First Person Account Of WFP Operations In Samoa Immediately Following September's Devastating Tsunami

On the evening of October 5th, WFP Logistics Officer David Allen stepped off a plane on the island of Samoa exactly one week after a powerful tsunami devastated parts of the island nation. The following is his account of the humanitarian logistics response that took place in the days and weeks following the disaster.

One thing that strikes me about David's account is his mention of Filomena Nelson and how it was best to just get "out of her way". Good logistics officers are adept at entering into a chaotic situation, appreciating what has been achieved by local teams and then figuring out how to best complement the system they have in place. By doing so you are often guaranteed a better result than if you were to just rush right and start trying to build your own system. Such sound judgment is often the result of years of experience blending with natural talent.

We often champion the abilities of our logistics officers and their remarkable accomplishments but, in this case, what may deserve the most recognition is the seasoned judgment and well honed awareness that David brought with him when he stepped off that airplane. I think it is pretty clear that those skills are the reason David was chosen for the mission and why he was able to achieve in three weeks what could have taken others much longer. Please take a minute to read through David's account and I am sure you'll see what I am talking about.

"Sitting here in the WFP Country Office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with the sights and sounds of the staff going about their regular activities, and feeling the pleasant warmth of being in familiar surroundings. Yet I am strangely disquieted as I try to get my head around the events of the last four weeks, still recovering from jet-lag, the changes in time zones and too many flight connections. It’s been a whirlwind time which began, as is so often the case, with a phone call.

At 06:48 local time on Tuesday 29 September, 2009, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.3 occurred approximately 200 kilometres south of the island of Samoa, triggering a tsunami that hit the islands of Samoa, American Samoa, and the small island of Niauatoputapu in Tonga, resulting in fatalities, casualties and extensive damage to infrastructure in the affected island nations. The aforementioned phone call came to Colombo from the WFP Asia Regional Logistics Advisor, Paul Wyatt, on the evening of 30th September. Could I be released from my Logistics Cluster coordination activities in Sri Lanka to help out in Samoa?

Royal New Zealand Navy offloading supplies Copyright: WFP/David Allen

 After numerous phone calls and emails between the office and WFP HQ in Rome, it was agreed that I could be released for a three-week support mission in Samoa, so I threw some things in a bag and flew to Bangkok for briefings with Paul Wyatt before flying out on Monday 5th at 23:50 en route for Sydney, changing planes for Fiji, then changing again for the 90 minute flight from Fiji to Samoa, and the capital of Apia, arriving at 22:50 on Monday night. No, that’s not a misprint or an attempt at time travel – I crossed the International Date Line between Fiji and Samoa, and went from being 12 hours ahead of GMT (or UTC as it’s also called) in Fiji to 11 hours behind in Samoa. Believe me, I struggled throughout my time in Samoa to remember that, for the part of the world that I was in contact with on a regular basis, they were always one day ahead of me, and that on that 90 minute flight back to Fiji, I would lose a whole day.

Having arrived at Apia airport, I waited in vain for my bag to appear – apparently lost in transit – so I filled out the necessary forms and eventually got to the hotel at 2 in the morning, where I had a fitful, jet-lagged rest for a few hours before going into the UN office and the Disaster Response room that had been set up. A flurry of introductions and meetings later, I went to the Samoa Government Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) set up at a Fire Station on the edge of town, and began to absorb the scale and complexity of the logistics operation set up by the Government’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) to respond to the disaster. Understandably it was a maelstrom of activity, with food and other relief supplies being loaded onto small vehicles almost as fast as they arrived at the station, and the NDMO Principal Officer, a lovely lady by the name of Filomena Nelson, looking like she needed to transform into an octopus to handle all of the phones, paperwork and demands for her attention. I quickly introduced myself and the reason why I was there, and just as quickly got out of her way to begin looking at how best I could support the fantastic efforts that had already been made. Could see that there were a few gaps in the logistics system that had been hastily implemented, and set about contacting all of the logistics people from the various organizations, both humanitarian and Government (Australia and New Zealand primarily), that were providing relief assistance, to get together the next day and try and coordinate our efforts in support of NDMO.

