THE MAGAZINE

Masters of Disasters

By Robert Elliott

Medical Needs
The real death toll for the Thai tsunami that struck Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, will never be known, but the United Nations speaks of 300,000 dead. As part of the relief effort, the Australian government hired Kenyon to handle the bodies. The firm’s services included identification of human remains and personal effects, family assistance, memorials, and humanitarian services.

Kenyon deployed 130 people, including specialists in body identification, who set up and ran three constantly operating morgues. The job lasted from late December 2004 to August 2005. During that time, Kenyon’s staff was under considerable physical and emotional stress, but getting aid for Kenyon’s staff from local medical facilities and staff in Thailand was difficult, because those resources and personnel were already overwhelmed.

To make sure that its own staff could get the medical attention it needed and continue to work, Kenyon brought in its own medical team, consisting of one doctor and four mental health practitioners.

The mental health team was especially helpful, says Allen. “These people were seeing things that most people would never want to see once in their lifetime—and they were seeing it every day.”

Following the example of Thailand, Kenyon dispatched a medical team to accompany its personnel into Louisiana in late August. This has now become a standard practice for Kenyon missions.

Getting the Goods
Another issue is the need for personnel on the ground to be able to purchase goods. Amidst the carnage of Thailand, an overreliance on credit was a problem for many relief organizations, leading Kenyon to cement its policy of ensuring that its team had sufficient reserves. Staff were afforded loose restrictions on their credit cards so that they would not run the risk of being told they had exceeded their limit when they attempted to charge something or withdraw cash—a critical need in those situations.

For example, local businessmen demanded cash in exchange for providing electrical, building, and earth-moving supplies, among other equipment and services. Some relief workers who could only withdraw small amounts found themselves flitting between automated teller machines to build up sufficient sums to pay local vendors.

“There were a lot of organizations who had the money, but did not have the procedures in place to get hold of it,” says Allen. “It is that ability to deploy with sufficient cash reserves or to get hold of that cash readily and easily that I have been sharing with people since I’ve come back,” he says.

Assessing Staff Risks
During the 2004  Florida hurricanes Agility Recovery Solutions answered a client’s plea for help by sending staff into the danger zone before Hurricane Charley struck. “We put people in harm’s way. That wasn’t a smart decision,” says Bob Boyd, president and CEO of the firm.

The company won’t do that in the future, says Boyd. Agility puts clients back in business by providing power, phones, computers, connectivity, and other technology via about 100,000 mobile units to which it has access across North America. But now when clients call before the storm, Agility prepares to go to the rescue by stocking up on equipment, loading the necessary software and images, contacting vendors, and prepping mobile units and their drivers. The firm mobilizes staff only after the real danger has passed. “That’s what we did with Katrina,” says Boyd.

The limitations on what staff should be asked to do were also examined during Katrina by Tim Horner, the managing director of Kroll Inc.’s Security Services Group. One client asked Horner to install a security team in a building that was surrounded by six feet of water.

Horner says, “The questions with that were: What happens if there is a fire? How am I going to get food in? What if there is a medical emergency?”

He advised the client to get everyone out of the building and board it up. “It was a new dimension on providing security that we weren’t normally considering in the past,” says Horner. “We’re now weighing the risks more.”

Another client asked Kroll to rescue about $10,000 from a set of safes throughout New Orleans. Horner refused on the basis that the safes were potentially immovable, under water, and sitting in the middle of areas with reports of armed bandits and little likelihood of police response. He judged the risks too great for his people.

“Companies in this situation are like crime victims—they are not always thinking straight,” says Horner. “It’s important for them to talk to security providers and crisis management people who have been through the process before, to know what is good common sense.”

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