“Who’s in Charge?” (A Personal Account of the Typhoon Haiyan Simulation at Fort A.P. Hill)

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In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) (the strongest typhoon recorded in history[1]) made landfall in the Philippines, leaving devastation affecting more than 14 million people.[2] The U.S. military, USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and several U.N. agencies rapidly deployed to assist survivors. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) represents an increasingly large part of the U.S. military’s mission and was recently included in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, thereby placing greater focus on the need for U.S. military training in HA/DR.

From March 24-27, 2014, I had the opportunity to participate in one exercise conducted at Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green, Virginia. The 10th Transportation “Waterborne” Battalion hoped to receive field training on conducting HA/DR operations, a DOD mission area with which the battalion had little experience. A Georgia-based contractor (Threat Tec) organized this training simulation with experienced humanitarian aid professionals, Protect the People (PTP). The volunteers consisted of: a former specialist from the New York Office of Emergency Management and current analyst at Wikistrat, a consultant from the US Department of State, an experienced stability programs officer, 12 to 15 active and retired military, and me, STAR-TIDES intern since January. Could we, in the backwoods of Bowling Green, effectively simulate the chaotic stress experienced by real disaster survivors? Would the military successfully meet our imagined needs as distressed villagers?

Throughout the week, we simulated number of scenarios that brought insight, knowledge, and experience to the soldiers and volunteers alike. Members of the battalion gained valuable HA/DR training by distributing urgently needed food supplies, performing non-standard medical evacuation, and meeting with key community leaders. Meanwhile, volunteers tested the soldiers’ ability to manage survivor expectations, and field anger and frustration directed towards them during a disaster. Planning for crowd management is critical to any humanitarian assistance or disaster relief operation.

In Syria for example, outside efforts to assist the local population have struggled because of the scope of the crisis[3] and aid groups may refuse to conduct food drops or deliver other humanitarian assistance if violent threats are present. Peacekeepers acting on behalf of the U.N. have no mandate to exercise force except in self-defense or in defense of their mandate.[4] On Monday, our afternoon, it was therefore imperative that we test the battalion’s mettle by simulating as closely as possible the conditions of a true-to-life humanitarian crisis.

Day 1: Supply Distribution
As villagers, we had wandered through the woods for days in search of food but had barely managed to forage enough to survive. Banditry was rumored in the area and news quickly spread that a U.S. military convoy would be passing. Amid a light flurry of snow, we fanned out across the road waiting for the battalion’s arrival. Eventually, someone spotted a flatbed truck lined with cardboard boxes coming our way, followed by a procession of Hummers. The Americans had arrived! Immediately we surrounded the truck and the accompanying convoy, each villager screaming about our predicament and begging for food. Two soldiers stood atop the truck methodically opening the cardboard boxes while two or three more tried to organize the villagers on the ground. Immediately, several issues became clear.

First, the battalion had developed no cle1237607_746151625408638_1709216485_nar plan for distributing food supplies. In a true disaster situation, men, women, and children will have endured any number of hardships. As the battalion discovered first hand, having endured any number of hardships, villagers desperate for aid will resort to virtually any strategy they believe will provide them and their family with the resources they need. Arranging in an orderly, single-file line will not be a priority. The soldiers tried in vain to organize villagers—first in a single-file line, then two lines, then three. Yet the villagers completely ignored the soldiers, opting instead to surround the trucks looking for any opportunity to reach the food sitting on the flatbed.

Second, in a situation where successful food distribution depends on the ability to manage crowds, local leaders are often enormous assets to maintaining order and facilitating the distribution of aid. Disaster survivors will often be traumatized and confused during recovery. Local assistance can act as a calming factor in otherwise unstable circumstances. Yet the battalion overlooked this resource by preferring to manage their operation independently without engaging the local leadership. Our village mayor, on witnessing the unfolding chaos, asked one of the soldiers trying 1966805_746151682075299_529858027_n to organize the villagers—“Who is in charge?” But the question went largely unanswered. As a result, villagers overwhelmed the soldiers and communication broke down further. The soldiers on the ground no longer communicated clearly with those on the truck who in complete disbelief, were now confronted with villagers climbing to reach the food. Moreover, the few disaster survivors who had received boxes of meals ready-to-eat (MRE’s) struggled to defend those boxes against others eager to steal them. A key component to ensuring the efficient distribution of aid resources to the local population is maintaining operational security. In this case the situation had quickly devolved into chaos.
Then gunshots rang out.

This was the third issue. In any disaster, criminal elements are likely to thrive. Many times this will consist of looting and simple thievery but often, rebel-led militias or other more serious threats will present themselves. In particular, where a convoy is delivering aid to a local community, word that valuable resources are being delivered will spread quickly and incentivize criminal activity. If criminal activity does occur, many HA/DR operations will simply cease, the military or other humanitarian organization will simply leave, and aid will be delivered at a later date. Hence, when help first arrives (or before), the first step should involve inquiring about any threats that might be in the area so that a perimeter can be secured. This transportation battalion failed to do so. Consequently, as villagers scrambled for cover from unexpected gunfire, the soldiers were left once again having to improvise strategies in real-time.

