Q+A: Deploying to Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam

March 16, 2015

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  • Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu with powerful winds, torrential rain and flash flooding that's caused severe damage across the archipelago nation. Photo: David Hunt/Getty Images

The massive cyclone that hit the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu last Friday caused widespread devastation. But the full extent of conditions throughout the nation’s 83 islands is still unknown, until communications are restored and relief teams can travel to the most remote locations.

Mercy Corps is deploying a team of experienced emergency responders to assess the damage from the storm and gather information about the urgent needs of survivors, especially on the outlying islands that have yet to be contacted. It’s because of our dedicated supporters that our team is always ready to go when an emergency like this strikes.

Team leader Mark Ferdig, who responded to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, shares the team’s plans, preparation and why the initial emergency assessment is so critical.

Q: What are the first steps Mercy Corps is taking in Vanuatu?

Mark Ferdig: This cyclone surprised a lot of people. We were watching it and tracking it. It was expected that it was going to actually divert away from the islands, but it hit last minute and caused a lot of devastation.

We don’t currently have a presence in Vanuatu, so that’s why we need to do assessments and figure out what the needs are. The airport is open now, so I’ll be flying in through Sydney. Members of our Indonesian response team are also heading to Vanuatu.

Q: How was the decision made to deploy the team?

The fact that more than 90-percent of households have been severely damaged by the cyclone itself, and the sheer number of people that have been affected — that dictates that we have a responsibility as a humanitarian organization. This is what we do, and it’s my job to get on a plane and sort it out.

With that much damage and this many people involved, the existing systems will be stretched to be able to respond, so that’s why the additional support what Mercy Corps can bring could be helpful. And we’ll see if it is once we’re there. But to wait and sit idly as an observer doesn’t make you part of the solution. You have to be there on the ground to be part of it.

Q: How do you prepare the team before going in?

We start with the basics — making sure we understand the history of the place, the context of governance, politics, and social dynamics. Some of it also comes down to how the country’s administration systems works — that can be really important and valuable to understand.

It’s also important to know what our strengths are. We know that we can do a lot with early recovery, market systems, and economic recovery. We can also contribute to water and sanitation work if there are huge needs there. It helps to be able to identify those strengths that we have and adapt as we identify gaps in the recovery efforts.

Q: What do you expect to see when you get there?

I think there will be a lot of debris — big piles of everything, trees, houses. I think there’ll be flood damage along with it. We’ll probably see a lot of shanties and shacks that people have constructed just to get out of the sun or the wind and the rain, after their homes have been damaged.

I’ve always been surprised by how resilient people are. They get back on their feet. You get knocked down, and you get up and you start sorting it out. We’ll find those little old ladies who are already selling tomatoes and onions on the side of the street. So it’s a matter of tapping into that entrepreneurial spirit that I’m certain will be there, and that resilient attitude, and start working with people to rebuild.

Q: What are the first things the team will look to do? What is Mercy Corps’ role in gathering information?

Our role initially is to learn and absorb as much as we can. Part of that involves understanding what’s happening on the ground — where are people located? Where have they been displaced? Are all of the islands affected? We’ll look at population density and compare that with poverty levels, so that we can identify the most marginalized people and those that have been most affected.

Within that, we want to make sure that we understand service gaps. Once we understand that, the priority will be filling those gaps if needed. Because we’re new to the area, partnerships are going to be really important to that. Ideally local partnerships that we can leverage and tap into.

Q: Why is coordination with partners and sharing of information so important?

Working together is important in any emergency to make sure we’re more efficient and more productive as a whole, and that we’re not duplicating efforts. We want to add the greatest value and have the greatest impact that we can. And we need those networks on the ground and those local perspectives in order to do that. We have to hear them. We have to hear their voice and what they have to say.

Q: How does this compare to other emergencies you have responded to, like Typhoon Haiyan?

In the Philippines we had some direct relationships, and it’s bigger and a larger economy — so there was greater assurance that the national markets would be able to supply the goods and materials that we would need to keep local economies functioning and households getting what they needed.

I don’t know if we have that in this case. Is size going to be a factor in those markets and the economy bouncing back? Will there be enough supplies on-hand to support a response? The distance, how far it is — what does that mean for timing and making sure the markets are replenished? Those are big questions.

Q: What unique expertise does Mercy Corps bring to an emergency response?

We want to make sure we’re supporting the economy and the markets as best we can. We feel that it’s a really critical piece to any recovery in these situations.

If the situation is dire and people are hungry and thirsty and don’t have immediate supplies, then we look at distributions. But if the markets are functioning and there seems to be a bit of a buffer, then I think it’s important to really look at how we can use cash to make sure the markets and the economy continue to function through the recovery period. We try to find that right balance so people can begin to reestablish their lives and livelihoods.

We also focus on protection for people who’ve been displaced and helping adolescents and kids. But we have to find out if those things are an issue, if they’re relevant, and if they are potentially being covered by other agencies already.

Those three things tend to be our strengths after an emergency, but every response is different. Stepping into the situation with eyes wide open and ears open, and just being ready for a scan rather than going in with a specific plan, is so important. That way we can craft a response where we can have the greatest value and achieve the greatest impact.

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