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Master of disaster

Chris Weeks, Director for Humanitarian Affairs, DPDHL Group, describes working on the front lines on Disaster Response Teams around the world, and how the “pretty resilient” human spirit helps us pull through.

PULLING TOGETHER: Chris’s team get relief goods into disasteraffected countries.

It’s nearly 20 years since I started working in the humanitarian field and, during that time, I have found myself in some challenging situations all over the world. My job is to help get relief goods into disaster-affected countries following natural events such as earthquakes and cyclones. I can call on some of the 750 DHL employee volunteers who are all trained and equipped to help to “decongest” airports. This means helping to prevent the bottlenecks that can happen due to the surge in cargo and relief workers all trying to get into the same airport. The operation usually lasts for two to three weeks, and up to 30 volunteers will usually be involved in receiving, organizing and reloading relief cargo for NGOs and U.N. agencies.

There are three teams now, based in countries around Dubai, Panama and Singapore, with volunteers coming from every business unit. These teams are headed up by three outstanding leaders – Gilberto Castro, Paul Dowling and Carl Schelfhaut – who apply the DRT (Disaster Response Team) model in their region. While the help we give is mostly airport related, and experienced airside staff are crucial, we also need general logistics, warehouse and support staff. So a good mix of experts from all DHL divisions, plus advocacy from our global headquarters where we have Kathrin Mohr, who has decades of experience in project management at this level, is ideal for this operation.

The first time we were deployed as a Disaster Response Team was to Sri Lanka following the tsunami in 2004. We had been working on the plan for a year – and didn’t have to wait long to test the model. Thirty-five volunteers from Dubai worked at Colombo International Airport for three weeks, unloading, storing and reloading 6,000 tons of donated goods from 135 unscheduled cargo flights. While we had issues and it didn’t all go smoothly, we worked with the airlines, army, airport authorities, U.N., NGOs and ministries to keep the airport open so the aid could flow. The model worked, and the DRT was born.

Since the tsunami, the DRT has been deployed 40 times to over 20 countries, from Chile to Indonesia to Mozambique, following earthquakes, floods and cyclones. I remember arriving at Islamabad with Paul Dowling (longstanding Middle East DRT Manager) one wet, windy Saturday morning to find the airport awash with water, food, clothes and other aid items. We were despairing at the amount of work to do, but one of the local volunteers recruited a gang of 25 laborers from his village and set them to work clearing up and creating order from chaos. The airport was literally strewn with abandoned pallets of aid. Within two or three days we had the situation under control and managed to turn it into an efficient air hub. It taught me a lesson that I teach to the others: If you get in fast and know what to do, the deployment will be much easier than arriving late and having to “catch up.”

During my time in the humanitarian response business, I have seen disaster and tragedy close up and more frequently than many others. While natural events will continue to occur, poorly led and equipped responses are not necessary in this day and age. By learning from past events and training teams on what to expect and how to respond, we can reduce the negative impact and help people recover more quickly. Sometimes you feel despair when you see the tragic consequences of disasters on already poor communities with fragile government structures, but you can only do so much. I remember hitching a ride back from Kashmir in a German army helicopter and having a 10-year-old girl thrust into my arms to look after during the flight. She had lost her parents in the earthquake and was going to a new life in Islamabad. Her hair smelled of wood smoke, she wasn’t very clean, she had a number painted on her forehead for identification, and she was clearly terrified at the noise, strangers and shaking on the 40-minute flight. Upon arrival, I handed her over to the authorities: a new life in the city and institutions until old enough to survive on her own.

One thing I’ve learnt on this journey is that there are three stages of a disaster. First off, you’re thrust into this new universe, where everything looks broken, desperate and chaotic. Your senses are dealing with so much new information, so many new situations, people and dynamics. However, after some time, usually four to five days, a “new normal” starts to emerge, which I call stage two. You operate within this new setup for a couple of weeks, but it’s no longer brand new and becomes tolerable, and life gradually improves. Then one day stage three starts. This is when you suddenly feel you are on the down slope out of the disaster. Something positive will happen that is the trigger for a return to normality. I usually measure the news headlines. When the media is moving on to other issues, you can probably begin to think about “normal life” again. It’s certainly panning out like this in the COVID-19 crisis.

Luckily, the human spirit is pretty resilient, and most people get through the disaster if they haven’t been physically struck by it. Endurance athletes will tell you that mental strength and preparation are the keys to success – and, in disaster scenarios, survival. While adversity is a contest to some people, who pride themselves in coping and making the most of a situation, for most it’s something we just have to get through. Taking it a day at a time and not thinking too far ahead works for me. I was also told to focus on the things you can change, not the immovable objects, which also helps. And usually, in the end, if you put your mind to it and find like-minded souls to help you, success/survival is achievable.

People often ask me why I chose this field of work, and I think there are three main reasons. First, out of interest. I studied development economics and am fascinated by how countries can pull themselves out of poverty by good governance and by following certain economic models or doctrines. Unfortunately, corruption often gets in the way and disasters can seriously limit growth. Second, out of professional pride. I want to apply first-world, private sector logistics expertise to a chaotic situation and quickly improve the outcome. Humanitarians do a great job but tend to operate in a silo, so our non-interventionist role at the airport can really help them. Lastly, I love helping people. That’s why I joined this small but growing courier service back in 1980 in London.

As with all successful ventures, it comes down to the people at the top giving us the funding, support and authority to get on with the job. I’m forever grateful to the CEOs over the years for having the trust in us to carry the DPDHL brand into the humanitarian world, to help people afflicted by natural disasters. — Chris Weeks

Published: June 2020

Images: DHL