Key Lessons
In the after action report with military leaders, we noted several areas needing improvement: Planning that did not account for crowd management, coordination with local leaders, arising security issues, and overall difficulty adapting to the rapidly evolving sequence of events. The battalion responded during the second iteration of this training with a number of positive alterations.

First, the battalion modified the primary type of truck used during the distribution process. In some developing nations, aid organizations offload their cargo. In other circumstances however, distribution from a truck’s bed may be more appropriate. During Hurricane Sandy, FEMA’s need to reach multiple locations led them to distribute resources without offloading any supplies. This is the approach the battalion adopted. A critical factor for the marked improvement therefore—and for FEMA’s success during Hurricane Sandy—was the decision to use a truck with enclosed bed. When villagers arrived, the battalion had already parked parallel flatbed trucks with an enclosed cargo truck at their head. By distributing resources from an enclosure with only one opening, the battalion greatly reduced its vulnerabilities, and crowd control became more manageable. Similarly, choosing a “U” shaped formation served a dual purpose of ensuring orderly food distribution by funneling incoming villagers into a corral, and distributing resources more equally. In disasters, there is always the possibility of survivors going through a distribution line repeatedly to receive resources more than once. Soldiers blocking the entrance though carefully controlled who entered the distribution line, maintaining close supervision over what survivors had already received assistance and preventing the kind of rush they had struggled to manage the first time.

Another crucial alteration was to recruit two local leaders to assist in the food distribution by calming the villagers and facilitating the flow of villagers in an orderly fashion. Infighting is always to some degree unavoidable whenever disaster survivors are competing for scarce resources but seeing a familiar face is a welcomed comfort to any villager in a traumatic disaster scenario. Although merely a simulation involving 20 “villagers,” I appreciated the decision to include one of my own in the food distribution process; when the crisis is scaled to include hundreds or even thousands of actual disaster survivors, the issue of resources is even more crucial to the success of an HA/DR operation.

The battalion’s final change involved encircling the entire convoy with a perimeter of soldiers. This served both as an additional measure for crowd control and a proactive deterrence against criminal activity, and supplemented the other alterations the battalion made to assure a more efficient and successful food distribution operation.

Day 2: Medical Evacuation and Survivor Escort
Tuesday, the transportation battalion was tasked with conducting a medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) for a villager who “broke” his leg in a disaster-stricken area with few medical supplies. Time can be a precious resource for injured persons and many disaster victims will be so shocked or focused on their own survival that even serious medical emergencies may go overlooked. Moreover, since every soldier represents an opportunity to ask for food, shelter, or other valuable resource, a battalion must quickly and calmly gather the information necessary to stabilize an injured party for transport without promising the villagers anything they cannot personally guarantee. Disaster situations always carry tremendous loss but professionals delivering humanitarian relief must be careful to manage expectations.

In the next Typhoon Haiyan scenario, the battalion escorted a family needing shelter amid a situation complicated by inter-clan conflict. The battalion arrived to find families engaged in a heated argument with each other about who should be entitled to leave with the soldiers, and frustrated that anyone should be left behind. The agitation erupted into open hostility with our feelings embodied by pushing, yelling, and charging. The battalion exemplified professionalism however by encircling the family being escorted, firmly holding their line against the protesting survivors, and ultimately accomplishing their mission.

Day 3: Engaging Key Leaders
On the final day, the Typhoon Haiyan exercise returned full-circle to the issue of communication as I was finally permitted to enter my village, only to find the area contaminated by a leaking pesticide truck. The military had supposedly removed the hazardous material but the transportation battalion still needed to engage key village leaders in the area to assess our demands and see what could be done to provide assistance. In contrast to earlier communication failures, the battalion excelled by quickly arranging a meeting with heads of the village clans inside a quaint, concrete building. Curious villagers clamored for glimpses of the discussions inside while the battalion leader deliberately addressed each issue, the most immediate of which would receive attention first—primarily water (because of the still-contaminated well) and added security (to discourage any would-be bandits or wandering rebels). At the meeting’s close, the battalion leader exchanged gifts with the clan leaders, and promised a swift return.

Looking Ahead
Though disaster assistance has not been a core function in U.S. military training, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review has further shown its importance in the military’s mission. Critical humanitarian objectives such as distributing needed supplies, providing medical assistance, and engaging local community leaders will help build lasting partnership capacity. Aside from being a moral imperative, HA/DR activities will also pay dividends in the long-run towards the security goals of the United States.

Through innovative research and a global network of distributed talent, the STAR-TIDES Network supports improved readiness for and responses to disasters, instabilities, insurgencies, and food crises. TIDES was actively involved in post-Typhoon Haiyan humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts, and provides reachback support to decision-makers and those working in the field. For more information, please visit www.star-tides.net.

[1] Center for Excellence in Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance, Lessons from Civil-Military Disaster Management and Humanitarian Response to Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), (Hawaii: Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, January 2014), 2.
[2] Ibid at 10.                                                                              
[3] USAID reports that 9.3 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance. “Syria,” United States Agency for International Development, accessed April 14, 2014. http://www.usaid.gov/crisis/syria.
[4] “What is Peacekeeping?”  U.N. Organization, accessed April 14, 2014. https://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/operations/peacekeeping.shtml

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About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
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