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When it Comes to Workforce Challenges, Tsunami-Relief Crew Has Experienced Them All

Jim DeHarpporte visited relief camps and destroyed villages not only to support tsunami survivors, but to make sure his own workers were not overwhelmed by the disaster.

January 26, 2005
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Business executives often deal with one people-related issue--change management, downsizing, outsourcing, employee assistance--and then move on to the next one. In the last few weeks, Jim DeHarpporte has experienced them all at once.

DeHarpporte, the West Coast regional director for Catholic Relief Services, returned to San Diego last week from a two-week visit to India and Indonesia, two countries devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

During his trip, DeHarpporte visited relief camps and destroyed villages, and spoke with survivors of the disaster that struck the coast of India and in Indonesia’s Banda Aceh province. He also met with staff members from Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian aid and development agency of the U.S. Catholic community, as well as partner organizations and local church officials.

DeHarpporte says his employees were so committed to aiding tsunami victims that motivation wasn’t an issue. Instead, his workforce-management team tried to ensure that employees weren’t overwhelmed. They encouraged people to rest when necessary, to use the employee assistance plan and to talk with colleagues and managers around the world when they need to get something off their chests.

There were plenty of challenges to be faced: Air travel was delayed repeatedly, and employees spent dozens of hours waiting at airports. Roads were badly damaged, making ground transportation difficult.

The communication system was nonexistent. Earthquake monitors, for example, reported that the quake had hit the east side of Indonesia. It had actually hit the west coast, too, but that hadn’t been reported because the west side was so badly destroyed that the message didn’t get through. The infrastructure was so battered on every side that the government wasn’t functioning well. "In Indonesia, the government itself died," DeHarpporte says. "They were acting on only half the information they should have had."

On top of that, some areas barred international humanitarian organizations. In those cases, his staff identified and partnered with the local organizations trusted by both sides in regional conflicts and worked with those groups to bring aid to victims. On a positive note, DeHarpporte believes that the disaster could provide an "opportunity to step back and also talk about the internal conflicts and how [warring factions] can move toward a peace process. Some positive things might come out of this very tragic event."

Early preparation
Catholic Relief Services is continually staffing up or staffing down in response to emergencies and disasters. It can slim its staffing because it can sometimes partner with local organizations to provide disaster relief. Each disaster’s needs vary so "you’re never with the right amount of staff," DeHarpporte says. "You’re never stable."

Catholic Relief Services hires people who it believes are flexible--"people who could live in really spartan environments," he says, "people who can camp out and still do a day’s work and not complain. You might be in a decent hotel or you may be in a village in a tent for a couple of weeks until we get set up."

The agency trains them in everything from how many calories a person needs to survive, to how much water is necessary to sustain life. When a crisis hits anywhere in the world--which in recent years has often meant Africa and Asia--a team of people from Kenya first scouts out the situation, taking a look at the health, sanitation and other needs of the area. Then, expats fly in from around the world to join with staff members in the country in crisis to respond.

After a disaster, Catholic Relief mines its employees for knowledge. In East Timor, for example, it learned that water and sanitation are as important shelter and food, and beefed up its staff expertise in water sanitation. During the tsunami, DeHarpporte says he learned that Catholic Relief Services needs to pay even more attention to the needs of its highly committed workforce, and the organization will evaluate whether its employee assistance efforts were sufficient.

DeHarpporte says that this tragedy was like no other. "I have seen a lot of disastrous situations, but I can’t think of a situation where I have seen so much trauma, where people are simply numb. They’re unable to respond and restart their lives. There has been so much death--whole families, communities have been wiped out. People who survived are lost. They’re confused and traumatized."

For more information, join a discussion of what companies are doing to help victims of the disaster.

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