Published on 25th February 2013
VSA's emergency planning procedures have been put to the test twice in the past two months and according to International Programme Manager Peter Swain they have proved equal to the task.
Just eight weeks after Cyclone Evan killed 14 people and created havoc in Samoa a large earthquake and tsunami hit the Santa Cruz area of Solomon Islands. At least 11 people have died, and the death toll is expected to rise once authorities make contact with all the affected areas.
In both cases, VSA staff stayed in touch with volunteers by cellphone, keeping them up to date with what was happening and ensuring that they took measures to stay safe.
Peter Swain says that VSA introduced new emergency response measures following the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, which caused several deaths in Papua New Guinea.
“That led us to review our planning for natural disasters like earthquakes and cyclones. Essentially we put in place a cellphone texting tree. The idea is that when someone hears about something like a cyclone or a tsunami they tell everyone else.”
He says volunteers also carry personal locator beacons when they are travelling by sea.
Natural disasters are an inevitable part of life in the wider Pacific where VSA works. However, the introduction of cellphone networks has transformed the way that authorities respond to them.
The networks also make life much easier for VSA volunteers and staff. Where it could once take weeks to get in touch with volunteers following a natural disaster it is now possible to make contact almost immediately.
Even the best laid plans can go awry, though, as Alexa Funnell, Programme Manager (Solomon Islands), discovered in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami on 6 February. She successfully texted VSA’s Honiaria-based volunteers, who headed to higher ground. But she had an anxious few hours waiting to get news from volunteer Bryce McGowan who was visiting coastal communities in Makira, close to where the earthquake struck.
“He had no mobile reception and it wasn’t until the next day that I heard from one of his colleagues that the area where he was hadn’t been affected, and that Bryce was OK.”
Bryce returned to Honiara a few days later, then travelled to Temotu province with a team of colleagues to help with tsunami relief work. You can read about his experiences here.
* Find out how Vanuatu volunteer Simon Donald is helping to develop emergency communication systems to reduce the impact of natural disasters.