I had a feeling of déjà-vu this morning, as I drove to work in Jerusalem where I have been posted since August. The BBC reception is patchy here, but I could still make out the words: ‘Large-scale disaster… collapsed buildings…. hundreds dead’.
That’s how it was just over five years ago, on the morning of the Indian Ocean tsunami. First impressions, filtered by the media, are worth nothing to relief-workers. In the tsunami, the first report I received from Aceh was that 8 had died; the final figure was over 130,000 for that province alone. And that makes me wonder, if they are reporting ‘hundreds’ dead in Haiti now, what will be the final tally?
I see my colleagues in DFID have scrambled. The Operations Room will be open – a continual coming and going of people; maps and charts will be appearing on the wall; a rigourous routine of meetings will be in place. Pressured, but controlled, is how I remember it; at this stage, it is more or less a 24-hour operation, fuelled by sandwiches and crisps.
And the search is on for information – from all available sources, to begin the process of triangulation. We ring the UN, Red Cross and NGOs, we comb the internet, follow blogs and watch the TV reports: everything possible to help us piece together the picture, to form the UK understanding - even when information is thin.
How does it look on the ground? Well, at this stage, it will be chaos. Landlines are down; mobiles don’t work; civil administration may be shattered; there may be looting. Reports from our field team (now deploying) will be coming through by satphone.
The photos already show the extent of the destruction; there is debris everywhere, and, I am guessing, many, many distressed people. And into this environment come the relief-workers; the UK search and rescue teams are on their way; at this stage, this is the priority, to try to pull as many people – alive – from the wreckage.
The window is short, a few days, perhaps. And the other emergency responders are gearing up. Looking at the emergency response web platform, I see that no less than 18 teams are mobilising – to address everything from health needs to coordination needs. Coming from everywhere from China to Panama.
I have a sense that Haiti is going to need all the help it can get.