Friday, November 15, 2013

Local Volunteer on International Assignment

Cristina Hammond, a 20-year volunteer from the Upper Valley, is currently on a 5 week Red Cross deployment in Vietnam.  This is her 9th overseas deployment to 7 different countries.  Cristina is in Vietnam to assist relief and recovery activities in the wake two other recent typhoons.  After striking the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan was steaming toward Vietnam.  Cristina set her assignment aside and headed into the region of Vietnam expected to be most affected, preparing to assist in an anticipated recovery process. Here is Cristina’s journal entry as the typhoon approach, as well as a brief postscript.  It exemplifies the dedication and compassion shown by our volunteer corps.

November 8, 2013  -- The Night Train to Hue
As I boarded the train last night to Hue, an old slogan flashed through my mind:  Do something every day that scares you.  Well, I did.  I am one who is so terrified of things like roller coasters, that I can’t even watch others (especially my own children) stand in line for them.  And I always duck out of line before getting to the front.  Yet, when a disaster strikes, I am the first on the ride to go help assist.  In this case, it was a night train from Ha Tinh, Vietnam to Hue, Vietnam.  Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel fear.  I just didn’t step out of line.
As word came in of the approaching Typhoon, my Vietnamese co-worker Linh and I spoke to our boss in Hanoi.  With the typhoon approaching, planned activities for our cash grant program had been cancelled so Michael gave us options:  1) return to Hanoi until we can restart our activities, or 2) move south into the path of the storm and help the Viet Nam Red Cross (VNRC) in these Provinces prepare and respond. One thing disaster response teaches you is to be flexible.  Another is to put humanity first.  Of course, always we are to put our own safety as a priority, but after that, do I want to be safe outside the affected area if I believe I can not only be safe but also be useful within?
Arriving in Hue, Linh and I soon saw the first visible signs of storm preparation:  A few young men climbing a tree to cut it down so that it won’t be blown over.  Throughout the day, we see many more trees being trimmed and people taking down street ornaments, removing loose sheet metal, and closing up shops.  For our afternoon, I did my laundry in the tub and checked my supplies while watching CNN report on the destruction just starting to be assessed in the Philippines.  The hotel staff came in to tape the windows.
Later in the afternoon, we had a meeting with the Vice Chair of the Provincial Chapter of the Viet Nam Red Cross (VNRC).  He explained the evacuations and other preparedness activities underway.  Over 100,000 evacuated in this province with a total of 600,000 in evacuation centers along the Central coast. We had an excellent conversation about the good work being done and a review of past typhoons and floods.  Lessons have been learned; new procedures to release water and who and when to evacuate are in place.  It feels a little surreal to be at the hotel now and waiting for the storm.  But that is part of preparedness.  Expect (and prepare for) the worst, hope for the best, and flexibly deal with whatever the day’s reality throws at you.
So here I am.  Not in line – nor on the train – just in the path of the eye of the hurricane.
Thankfully, Haiyan veered sharply north and skittered along up the coast of the Central Provinces.  The intensity reduced to a weaker category 1 tropical typhoon as landfall occurred in the Northeast.  As the path changed, the alerts went out and another 200,000 people evacuated in the northeastern province coastal areas.  The total of over 800,000 evacuees was the greatest Viet Nam had ever done before.  We experienced heavy rains and seas with high winds but, luckily, not the kind of devastation many feared. It was still a significant storm event with 10 dead and more than 50 injured along with millions of dollars of damage to homes, agriculture and aquaculture.
With that storm past, the 5th in the last 7 weeks, I went back to the work I came here to do:  assist the IFRC and VNRC with relief and recovery activities associated with Typhoons Wutip and Nari.  These typhoons caused significant damages (over $700 million US in economic loss) to many coastal communities in 9 Central Provinces (nine provinces of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien-Hue, Da Nang, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai) destroying homes and wiping out livelihoods.  The American Red Cross deployed me here as a technical advisor to support the distribution of household items and cash grants to assist some of the most vulnerable (elderly, disabled, single-headed households, etc.) who had been severely affected by the typhoons and did not have sufficient resources or coping capacity to recover on their own.