Working in disaster response you tend to keep an eye on the weather, in particular the extreme kinds – tornados, typhoons, hurricanes – that might mean you’re picking up sticks and moving to the other side of the world again. In the last few months pretty much everything I’ve seen has been about drought or flooding. Working with predominantly unskilled volunteers with little experience on the ground and focusing on the often-overlooked necessity of manually clearing individual homes, a drought response is not something All Hands is traditionally going to undertake. The areas currently affected, in the Horn of Africa, are too unstable for lightly-travelled responders, and the need is for distributions of food and other items – a highly complicated and emotionally difficult task.
Responding to a flood is not straightforward either. Firstly you have to wait for the water to go down. There is not much you can do to help people demolish, repair and rebuild their homes if the area is still waist-deep in water. Once the water is gone however, All Hands can really come into its own. Time and again, volunteers have shoveled and scooped and wheelbarrowed huge amounts of mud from houses, drainage systems and businesses, helping the local community to return to some semblance of normality.
From the mudslides in Gonaives in 2008 – where the mud was so all-pervasive that a new vocabulary was created to accurately describe the different consistencies of mud and ensure the correct tools were taken to deal with it – to the crawlspaces of homes in Japan where volunteers spent hours in the dark scraping out mud and debris swept in by the tsunami wave to prevent the health issues that would arise from mold and rotting vegetable matter, volunteers have returned to base after work smeared head to foot in filth and grinning ear-to-ear.
There is pride in doing what others will not do, but that needs to be done; in helping one family to finish in a day what might have taken weeks; in working so hard it hurts, with mud in your eyes and weeping blisters patched with duct tape, because what you’re doing needs to have been done yesterday. And it’s a good job so many amazingly willing, fantastically hardworking people are drawn to help others who’ve been affected by disaster because in the last two months there has been flooding in the US, Taiwan, Cambodia, India, Mexico, Russia, the Philippines, Uganda, Lao, China, Guatemala, Kenya, Vietnam and Thailand. Lace up your boots; there’s work to be done.
People often ask those of us who spend most of our time on project how we do it without getting depressed. From the outside the world of disaster response seems to consist only of suffering and loss. Obviously, disaster-affected communities have a hard time, that’s why we come in to help – but it is not the whole story. While we might live in some of the worst situations local people have experienced, somehow it brings out the best in people. It is heartwarming to see a community come together. Here in the Catskills we are fed every day, along with any and all other volunteers and local people who were affected by the flooding. People are donating food, giving their time in the kitchen and even serving the food to the hundreds who come each evening. One church estimates that it is feeding three hundred, down a hundred on last week.
A house in the village where our base is has been given over, rent-free, to a family whose house is uninhabitable. It is a second home and the woman who owns it contacted a friend in the village and authorized him to allow anyone who needed a place to stay to move right in.
This is a difficult disaster to grasp the true scale of. Many homes appear unaffected save for the tide marks left by receding waters. Inside is destroyed but from the street often the only thing out of place are the debris piles, growing as people haul whatever was damaged out for collection. Thankfully, due to the location, which while rural is just a few hours from some large population centers, we have had a great volunteer response and are not now accepting new applications unless we decide to extend the current timeline.
Not only do volunteers get to come and help these communities get back on their feet but they are coming to a beautiful part of the world in one of its most glorious seasons. The leaves are turning from green to red in front of my eyes, every day the landscape has changed a little more. There are autumn flowers everywhere and the farm shop I sit in every day in order to access the internet is bursting with bright, delicious-looking produce. I changed the header of the site from the grey, sucking mud of a flooded street to the yellow flowers on sale in front of the farm. Don’t think there isn’t work to be done or that these communities weren’t hit hard, but it would be a waste of their stunning scenery not to give you a couple of shots of what this area is famous for, and what the affected towns and villages will look like again after the hard work of recovery is done.
End of my first day on Project Catskills and I’m sitting in the back of a pick up truck in a car park 15 minutes from home with Bill and Jeremey, trying to access the internet. I’m tapping away on my laptop and alternating with an i-pad, catching the 3G when the mifi gives up for a while. There isn’t even any mobile phone signal in the place where we’re living. Its a communications black hole.
Back in Indonesia a man shimmied 60 feet up a palm tree to install a satellite dish and provide internet for the base, assuming it wasn’t raining. Or cloudy. Which it invariably was. In Haiti the connection was decent as long as not everyone was on it and the password had been recently changed so that all and sundry weren’t hogging it from across the street. Which invariably they were. In Japan the lightening fast fiber optic cable connections had been lost, along with so much else, during the tsunami, and the connection was reasonable if you were the only one on it. Which you never were, thanks to myriad i-phones in bags and laptops left open in other rooms.
