From a first-time responder

By Blanca Lomeli

Although I have had the opportunity to participate in an emergency response in the past, those emergencies have been medical (H1N1 and Ebola). Last October, I had the chance to take part in PCI’s emergency response to Hurricane Patricia in Jalisco, Mexico. Here’s a quick recap of some key lessons from a ‘first time’ responder:

  1. Communities know best
    During our response, group conversations with communities provided valuable information about the type and extent of the damage caused by the hurricane, but especially about those families who were the most affected. Also, having group assessments ensured neighbors did not over-represent or worse, under-represent their needs.
  2. Expect the unexpected
    This should be obvious but one has to be prepared for roads to be blocked, for needed supplies to be unavailable, for lack of cell phone coverage, and for limited (or no) options for lunch or restroom breaks. Do what you can to be prepared and overcome these obstacles.
  3. Keep your options open
    Access both official and non-official media sites to find out which areas are most affected. When one is trying to reach the most vulnerable, having several options and consulting several sources is key. Then cross-reference this information with site visits and key informant interviews.
  4. Rely on a little help from your friends
    Any local contacts or partnerships you have might help inform your decision-making process regarding the geographic areas that need help and the type of support they need. For Patricia, our first point of contact was the Ministry of Health for the state, with whom we have collaborated in the past. They took us on a site-visiting tour and introduced us to the municipality and key community contacts who helped us do our job.
  5. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate
    When there is an emergency response mechanism in place (and in most cases there is one), there is also an entity in charge of ensuring and facilitating coordination. Find out which entity that is and contact them. You do not want to be the response agency that goes around doing what they think is best without contacting proper authorities. Informing those who need to be informed helps streamline the response, helps avoid duplication of efforts, and above all, ensures that the most vulnerable and hard to reach communities are reached.
  6. Be very clear about your task and help calibrate community expectations
    The first task after introducing ourselves was to make sure we explained the purpose of our ‘needs assessment’ visit. I was humbled to see and experience openness and transparency from community members. They were willinging to engage in conversations and share their challenges with us, even when we explained we were basically trying to assess the needs and that at the moment, we could not commit to any specific type of support until funding was secured.

We ended up working hard to secure funding to help out these communities with some immediate relief supplies. In partnership with Americares, we provided tarps to over 300 homes that had their roofs damaged by the severe winds. We provided technical assistance to families and municipality workers about proper installation of those tarps. We also worked with a local company to install tarps in local schools that needed to be open and also had their roofs completely or partially damaged. After several years of working with PCI, this was a great ‘first experience’ for me. I’m proud of the work we did (and intend to continue to do) to support these communities in Jalisco.

Blanca is PCI’s Senior Technical Advisor for Local Capacity Strengthening