Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nepal: The First 10 Days

It has been an interesting 10 days on the ground here to say the least.  I would imagine, anytime one that travels to a foreign country, in the aftermath of a disaster, you are bound to find it at least somewhat interesting.

I didn't really know what to expect (as you would probably imagine), but I also tried not to come with any preconceived notions.  I wondered most about accommodation (particularly when I heard we were living/working in an SA cafe), but have been pleasantly surprised. 

We stay at the Sisters Cafe, Salon and Parlor (yes all three in one!).  It is a cafe on the first floor, which serves a full breakfast and lunch menu in addition to coffee and typical cafe bakery fare.  On the second floor is an office, massage and facial parlor and a hair and nail salon, all of which are for ladies only.  The third and top floor is an attic/lounge type of space.  This area doubles as our office and sleeping quarters (well at least for the men, the ladies usually sleep outside in tents or in the salon).  It has really been a good setup for both working and sleeping.  Plus the food is pretty good at lunch too!

The other big worry when traveling to another country is almost always the language barrier.  There have been some moments (especially with cab drivers) where some things get lost in translation, but that has been quite manageable as well.  The regular folks we work with all speak pretty good English, and we have some good interpreters working with us as well.

The work has been extremely rewarding.  There have been a few frustrating moments (mostly with processes outside of our control) here and there, but much of that is overshadowed by the work we are trying to accomplish.  It is humbling at every chance to get out and be with the people and to see not only the difficult conditions they now have to live in (many in tents or tiny temporary huts) but the resilience as well.
I don't get out into the field as much as some of the team members.  There are a few that seem to always be running from camp to camp or organizing a distributions.  My role here is to help keep those folks plugging along by supporting the logistical needs behind the scenes.

One of my functions is coordinating, scheduling and working with some of our partners (which sometimes also means the necessary evil of filling out forms and processing paperwork).  One of our largest partners here in this operation is MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship).  They work through a contracted helicopter company here named Fish Tail to provide heli flights up to the mountain villages that are not reachable by any other means (unless you are interested in hiking up steep mountain sides carrying supplies and equipment for hours or in some cases days).

MAF is sponsored by a grant from UKAID which covers a large portion of the cost for the trips.  This means that we can fly personnel and supplies into otherwise unreachable areas for about 10% of the normal cost to do so.  Needless to say, we do a lot of flying!  In my first 10 days here we have scheduled almost 10 flight hours (which is a lot considering the average flight is only 20-25 minutes in length).  I find myself there almost daily processing request forms and working out the details of flight times, locations, passangers and cargo.

The next biggest partner I have to deal with is the Logistics Cluster managed by World Food Programme or WFP as they are known here on the ground (Cheap Plug....for more on my cluster thoughts and what exactly that term means in relief speak, see my post from a few days ago on clusters).  The WFP offers free resources such as, transportation (both road from contracted trucks and air through UNHAS - United Nations Humanitarian Air Service) and both short and long term storage options.  They are one of the big dogs in the relief arena.  So that is the upside....  The downside is there is a lot of hoops and paperwork to jump through.....a lot!
It is hard to do a response of this scale without working closely with partners.  We do a lot of networking, coordinating and partnering in order to help accomplish the goal of providing the best support we can to affected communities.  International partners such as Samaritans Purse, MedAir, Mountain Child to name a few, as well as local NGO's from here in Nepal all play key roles.

I have gotten a chance to get out and do some good old fashion hard work or manual labor.  We have done a distribution or two since I've been here for which I participated, as well as loading and transportation of traps for distribution (one of the biggest needs going right now with the monsoon season fast approaching).  There is of course the heli flight up into the mountains on my first day doing the assessment and giving out rice (which is likely to remain both a highlight and one of the most humbling moments). 