Here the connection is terrible but it means a pleasant trip to the greengrocers/coffee shop every day to schedule volunteers over a delicious pastry and a cup of earl gray. What’s next? Carbon copy paper? Semaphore? Morse Code? Answers on a postcard. It’s the only way you’ll reach me after all!
My two week holiday in the US is turning into a rather more permanent presence! A week of rest in Missouri, two months of flood response in North Dakota and on Monday I’m heading to upstate New York to help with All Hands’ newly-launched hurricane relief effort in the Catskills. Having traveled stateside to stay with Neil’s parents, and therefore armed with only my meager supply of presentable clothing, I found myself on project and almost in Canada without a single pair of trousers or a closed toe shoe. Thankfully the weather has been glorious and the donated Birkenstocks (thanks Sandy!) have been just fine. Until this week. The temperature has dropped from up around 30C (high 80s F) to chilly single figures (40s) in only a couple of days.
I had been holding off on buying substantial footwear as who knows where I’ll end up in a couple of weeks, but now my toes are blue and I’m told that New York is even worse. Excuse me while I head out – yes, in sandals – to scour the local charity shops for a bobble hat and a pair of ski boots.
Unfortunately the sniffles is doing the rounds of the volunteers here in Minot, probably because the temperature seems to be dropping by ten degrees a day. Half the base is guzzling vitamin C tablets in the hope of staving it off and the other half is dosing up on DayQuil because they tried the vitamin C and got sick any way. But don’t be fooled into thinking the pace will slow. The All Hands volunteer is well known for sucking up sickness and injury, oftentimes to the point of foolishness, and getting on with the task at hand. Noses will run. Phlegm will be coughed. Houses will be finished. The project must go on.
In the end the grand total on Saturday shrank from 175 to 85 but we still managed to storm through another couple of houses, bringing our total up to 50. And group of 25 local high school kids pushed our total number of volunteers over 600.
And as if that wasn’t enough of a cause for celebration it was mine and Travis’ birthdays – cue tutus, bad karaoke and lots and lots of dancing at the Starlight nightclub in Minot, North Dakota. People cashing in on the regions big businesses – oil and flood repairs – heard about a bunch of kind-hearted volunteers in their midst and busted out their fat wallets; free drinks all round! Jobs were offered, birthday kisses imparted and toasts made. A weekend to remember, topped off with all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet for lunch on Monday and a stinking cold on Tuesday!
Everyone here on project has been gearing up for a mammoth weekend of volunteering, with people pouring in from all over the state. We’ve been scouring Berthold for extra accommodation, schmoozing with pizza companies to be able to feed the masses without breaking the bank and putting together precision plans for transport and site logistics to make sure Saturday goes without a hitch. Needless to say things have been a little anxious in the office as we prepared to run 160 volunteers!
Or 105, as it turns out. The office heaves a collective sigh – part relief that resources won’t be quite as stretched and the day won’t have to be run with such military precision, part disappointment that it’s not going to be as huge a blast through Minot’s flood damaged homes we thought it was. The problem is this: one jolly and motivated person found out about All Hands. “Gee, that looks great,” they thought to themselves. Usually this person would book a ticket and show up at the project willing to get stuck in and start gutting houses. Here, being so out-of-the-way and largely unreported by the media, those people thought, “wait a minute, I should get all my friends to come too. What a great cause! And in my neighbourhood too. I should be able to get a ton of people out to help.”
Not so my friend. Unfortunately the desire to help people you don’t know does not seem to be universal. In some people it pulls them so strongly they quit jobs, leave friends, spend hundreds of dollars on plane tickets and live out of rucksacks on the floor for months. For others it drives hands into pockets, donating money so that people who have the freedom to be able to drop everything can do so, supported with food, accommodation and logistics from organizations like All Hands. Still others merely think to themselves that being stuck by a natural disaster doesn’t look much fun, and then go about their day. Or they don’t think at all.
So, the jolly, motivated soul who called me with promises of a hundred volunteers, calls back in a small voice and apologies for only being able to bring 20. And so it goes in this line of work; all the most wonderful people I know don’t even think of themselves as good people because they always think of the other things they could have done. To all my wonderful friends who give what they have for the sake of giving it, thank you. And to all the people who’ve tried to bring big groups to volunteer and ended up bringing smaller ones, think how much less we’d have done if you’d have brought no one. Thank you too.