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Everyday experts

Haiti, March 24, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Angela Owen/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Haiti response team members (from left) Kody Leonard, Doug Lyon, Colin Brownsberger and Gene Kunze. Photo: Angela Owen/Mercy Corps

The topic of the presentation was: "Why Did They Send Me to Haiti?" Even though Mercy Corps has sent dozens of people to the earthquake-shattered country, it wasn't that easy to find participants. We finally gathered four seemingly unlikely panel members who had grudging agreed to participate — but only if they weren't the only ones giving a presentation. Thus, the Haiti Panel Presentation was born. It consisted of:

  • Gene Kunze, our Program Officer for China and Mongolia, who served on our Haiti Response Team from January 14-February 14;
  • Doug Lyon, our Director of Health Programs, who served on the team from January 26-February 3;
  • Kody Leonard from our Information Technology department, who served on the team from January 29 - March 7; and
  • Colin Brownsberger from our Finance department who served on the team from February 1 - March 15.

In chronological order of their arrival time in Haiti, each member talked about how their area of expertise was utilized in an emergency.

So, why did we send our China Program Officer to Haiti? In additional to his French language skills and the fact that, when the Haiti earthquake hit, he happened to be meeting with our head of our Global Emergency Operations to discuss the earthquake that hit China's Sichuan Province in 2008. Gene has a an extensive background in logistics and emergency response.

Doug Lyons, our Director of Health Programs, would seem like an obvious choice until you realize that we were not specifically doing health programming in Haiti. So why did he go? Mercy Corps works in partnership with a lot of health organizations to implement its other programs, and true coordination could only be accomplished on the ground, in the "cluster groups" that had sprung up all over Port-au-Prince.

Kody, the most reluctant panel participant, headed out to Haiti to make sure that everyone was connected and that we could all communicate with each other. Access to technology and the ability to effectively coordinate our actions is proving to be one of our most valuable tools in an emergency. Kody did everything from setting up Blackberries to installing roof-mounted antennas. The communications "infrastructure" in Haiti is particularly tenuous, but Kody held it all together and made it work.

A lot of people I talk to are really surprised to find out that one of the first responders we send is often a member of our Finance department. Mercy Corps' cash-for-work programs have proven to be a very successful method for moving a post-disaster population from relief to recovery. And where there is cash, there must be finance! So Colin swooped into Santo Domingo (the capital of neighboring Dominican Republic) and straightened up our books after Gene had left behind a wake of receipts for cars, printers, phones and several supply runs to the local Wal-Mart. He then moved to join the Haiti team where, although his Spanish skills were of little use, he was able speak the international language of numbers as well as help with the transition of our newly-hired Haiti Finance Director.

There was also a surprise guest appearance. Just as a member of the panel was lamenting the absence of a Global Emergency Operations (GEO) team member stationed at our Portland headquarters office, a booming voice was heard over the speaker phone "We're closer than you think." It was Randy Martin, our GEO Director, calling in from our Washington, DC office. The audience of Mercy Corps staffers was very glad to have his input on our evolving strategy for emergency preparedness.

The panel gave us a glimpse into what life is like in an emergency response. What did they eat? Well, a lot of dried fruits and nuts that Gene sent in from Santo Domingo. But soon, the team was cooking and eating together. What was it like? Not as bad as you saw on the news, but still pretty bad. The resilience of the Haitian people impressed every one of our responders and continues to give us hope for their recovery.

Our panel showed us that — whether it is language, numbers, logistics, partnership building, email set-up or meal planning — each member of the Mercy Corps team can contribute their everyday expertise to an emergency response.