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.