon Haiyan caused devastation across the region.
Tsukasa and a teammate were given the task of setting up a Reception and Departure Centre, to register, brief and help with transporting incoming international teams before they headed into the town.
The airport was badly hit by the storm. The control tower was down, preventing all flights apart from military aircraft from landing. There was debris everywhere; the whole place looked like a garbage dump. Tsukasa struggled to secure food, water and a sleeping space for himself. He had to search the area for furniture including a plastic chair before he could set up his work station.
“But after I had put on my blue UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team vest, I was able to start focusing on my job,” says Tsukasa. “Amidst the mayhem, it was a sense of responsibility to the survivors of this typhoon that kept me going.”
Meeting colleagues who had participated in UNDAC operations and training helped to calm Tsukasa’s nerves. He and his team leader had previously worked together during the response to the Great East Japan Earthquake.
“UNDAC needs to hit the ground running,” he says. “Knowing personalities and building trust with other team members before and immediately after the deployment was very important. After hearing the names of my team members, I realized that despite all the challenges, this was going to be a good mission.”
UNDAC member Yosuke Okita was helping out at the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) in Tacloban. Yosuke was attending a conference on search and rescue in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, when he was called for immediate deployment. He couldn’t take his usual duffle bag full of emergency items like outdoor boots, flash lights and a swimming suit–useful when taking a shower in public.
Arriving in Tacloban, Yosuke was reminded of his previous experience in Aceh, Indonesia in 2004 and Tohoku, Japan in 2011. An initial impression of chaos gave way to an understanding of the complexities of the operation and how all its parts worked together.
Yosuke arrived in the middle of a coordination meeting at OSOCC. Aid workers stood around shouting at each other about their operations and challenges, because there was no seating, and there was a lot of background noise.
In fact, clusters were already fully functional and various agency staff were working, eating and sleeping literally under one roof. It took some time for Yosuke to grasp the overall picture of coordination efforts that were underway.
“In order to provide the best coordination support for the international teams, understanding and being able to communicate how coordination mechanisms work effectively was essential,” he says.
Now back in Japan, Yosuke is concerned that interest in the disaster will be short-lived.
“Despite the magnitude of the disaster, the attention span of the international media seems rather short,” he says. “Having witnessed Aceh’s recovery from the devastation in 2004, I believe sustained support by the international community is key to the relief and recovery of the affected communities.”
“It is important to remember and learn lessons about the storm surge that people in Tacloban experienced, so that we can prepare better for future disasters or similar situations,” he adds.