The team we have here is extremely diverse as well making it an even more interesting experience.  Our team leader Damaris, is German (but a UK convert of late as she works for IHQ Emergency Services), our incoming team leader and current camp management lead Carol, is currently Territorial Commander (a big boss in the SA for all the non Army folks who may have tripped into this blog) for our Pakistan Territory of the Army, but originally from Scotland in the UK. In addition to Carol, both George and Macdonald on our team are also from Pakistan; Sharon and VT are both Salvation Army officers from India (the Eastern Territory, which is also the home territory of Nepal); Petr has joined our team from Czech Republic, where he serves as a corps officer; Kathy is here from the SA Social Justice Office in NYC, but originally from New Zealand; Myself and two other Americans Mike and Amanda (both from Hawaii), round out our current team....and of course our many local Nepali friends that helps us on a daily basis.

Well I know this has been a rather lengthy post, so to those of you that have stuck with it I hope it was a good read!  For those that stopped reading, we forgive you!  

Until next time....

Bobby Myers

EDS Director
Pendel Division

Nepal: Photo's from First 10 Days

Outside of Sister's Cafe, during an aftershock
Our small stock pile of food (rice and dahl) for distribution

Preparing for Distribution in Bhaktapur District (we manage two camps here)

Some of the typically seen damage from the Bhaktapur area

One of the larger camps that we manage. 

Our storage space at the Benepa Hub, managed by Handicap International

Briefing with our team and the IHQ PR team

Trucks loaded for distribution (we typically use smaller trucks as larger have difficulty on mountain roads)

Cutting of tarps given through IOM by USAID (tarps come in 60 meter rolls)

Loading out boxes of tarps up for distribution

Team member Mike with villagers who are holding a solar charging pad that we give out to remote villages

Team member Sharon at our storage hub with 350 cases of donated USAID tarps

Team member Kathy (center with gray hair) with two local Nepali volunteers discussing with village leaders

Friday, May 22, 2015

Nepal Deployment: Clusters

There are some unique things when it comes to to deployments internationally that come into the fray and take on a bit of prominence that may seem foreign to those of us from the states.  Thankfully, recent international disaster training has helped prepare me for such changes, not the least of which is the Cluster model.

(OK, now be honest.... You thought this entry was going to be about something else when you read that title)

For those that are reading this that are domestically trained in the FEMA model, the closest thing to clusters is the ESF model (Emergency Support Function).  The key difference is in the domestic model ESF's remain largely behind the scenes and often times within the EOC (Emergency Operations Center), Cluster are very much at the fore front. 

Cluster Diagram from UN
There are numerous clusters ranging from Food Security, to Health to Logistics to Protection, etc.  The Salvation Army is involved in numerous clusters and attends numerous cluster meetings in order to better coordinate our relief operations.  I believe we are currently attending: Food Security; Health; WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene); Logistics; Education; CCCM (Camp Coordination and Camp Management); and Shelter. 

It is interesting also to see how each cluster is organized and conducts their business.  For instance...

I had the opportunity thus far to attend two separate cluster meetings.  The first was the WASH cluster.  The meeting took place at the Nepali Water Authority facility.  After arriving there and wondering through the very large 4 story building which appeared to be relatively vacant in terms of people occupying the place, we finally realized the cluster was actually meeting outside in what was a courtyard of sorts. 

We thought we had arrived late as it was already five minutes beyond the start time, but you learn quick that there is universal time and what is kindly referred to as Nepali time (which usually means "there about").  Clearly many in this cluster were operating in the Nepali time format as things didn't get going until about 15 minutes after the scheduled start.

We sat through a very long (and honestly quite brutally boring) one hour and 25 minute meeting that
discussed everything from water issues, to number of toilets required, to hygiene distribution in very long drawn out format. Luckily it wasn't terribly hot out that day the uncomfortability was only due to the long drawn out reports mixed with the lousy ability to hear thanks to the crappy portable microphone system.

The large part of the meeting was taken up by a discussion of materials produced by a working group of the WASH cluster designed to educate folks on sanitary practices such a washing hands, etc.  The materials were very professionally done up and will serve communities well once distributed.  The only issue was what had turned into a rather lengthy conversation that we in the states would say well "in the weeds"....but I won't get into those details here.

