Haiyan experience shows value of communications

Red Cross humanitarian worker Glenn Mitchell, of Dunedin, in Ormoc on Leyte Island with one of the Red Cross emergency vehicles used during the disaster response to Typhoon Haiyan. Photo supplied.
Red Cross humanitarian worker Glenn Mitchell, of Dunedin, in Ormoc on Leyte Island with one of the Red Cross emergency vehicles used during the disaster response to Typhoon Haiyan. Photo supplied.

The month he spent in the Philippines setting up new emergency communications links for the Red Cross after Typhoon Haiyan highlighted the value of communications systems and how they made things easier during a major emergency, a Dunedin man says.

Telecommunications were wiped out for at least two days in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, and agencies such as the Red Cross were unable to contact field teams to find out what was happening locally.

Glen Mitchell's role was to oversee the setting up of new systems that would be more secure in the event of future storms in the area.

Mr Mitchell (49), a Dunedin City Council emergency management officer, is part of the Red Cross' emergency IT communications unit, members of which are trained to establish, recover and maintain communications links for the agency in emergency-prone areas.

He spent December based in Cebu City, leading a team of four Red Cross humanitarian workers - another New Zealander and two from the American Red Cross - setting up secure radio stations that would allow people working in affected areas to communicate with their home bases, and regional hubs to communicate with the national office in Manila, in future emergencies.

A first shift from the unit had re-established communication links and the second, Mr Mitchell's, looked at the longer-term security of the links to ensure they were robust enough to deal with the up to 20 serious storms a year the region experienced.

Communications were vital to enable rapid assessment of the impact, rather than having to wait days because cellphone networks were down, Mr Mitchell said.

His team's main work was installing radio-based stations around the area.

He had completed training but this was his first time in an emergency situation.

Although he was mostly based in Cebu City, planning what people did and where, he made several trips to the worst-affected Leyte and Panay Islands.

The experience had been an education in working with such a large number of international agencies, as well as the Philippine people, who were proactive in helping themselves.

By the time he arrived, there was already a real focus on moving towards the recovery stage of the disaster response, but searches were still under way and bodies were being pulled from the rubble.

The damage to the buildings and the vegetation, most noticeably the palm trees stripped of their foliage, was incredible, he said.

A third shift from the emergency IT response unit that replaced his team would probably be the last as the Red Cross sought to appoint an IT communications co-ordinator to work with the Philippines Red Cross for the next six months to finish what the emergency response unit started, he said.

The experience had been rewarding and had highlighted the value of communications systems and processes and how they would help make things easier during a major emergency.

The New Zealand Red Cross Typhoon Haiyan appeal has raised $1.88 million so far.

debbie.porteous@odt.co.nz

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