The semblance of disaster

By Elizabeth Stevens

"I am a mother with four children. In my community there are neighborhoods that are still at risk. We need medicine, food, clothing, and material to help the evacuees. We don't have the resources to survive in this situation. There are more than 300 families, children, pregnant women, and others," said Milagro Orellana to a young woman from an Oxfam partner organization. "Can you help us?"

Only hours before, news of a double disaster had reached Oxfam America's office in San Salvador. A volcanic eruption, followed by an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 had launched an exodus from the capital city. Hundreds of thousands of people were on the move, rushing from collapsed homes to ill-equipped shelters on the outskirts of town. Oxfam staff scrambled to respond, contacting local partner organizations, government offices, and the UN to begin coordinating aid delivery.

It was a scene from a major disaster. Or perhaps not.

Outside Oxfam's San Salvador office, it was a peaceful day. The loudest sound was the whistling of a flock of clarineros in the trees, not the blaring horns of desperate drivers, and there was no sign that the ground beneath the neighboring buildings had slipped and shuddered.

A fictional emergency

In fact, this was a scene from a disaster simulation—an elaborate fabrication designed to ensure that the Oxfam staff are poised to respond quickly and effectively in a major emergency. The staff had gathered in the office that morning knowing a "disaster" was coming their way but with no idea what it would turn out to be, until "news flashes" began revealing an emergency that appeared to threaten both the city and the office itself.

First things first: in the simulation as she would in real life, Regional Director Susan Bird made sure all the Oxfam staff and their families were safe. Then she and her staff launched an all-out effort to get aid to the affected communities.

Yet, for hours—just as in real-life emergencies—there were 20 important questions for every answer available. How many people have been affected? Where are they moving to? Who's been left behind? What are the most urgent needs? What are the government and other NGOs planning to do? What support do our partner organizations need to begin delivering aid? Are the displaced people safe? Who needs our help the most? What's our plan of action?

"It's crazy. The numbers are changing every five minutes. It's difficult to get a grasp of what's really going on," said communications officer Tjarda Muller.

"In real emergencies, we have to be swift and coordinated. Lives depend on it." — Dawit Beyene, Oxfam America's deputy director of humanitarian response

Soon, Vanessa Lanza from Oxfam's Boston office was stretched to the limit in her role as staff member of a partner organization, trying to learn about the most urgent needs on the ground as she pulled together a sketch of how many families her group could assist with what kind of aid, along with a budget to submit to aid agencies she hoped would support her. "This is hard. I have so much to do. It's chaos for a partner to respond to the community and at the same time to coordinate all the sources of funding."

48-hour action plan

In another office, key emergencies staff met with the director to hammer out Oxfam's plan of action.

"We need to look at the risks people are facing," said Susan Bird. The plan would have to consider the potential for looting, aftershocks, crowding, lack of water, disease outbreaks, and violence.

"We're talking about 300,000 displaced people," Enrique Garcia, Oxfam's Regional Humanitarian Coordinator, reminded the group. He described the chaos that can ensue when even relatively small numbers of people gather at emergency shelters like gyms and schools.

The initial action plan began to emerge: the government had announced it would supply aid to the large shelters for displaced people, so Oxfam decided to focus its resources on the under-served groups gathering in informal shelters. But delivering aid after disasters is never simple. Latrines would be crucial for sanitation, but digging pits or trenches would be impossible where people were gathering in paved, urban settings. And the displaced groups would need plenty of clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing, but the staff had learned from past experience that there aren't enough tanker trucks in El Salvador to transport the water that would be needed.

"We'll have to bring trucks in from Guatemala," said Garcia.

Fiction collides with reality

Every now and then laughter rippled through the offices as staff members circulated offbeat messages and photos to ease the tension.

But for some, it was hard to keep in mind that this wasn't a real emergency. At age 52, Oxfam staffer Milagro Orellana (or Niña Mila, as she is respectfully called) has experienced many disasters, and the simulation roused painful memories. She recalled the day in 2001 when a powerful earthquake struck El Salvador.

"It was a Saturday, and I had gone to Santa Tecla to buy supplies. When I returned, I heard this sound like a bomb had exploded. I was still on the bus, which was shaking. I saw walls falling down from houses. People started running all over the place. Since it hadn't been that long since the war ended, I thought maybe someone had bombed a building. I was very afraid for the lives of my children." She trembled as she spoke of it. "When I got home I found my family out in the street, screaming."

Oxfam helped her get back onto her feet after the real earthquake, and on this January day she was pleased to help the office hone its skills for future emergencies.

A good look at what we need to do

At 4:30 in the afternoon, the organizers brought the simulation to a close. The action plan was complete, the partners had been activated, and the Oxfam response was up and running. The first two days of a disaster response had been squeezed into seven hours, but from the look of the tired faces, some of the staff might as well have lived through 48 hours of a real-time emergency.

Next on their agenda: the crucial final day of the exercise, where the office would map out a plan to improve its disaster readiness.

"It really put us in the mindset of a major emergency and allowed us to have a good look at what we're doing right, and what things we need to do better," said Susan Bird. "In this case, when the stress got too intense, we could remember that it was just an exercise. In a real emergency, we know there are people out there who need our help, and we need to be as prepared as possible to deliver it quickly and effectively."

Niña Mila looked relieved at the end of the day. "I feel good. It was a big experience for me. It made me feel like how I would actually act in a real emergency. I had no idea I could do this. So thank you."

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