The next day I attended a Logistics Cluster meeting.  This was the complete opposite of my prior days experience.  Both meetings were well attended, but the Logistics cluster operated in a much more structured and efficient manner (as I suppose one should expect from logistics, but if I have learned anything thus far it is to manage one's expectations!).  This is in addition to the immediate difference that we were not in the hot outside under a makeshift tarp tent, but rather in a portable, air conditioned conference room structure!
Photo via Logcluster.org

Logistics is coordinated by a Frenchman from the WFP (World Food Programme) who does an excellent job not only running the meetings, but commanding the room.  It is clear who is in charge here and he runs the cluster meeting with efficiency and arguably unlike anyone else I have seen thus far. We roll through the agenda very expeditiously, but all the while dedicating the time necessary to discuss issues without getting too deep as to either fall of track or be bogged down into the finite details. 

There is also involvement from many in the room, with the expectation that everyone has the same "straight to the point" manner and that issues and concerns are clearly stated.  A very refreshing perspective from someone who is now operating in this specific circle....which is not to say this particularly cluster doesn't have its own cumbersome ways (believe me it does), only that its clear meetings will not be one of them!  The bottom line was moving items through the chain efficiently and effectively, while identifying road blocks as soon as the arise to help navigate them accordingly.

Clusters provide the backbone for the aid efforts here and most every disaster internationally, and do a good job of facilitating communication.  Each and every subject matter is important, and even though some may be a bit more efficient or orderly in their process, all play a key role in the ongoing coordination and support of both NGO and Government relief operations.

Without the cluster system and the bringing together of the necessary partners, it is hard to imagine just how inefficient and dysfunction relief operations would otherwise be!

Bobby Myers

EDS Director
Pendel Division

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nepal: 5/16-5/17

It has been an interesting first few days on the ground here in Nepal.  After getting settled in on Friday, Saturday was quite the day. 

We took a helicopter up into up into the mountain district of Sindupalchauk where we are working in the VDC (Village Development Council...similar to a County as best I can tell) known as Listo.  This region is totally mountainous and small farming villages are spread across the hillsides.

Many of the villages were affected by the first quake and saw major destruction.  Following the second quake, most of the villages still with buildings standing were totally destroyed.  Because of its mountainous remote nature, this left many of villages up the mountain cutoff from the larger villages in the vallies were most of the regular resources are located. 

It is hard to imagine the level of destruction until you have had the opportunity to see it first hand.  Having arrived in Kathmandu to a scene of relatively minimal damage (save for the wall down here or there and the many cracked and slightly damaged structures), seeing the devastation in the mountain areas really leaves one rendered speechless.

We were dropped into a remote village after a 20 min. flight, basically landing on the plateaued farming area of village.  After trekking up the 60-70 yards into the village it was somewhat surprising to see small shack like structures.  Through our interpreter we quickly found out that the shacks were being built from materials rescued from the rubble to provide the most basic of shelter.

We met with the village elder and after a conversation with him and some other villagers tried to assess the needs.  One of the needs was communication.  The village had power previous to the quake and miraculously also had cell reception!  The locals said that services was still available, but they had no way of charging phones.  Luckily, we came with a solar charger in tow and left it behind for the village community to be able to connect beyond the mountain setting.

The chopper arrived back to us about 45 minutes after we had arrived carrying a full load of rice on board.  We dropped half the rice along with water purification tablets at our location and took the rest to the location our second team had been dropped to.  It doesn't seem like much, but for those with nothing it seemed to make all the difference just knowing that folks did care and indeed had not forgotten them.

Sunday was a much different experience as we visited two Army managed camps in Benepa, the historic and ancient part of the Province. The two camps are separated only by a hillside, with one up top and the other down below.  The camps are surround by old shrines and Chinese influenced architecture, dating back hundreds of years.

It was sad to see such old buildings destroyed and the loss of such history.  It was even sadder to see people forced from their home living in the tent cities we call camps.  Some had chosen to stay in their homes or business and you looked on with awe as people had shops open in buildings barely still standing where it seemed as though the lightest breeze would force it crashing down.

