Tsunami airport

After the December tsunami struck Sri Lanka, a international airlift swung in to action, ferrying thousands of tonnes of aid to Colombo. The airport was unprepared for such a large operation, but it was able to cope due to the work of a Dubai-based airport emergency team.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  March 6, 2005

|~|chris_weeks_m.jpg|~|Chris Weeks|~|When reports of a tsunami causing widespread devastation across Southeast Asia were first received in Europe and the UN on 26th December, one of the first people to be alerted was Chris Weeks. As the EMEA director for the Disaster Resource Network (DRN), he had been charged with assembling an airport emergency team from volunteers based in Dubai to help with such events, and this was to be the first time it would be called into action. “I received an e-mail from the UN that just said: Are you ready?” Weeks recalls. “I replied ‘yes,’ then packed a bag, got on a plane to Dubai, met up with my other colleagues, and I was down there in Colombo by 06:00 on 28th December.” The job of the airport emergency team was to handle all of the humanitarian aid that would soon be flying into Sri Lanka. The volunteers that would do the work were drawn from six companies in Dubai — Aramex, Chapman Freeborn, DHL, Dnata, Emirates and TNT — who had helped set up the emergency team, with support from Dubai Aid City, around a year earlier. The inspiration for forming the team came from the December 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran. Then, tonnes of humanitarian aid had been flown into the country in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, leaving the local airport overwhelmed and creating a huge bottleneck in the relief efforts. By contrast, over 7000 tonnes of supplies were cleared in Colombo between 29th December and 17th January, as the airport emergency team was in place with the know-how and planning needed to unload a wide variety of aeroplanes landing almost continuously. “The financial cost of what we put in [during the operation] was the equivalent of chartering one aircraft from Dubai to Colombo. However, the return on that was 10-15 times as much, in terms of aircraft not having to wait at the airport and cargo not being ruined, aside from the human benefit from actually getting the aid through,” says Weeks. “If we had not been there, that airport would have closed down by New Year’s Day, and they would not have got in 1000 tonnes, let alone 7000 tonnes,” he adds. The airport team had been formed under the auspices of the Disaster Resource Network, which had itself been set up by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to help private sector companies work with non-governmental organisations. That such a ‘bridge’ was needed had been clearly shown at the time of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, which had coincided with a meeting of the forum in Davos. Then, CEOs had been looking to make a contribution to relief efforts, in terms of skilled personnel or equipment, but they had been unable to contact the right people at the right NGOs. “What happened at the time of the Gujarat earthquake was that they [the WEF] sat around and they did not have any way of engaging with the NGO world,” explains Weeks. “They subsequently decided to set up the Disaster Resource Network to bridge the gap between those two communities, so that when something happens, we in the private sector know whom to talk to and then we can offer help.”||**|||~||~||~|To ensure that the assets and skills needed at an airport in the event of a disaster would be prepared and readily available, it was decided to set up an emergency team, which could then prevent the kind of logjam seen at Bam. Weeks, who was then and remains a DHL employee, was charged with setting up this team, and he quickly decided that Dubai was the best place for it to be based. “I wanted somewhere in this region [between Turkey and Nepal], as it is the earthquake region,” he says. “There were also World Economic Forum companies down here, and you have a big air charter community. It is also well positioned, and the guys down here had the vision to do something,” he adds. “I therefore wrote to every person I knew in Dubai in the business world. I got DHL’s country manager, David Wild, to write to all his contacts in this field… and, basically, we ended up with 35 people in a room in the Airport Le Meridien Hotel [in February 2004] and I explained my idea to them,” he continues. From there, a group of around 60 volunteers was formed, who then began a series of planning and training sessions to prepare themselves for deployment in a disaster area. “The sessions were not terribly detailed or structured, I must confess,” says Weeks. “But, at least everybody shared the vision when the time came.” The volunteers had to be prepared for almost anything, so the sessions included personal security and first aid training. There were also disaster scenarios, so the volunteers would have some idea of what to expect, and also team building exercises to unite people who came from a number of different companies. The planning side involved looking at what kind of equipment and resources would be needed, but as the Colombo experience showed, this needed to be much more comprehensive than anyone imagined. “The best you can do is get it about 60% right because you just do not know what situation you are going into,” says Weeks. “You also cannot get it all right first time… For instance, [in Colombo] we needed office supplies, which we never thought about. We also did not need tents, but we did need decent camp beds. There are a lot of things we have learned now,” he adds. After Weeks had arrived in Colombo following the disaster, the most important thing that needed to be done was to gain the authority necessary to operate in the airport. This had to be arranged as soon as possible, both so that work could be started straight away and so that no one else would take over and prevent the airport emergency team from becoming involved later on (as happened in Indonesia). “What happens immediately after a disaster is that there is a power vacuum, as nobody really knows what to do,” says Weeks. “It is an emergency situation, and whoever comes in to fill the vacuum then operates for the next period.” “We got down [to Colombo] on exactly the right day and got there before the military or anyone else could get their noses into it... We had a plan, [the airport authorities] trusted us, so they gave us a working space, they gave us a memorandum and off we went.” The working space was a 6000 m2 hangar that was still under construction. The