Boots on the ground in Haiti: Meet our disaster response expert

After the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, World Vision's Jeff Wright, operations director for humanitarian and emergency affairs, was among our first responders.

Why World Vision? In today's Q&A, Jeff describes what it's like to deploy to a disaster zone and how World Vision's disaster response makes a difference -- both then and now.

*     *     *

1. Let’s go back to January 2010, when the earthquake struck Haiti. As the humanitarian and emergency affairs operations director, what’s the first thing you do when you receive the call about this disaster?

I’m always multi-tasking when a disaster hits, but first, I clarify within my team about who will do what. We’re all go-getters, so it’s important for us to set up roles and responsibilities. I’ll also make sure that our media relations and fundraising teams are aware of the disaster.

It’s also important to determine how large our response will be. Sometimes, the World Vision national office can manage a smaller disaster. Other times, especially with the more catastrophic disasters like Haiti, our response will be quite large.

2. When you find out that you will be responding personally and flying out to the disaster zone, what’s the first thing you do?

First, I clarify my role with the field team. My background in disaster response prepares me to play several roles. One priority for us is to gather information: In any disaster, there will be pockets of greater and lesser need. We’ll work to figure out the nature of that need. In Haiti, water, sanitation, food, and shelter were all urgently critical. Another priority is for us to start getting out the supplies we already have pre-positioned.

3. Can you talk a little more about that? What are some of the ways by which World Vision prepares itself in advance for disasters?

Working in almost 100 countries, World Vision has staff and resources positioned all over the world. We also have warehouses that stock supplies -- food, building materials, etc. -- so when a disaster hits, our teams are ready to pack up a truck or plane and get those supplies moving.

World Vision also maintains a reserve fund for disaster response. Many organizations arrive, make an assessment, and then raise funds, which can take weeks. But when World Vision’s response team arrives on site, that money is available to get us started immediately, until further funding can be raised.

4. What’s it like to get on a plane here in Seattle, then step off into a disaster zone, like Haiti?

Pegiville Burtesou camp for Haiti earthquake survivors, with earthquake-damaged homes in the background. (Photo: Jon Warren/World Vision)

Wow, it’s…just in general, it seems that my life is spent between different worlds. I’m always bouncing between them. Seattle is the tech capital of the world; stepping off a plane onto the cracked tarmac of Port-au-Prince is a shock to the system. I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve gotten to feeling that it’s normal; hopefully I’m not too calloused.

I find that it’s easier going into the disaster than it is coming back, but some people find the opposite true. Once I get there, I always find that the things we worry about here on a daily basis don’t matter so much. It’s strange to come back after that.

5. Once you’re on-site, after you’ve gathered information, what happens next?

I can play two different roles. The first is a programs role, which focuses on the details of shelter, water and sanitation, food, and child protection. Those were the focus in Haiti: how many camps we work in; how many beneficiaries we serve; how many latrines and shelters to build, including where, what kind, and whether they're working correctly.

In my second deployment to Haiti, I took an operations role, which is more mobilization and day-to-day logistics. I supervise several functional things: tech teams, grants, resources, budgets. I also have to be aware of donor expectations. For example, if we say we’ll do 1,000 of something, did we do it? And I reorder supplies for our warehouses.

6. What’s one thing you’d say World Vision did really well in Haiti?

We got in fast. Our prepositioned supplies got there fast. Lives were saved. By the time I arrived, a World Vision team was already up and running. We took a massive amount of food from the World Food Program and around the clock got it on trucks and got the community prepped.

A World Vision team at the Port-au-Prince airport carries relief supplies to be loaded into a trailer. (Photo: Josué Rondini/World Vision)

7. And what might be an example of a challenge?

Our response in Haiti certainly had its challenges. Water, sanitation, and hygiene programs were tough. Shelter and child protection were, too; disaster zones are dangerous.

The response to the Haiti quake was complex. There were significant land issues, some of which still aren’t resolved. Most of the homes that were lost were either undocumented or built without land rights, so rebuilding on-site became complicated. World Vision prefers to build shelters on a structure’s original site, but that wasn’t an option. It’s also been a massive effort to move away rubble. It’s still being cleaned up today.

8. What does reconstruction in Haiti look like, and what’s World Vision’s role in that process?

It often takes longer than you might think for a disaster zone to return to "normal." If you look back at some recent major disasters -- the 2004 Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina -- you can see that years afterward there’s still obvious evidence of the disaster. The recovery continues long after. Haiti is exactly in this place now. Reconstruction continues, and probably will for a few years more.

World Vision is still there, working on different aspects of economic development and job creation -- helping to strengthen the base on which people can rebuild their livelihoods and better lives for their children.

9. How does our Christian faith motivate our work in disaster response?

To me, it's extremely basic: Christ's earthly ministry -- at least in terms of the day-to-day activity -- was about helping those in need, meeting the physical needs of the sick or poor. If we take seriously the directive to follow Christ's example, then humanitarian work, including disaster response, is a natural and obvious outcome. In many ways, to do humanitarian work is to very directly follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

In the wake of a crisis, children suffer most. World Vision is often one of the first organizations to begin relief work after a disaster, and we remain on the ground for the long haul, rebuilding communities and restoring hope.

Consider making a one-time donation to our Disaster Response Fund. Your gift will help us rush emergency supplies like life-saving food, clean water, medical supplies, and shelter to survivors of sudden-onset emergencies, like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Leave a Comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.