These experiences really remind me why it is I am here working halfway around the world.  It is easy to get caught up in the details, and often the insignificant aspects of everyday life, or even disaster relief work... But it's in seeing the struggles of people to survive and more so, the resilience of people to keep going, that reminds us all that we are here for a purpose.  We may not know or understand why at times, but God puts us in places and situations for a reason and its in his trust that we can go forward.

Bobby Myers

EDS Director
Pendel Division

Nepal Photo's: 5/16-17

Flying out over Kathmandu, many destroyed and heavily damaged homes on outskirts of city.
A village home with major damage.
Checking out the new toy (solar charger)
What is left of the former village
The village elder and the children (some of whom lost parents in the quake.
A little close to the edge for comfort....but a great pilot we had!
Locals unloading relief supplies for village.
Photo of the Mountain regions where we visited the villages via helicopter.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Nepal Deployment - Arrival


It has been a hectic couple of days between getting departing from the states in the midst of a major operation locally and landing on the ground in Nepal for earthquake relief. 

In preparation for any deployment there is a lot to do to get prepared.  It is even more critical when you are deploying for nearly two months!  That preparation process becomes even more difficult when you have a major train derailment that happens on the eve of your departure.

My departure for Nepal took place on Wednesday evening May 13th.  As many of you have heard, seen or read about, an Amtrak train derailed in Philly on May 12th around 9:30 PM.  I was busy packing at the time, but significant events always take precedence (at least when you are in the disaster business. Our team arrived on scene about 10:00 PM and we served around the clock until late in the afternoon on Wednesday. 

After leaving the scene at 2:00 AM, I went back home for a few hours rest before getting up and making the last of my preparations, while still coordinating some of the derailment response and necessary info sharing. I was finally off just after 6:00 PM Wednesday. 

The flight was lengthy as I flew from Philly to London, arriving at roughly 6:30 AM London time.  I then traveled into IHQ (our International Headquarters for our non-Army readers) for a briefing session, departing from there mid afternoon.  Once back at Heathrow I took a few minutes to check on the derailment response, the family and some regular business I needed to do (which was obviously pushed thanks to the train wreck). 

After a few hours of working and what I thought might be my last good meal for a little while, I boarded the flight from London to Abu Dhabi about 8:00 PM.  We landed in UAE just after 7:00 AM for a brief layover (only 4 hours this time) before heading into the final leg into Nepal.

I was especially grateful for a very unexpected business class upgrade (thanks to an over booked economy class for which I was originally ticketed!) which allowed me to get some last minute sleep in before hitting the ground. 

We landed in Kathmandu Nepal right about 4:15 PM local time.  The airport was an interesting introduction into Nepal.  It isn't a very large airport and was the complete opposite of the posh Abu Dhabi surroundings from which I came.  It is a simple place with lots of action which one might even call disorganization.

I was able to get through the customs process fairly easily before getting through the chaos that was baggage claim and the the virtually non-existent security and customs (curiously the security never had me go through the metal detectors and customs simply verified that my name was on my bag). 

I was picked up by one of the team members and we then drove back to the Cafe which the Army has here in Kathmandu that is an outreach program for women and trafficking.  The first floor is a cafe style restaurant, the second floor a salon and parlor, and the third a sitting area and outdoor balcony.  We have pretty much taken over the third floor for our operation which serves as office, lounge and residence all wrapped into one.

After a briefing session and a great pasta meal, I was introduced to all of the team members on site and an evening team briefing began.  In the middle of that briefing we experienced a small aftershock (I actually didn't feel it since it was relatively minor) and we rushed out into the courtyard area of the cafe. 

After a few minutes we continued the briefing, discussed plans for my first full day and then called it a night.  Because of the large secondary earthquake just prior to my arrival the team has temporarily changed the sleeping arrangements.  The females are outdoors in tents setup in the courtyard and the males are all sleeping in the cafe on the first floor so that we can exit rapidly if need be.

That was my introduction to the new normal for the next 7 weeks!....which I am anxiously looking forward to a there is much need across this beautifully mountainous country.

Bobby Myers
EDS Director
Pendel Divsion