I was somewhere outside of Dhaka with just a driver, a copy of the Lonely Planet and one word of Bengali when I fully realised the enormity of the task that lay head of me. I put my trepidation to one side as my car rolled up the gangplank and on to the first of many ferry crossings I was to encounter in the coming month. I’d only landed in the country a few hours earlier and now I was on my way to the port town of Chittagong in the south east of Bangladesh. This was the first time I’d arrived in the immediate aftermath of a big disaster and I had a job to do.
The ‘to do’ list was both simple and daunting; find a warehouse, find trucks, move blankets and jerry cans to where they were needed. In a country that’s about the size of England and Wales with a vast river network that’s no mean feat. As a four person Logistics Emergency Response Unit team we took the ‘divide and
conquer’ approach, hence the fact that I was now eight hours and about 250km away from the rest of the guys. Being a port town you can pretty much get any kind of food, at this stage I had no appreciation of this, otherwise I would have savoured my dinner more and possibly ordered seconds!
Having indulged in a lot of customary tea drinking, I found out that the port was still functioning and had by now realised that this wasn’t the optimum site for our warehouse. So I hopped back in the car and set about the return journey to Dhaka. In the time I’d been away the rest of the crew had set up an office in our guesthouse and it was awash with maps, whiteboards, wireless internet and a couple of translators. We were ready to roll!
The next task was to set about recruiting some more drivers and cars. With a comprehensive checklist in hand we pulled out into the Dhaka rush hour (which pretty much runs 24/7) and ground to a halt. About 20 minutes and 10 metres later, I got the driver to turn around and head back to base. With a solitary tick
in the ‘satisfactory use of gears’ box the driver was hired and I set about packing for the next trip.
We were literally heading into the unknown as we planned to move south towards the disaster area itself. As well as the damage to bridges, road and ferries hindering access, there was an increased number of people including friends and family keen to check on loved ones and aid agencies moving in to help, who all
wanted to use the now limited infrastructure. Our assessment teams were making steady but slow progress but the logistics team needed to understand what the road conditions were like, how long it takes to get to places, what kind of vehicles we would need to hire. To sum up, we needed to get out there and literally see the lay of the land.
I was set the task of checking out the areas of Barguna and Patuakhali, places that didn’t even appear in my by now well-thumbed guidebook I hasten to add. It takes 4 ferries and about 12 hours (on a good day) to get to Barguna. We left at first light to give us the best chance of getting there. Arriving the countryside I
could see corrugated iron houses that lay completely flattened in the fields around me or afloat in the numerous rivers and streams.
Walking along the water damaged roads and stepping over half torn books, mangled pots and pieces of fabric I realised that this was the battered remnants of families lives. At times it was difficult to even see where houses had once stood, just plots of smooth earth remained. The floodwaters brought in by the cyclone rose to around 25 feet at the peak of the storm. Only those strong enough to cling to trees for hours, with the cuts and bruises from the flying debris, had managed to survive. And yet there was a stoic presence amongst the community as they set about building temporary shelters and made plans to replant the rice fields for the fourth time that year. I expected to feel a range of emotions on this visit; perhaps surprisingly hopelessness was not one of them.
In the end we set up our warehouse in Barisal. A place with only three restaurant and where 2 ½ of ’em serve only Chinese food. It’s both unfortunate and not a little ironic if, like me, you can’t stand the stuff! There were moments of panic of course. The most memorable being the realisation that 20 trucks full of blankets, jerry cans and tarpaulins would be arriving in less than 48hrs and we still had no warehouse to speak of. But suddenly things came together and we had staff, trucks, stock and two warehouses resplendent with a hand painted sign. Happiness personified! It was amazing to step back and think that we had set this all up from scratch. I had a warm fuzzy feeling inside and a beam on my face!
I spent the rest of my month shuttling between the airport in Dhaka, the sea port in Chittagong and the warehouse in Barisal ensuring the smooth reception of the much needed aid items from various red crosses and crescents around the world. The passage between these places was greatly improved (and deeply appreciated) once I discovered the availability of internal flights.
We worked very closely with the Bangladeshi Red Crescent (BDRCS) who were responsible for delivering the live saving items directly to the people who needed them. The BDRCS staff and volunteers worked tirelessly in the hours after the cyclone to deliver out the emergency items they had held in their stores in preparation of such an event. Only the size and scale meant that they needed some additional support and together we distributed essential items including food to more than 100,000 families.
It’s actually been nearly a year and half since my trip but I was reminded of it the other day when I heard that our programme to build houses for families affected by the cyclone has just been completed. The construction team members are all returning so I’ll get to hear all about it in the debriefing meetings.
Cyclone Sidr was the largest cyclone to hit Bangladesh in over 10 years. In 1991 a cyclone of the same size and scale killed around 138,000 people. In November 2007 cyclone Sidr killed around 4,200 people. This is obviously still a very high number. The loss of one individual is a tragedy to their friends and family. The thing that made the difference this time was the effort that was put into being prepared before the disaster struck. To me it was compelling evidence that our work before hand makes a real difference in saving people’s lives.
I can still only speak one word of Bengali, it’s pikhana and it means toilet. A key phrase that came in handy on so many occasions during my trip. Even if it did result in a precarious ferry-to-ferry manoeuvre mid-river, because the ferry crew insisted that I used the more salubrious toilet on the ferry tethered to ours! I never know where I might travel in the world so if you have any useful words or phrases I’d be wise to commit to memory I’d be keen to hear from you.