building was complete, but there was neither power, lighting nor telephone lines, and a road also needed to be built to allow trucks to access the facility. Installing all of these was among the first tasks that needed to be overseen by the airport emergency team volunteers that had flown out to Colombo. The team also had to get hold of the equipment they needed to unload the aircraft and move the cargo, which soon became a major issue. “What we realised quite quickly was that forklifts were absolutely key to it all,” says Weeks. “We had a couple of borrowed ones from some local companies, but within four or five days we realised that we needed to take control and hire our own.” “This was because when people lend you things, they can ask for them back at anytime, and that was not very convenient for us. They also wanted to put their own drivers on, who would just disappear. The owners would also take them away for maintenance, and then we were left high and dry,” he explains. The team thus hired forklifts on the local market, although the only ones they could find were fairly old and came with unreliable drivers. “Next time, we will take our own [forklifts], as it is too risky to rely on the local market,” says Weeks.||**|||~||~||~|There were also problems with airport equipment, which was obviously less readily available than forklifts. “SriLankan Airlines, on the face of it, were very helpful, but whenever they needed the equipment that we had for their own operations it would just disappear,” says Weeks. Alongside equipment, the team also needed personnel, and again relying on voluntary contributions was not enough. The contractors building the hangar did lend some people who obviously could not get on with their jobs during the disaster and the team were also able to call on Sri Lankan Air Force cadets. However, volunteers proved to be unmotivated and hard to manage, so local workers were hired as well. “We muddled through, but we very quickly realised that you need to be in control of your own equipment and your own labour,” says Weeks. “Relying on volunteers is dangerous as there is no accountability and they can ask for their equipment back again at any time.” In all, three teams of volunteers went over to Colombo, with people from both Dubai and elsewhere playing a part. “Once we had the system set up, we needed people who could supervise the Sri Lankan air force people, and we had to go further afield in some of the companies to find higher level people. We actually had people come down from Europe to help out,” explains Weeks. In total, around 30 people were sent to Colombo, with others helping back in Dubai. Most of those who went to Sri Lanka spent five to seven days at the airport, and they mainly lived in very basic accommodation. All of the hotel rooms had been taken by people fleeing the coasts, and so the crew that was in Colombo for the first week slept inside the hangar. Hotel rooms nearby were found in the second week, although Weeks says, “I think the hotel would struggle to find two stars.” Generally, the teams worked two 12-hours shifts, with a team leader and three or four others on each shift. The volunteers were heavy equipment operators, logistics engineers and other transportation and air cargo specialists, who provided the necessary skills to manage the operations. Sri Lankan-based personnel from DHL, Aramex and TNT also helped out providing local knowledge, as well as extra equipment and skills, such as banking and insurance, a van, an internet connection and office supplies. There was also an IT specialist in the team early on who set up a basic warehouse management system and three PCs to help manage the operations. However, one position that was overlooked was someone to handle press inquiries and requests from the PR departments of the volunteers’ employers. “The one person we did need, but did not take, was a PR/press communications person,” says Weeks. “We found ourselves having to do interviews and communications back to our companies, which was valuable time that we should have spent on managing the operation.”||**|||~||~||~|Among other changes that are planned for the next disaster are to double the size and scope of the project from 10 people working for 10 days to 20 people for 20 days, as well as taking a wider role beyond unloading the planes and getting the cargo into the warehouse. In Colombo, the team limited itself to doing just this, and then left it up to the NGOs to get the customs clearance and the trucks needed to take goods away. However, this created a number of problems, such as the fact that the NGOs would not have enough capacity to take a full aircraft load, which would then leave lots of half-loads in the warehouse. The airport team was also a victim of its own success, because with the cargo clearly safe and well looked after in the hangar, the NGOs were happy to leave it there rather than move it somewhere else, which then created a bottleneck within the hangar. “I think next time we would help a bit in terms of getting transport lined up in advance for NGOs to use,” says Weeks. “Two-thirds of the way through, I also realised that we should have been recording the quantities of everything coming in,” he adds. “It is not a priority when you get there — you just think ‘God, I have got to clear this freight.’ However, later on, someone asked how many items we had had so they can work out how many more were needed. I then realised that we should have been counting.” However, while a lot was learned from the Colombo experience for next time, it should not detract from what was accomplished and the help that the team gave to the people of Sri Lanka. The success of the project has also been shown by plans to set up similar airport emergency teams in both Singapore and Miami or Panama, which would then be able to help in response to disasters in those areas. The successful response has also encouraged other companies to become involved in the airport emergency teams and other Disaster Resource Network initiatives. The key though is to ensure that this help is lined up in advance, so that the necessary planning can be done before the next disaster. “I was talking to a CEO at Davos who was complaining that his organisation called the WHO just after the tsunami, and wanted to help them, but to his horror he found that he could not, as they did not have time to engage and make that relationship,” recalls Weeks. “I said to him afterwards, ‘you do not ring them up the day it happens, you ring them nine months beforehand. If you want to start something for next time, do it now.” ||**||

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