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The man with the megaphone: profile of a community hero

29 Apr 2015


Atacama region, Chile, March 2015 - The "man with the megaphone" receiving the UNDAC team and explaining the situation in the location.
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Martin Torres deployed to Chile in March in response to devastating mudslides in the northern part of the country. There, he met a true humanitarian hero...

A “tsunami of mud” accurately describes the mudslides that raced down the Andes on 24 March, leaving residents stranded in two desert regions in northern Chile.

It is impossible to calculate the magnitude of the huge mass of water and dirt that crossed the Atacama Desert – one of the world’s most arid regions. In the place where it never rains, the mudslide quickly turned the landscape apocalyptical. In some places, the river, which is more of a dry riverbed, turned into a mass of water 1 km wide and 2 metres deep. Its strength and speed were so great, it ripped apart entire houses, dragging them for miles, and destroyed entire mining towns in the north of the country.

Communities became isolated due to damaged and flooded roads, some places were left with no electricity or drinking water, and local response systems and officials were heavily affected.

I arrived with the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team just few days after the mudslide. El Salado is a small mining town in the Atacama region with a population of 1,200. It is located on the Salado River - one of the most mudslide-affected watersheds. 

From the helicopter, the team was immediately struck by the desolation below. We landed near an improvised camp created by the local disaster management authority, with shelters and chemical toilets, which provided refuge to those who had lost everything - relatives, houses and livelihoods. The camp was managed by the people who sought refuge there.

A local man greeted us with a megaphone and kindly agreed to tell us about the situation of people living in the shelter. He explained that during the four days following the mudslide, they were forced to ration the drinking water to half a glass a day per person. Similar rationing was applied to eating, sleeping and personal hygiene.

 “The man with the megaphone” is a simple man from the local community and respected by the residents. In the community shelter, he is now responsible for the logistics to ensure that nothing goes missing and that everyone receives basic supplies. He manages teams to unload trucks carrying supplies, supervises the kitchen activities and gathers the children so that they are the first to be fed. He also finding appropriate locations for the chemical toilets to avoid bad odours brought by the wind. Some of his daily duties also include making sure that the camp is well lit, that the children are accompanied when they go to the bathroom and that they wash their hands.

The man with the megaphone used to be a foreman in a nearby mine. His concern for the children’s well-being encouraged him to be a “de facto expert” in coordinating community shelters, and support his community on such a difficult period.

His innate ability to learn and internalize some of the professional humanitarian standards without realizing it is a staggering example of what communities are capable of when disaster strikes. I was profoundly moved by what a great example of resilience he was. We must never forget: affected people are always the first responders. They have the capacity to address their own needs and become leading actors in their own recovery.