Clearing the roadway Copyright WFP/David Allen

This effort was helped no end by the presence of two New Zealanders from DHL’s Disaster Response Team who had arrived in-country a little before me and, from our initial talk and a following discussion that morning with the Prime Minister of Samoa, had got the green light for us to facilitate a logistics coordination forum run by NDMO. Obtaining this directive from the Prime Minister was the key-stone to getting the forum up and running so quickly, and made everything that followed so much more achievable. The fact that one of the DHL guys was effectively a local, having married a Samoan and also becoming a high-chief of one of the villages obviously helped immensely.

So the following days blurred into each other as I set up and facilitated the logistics coordination forum of the tsunami response, linked the humanitarian response to the various National Government Departments (Customs, Port Authorities, Commerce Ministry as well as the NDMO) that would be key to ensuring an effective and transparent supply line for the response efforts, and generally tried to relieve Filomena and the NDMO of some of the burdens of an emergency logistics operation, since this was the first real test of their National Disaster Management Plan.

One very important factor in the disaster response was the large expatriate community of Samoans in New Zealand and Australia – and therefore the enormous outpouring of support in the form of relief assistance from individuals, church groups and private enterprise that was destined to arrive in the Port of Apia in the days and weeks following the tsunami. The NDMO EOC would have quickly ground to a halt had the estimated 90+ containers been sent straight to the Fire Station, so I engaged with the local shipping agents to get their views, and they offered to store the containers temporarily at their warehouses and release them more gradually into NDMO’s care, ensuring that the EOC would not only remain functional in its role as a logistics hub, but could also manage a two-track system for the “solicited” and “unsolicited” relief assistance.

Displaced persons Copyright: WFP/David Allen

I managed to steal an opportunity to assess the tsunami-affected areas of the island after 10 days on the island, and it was harrowing to see the destruction wrought on homes, communities, lives and livelihoods by the tsunami. More than the pain though was the outright admiration for the efforts that had already been made in cleaning up the damage, restoring power lines and repairing roads ravaged by the waves – a truly impressive achievement only two weeks after the event. Aside from this one field visit, I remained in the capital, and there were many long days that were physically and mentally draining – but in a way it’s incredibly easy to find reserves of energy to keep going when you see how much dedication and effort has already been given by the people of Samoa themselves. Events like these genuinely do bring out the best of human nature and community spirit.

One of the numerous memories I have of my time in Samoa is that it is probably one of the most dedicated Christian communities I’ve ever been to, and Sundays are absolutely sacrosanct to the island people. Even the first Sunday after the tsunami (the day before I arrived), the international humanitarian community was told that it would be pointless to arrange delivery of relief assistance, because everybody would be at church, and so it proved for the few aid workers that went to the affected areas – nobody on the roads or in the evacuation zones, and certainly nobody to off-load or receive assistance. The aura of an oasis of tranquility amid the chaos was never more apparent than on the Sundays that I spent there.

I did eventually get my bags back, though it took almost a week to locate and forward them, so it felt as if, no sooner had I unpacked and accessed all those little essentials of life like clothes and toiletries, than I was re-packing them again in preparation for the return journey. The initial emergency response was beginning to make way for the recovery/reconstruction phases and, having established the coordination mechanisms and logistics framework in support of the NDMO overall management, it would be possible for their staff to maintain and build on the momentum of the Logistics Cluster intervention.

In some locations the floor is all that remains Copyright: WFP/David Allen

And so it was that I made that tortuous many-legged return journey from Samoa back to Sri Lanka to find myself back in the WFP Colombo office today - and probably not a moment too soon as a resettlement programme begins to take place, whilst the imminently expected monsoon rains threaten to turn the makeshift city housing more than 200,000 people in temporary shelters into a muddy lake that will prove a real challenge to supply the basic necessities for their existence. So there’s plenty to be done here for the coordination of the logistics efforts ahead, but without a doubt a small part of me has been left behind in Samoa with the islanders and their magnificent response to the adversities of a natural disaster. The Government, and the People, of Samoa can be justifiably proud of their achievements in responding to this tragedy with such aplomb."

Special thanks to David Allen for his contribution!