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What to expect when you’re not expecting an earthquake

Phil Tanner has a lot of grace under tremors. He has to, given that he’s in Nepal, working as the director of international programs at the Christian Children’s Fund of Canada. He’s also one of few there with disaster security training.

In the wake of the disaster spread over late April and early May, the Internet has proven more reliable in the region than cell phones and, as we spoke to Tanner via Skype, he experienced two aftershocks and a power outage. “Every time we talk about earthquakes or roads or things it happens, he jokes. “I guess it’s Murphy’s Law.” As the ground quivers beneath his feet, some dogs start barking.

Tanner says the transition from a development office to a relief facility has been one of the biggest challenges for his team. Instead of garden variety development, it’s a struggle just to get hands on more potable water and distribute food as well as “dignity kits” for women (if you don’t know what they are, think shampoo, toothpaste, tampons and pads). Tanner says the fiscal budget for the Nepal office has expanded by three or four times, as have staffing needs. The whole ordeal would make a perfect example for a risk management textbook: what to expect when you’re not expecting an earthquake.

And no one will probably tell you that while you’re in the aftermath (and the rubble) of one of the worst recent quakes in Asia, you’ll have to compete with other aid organizations to hire talent. And when the best and brightest experts are scooped up, they sometimes have little to no on-theground disaster experience.

Tanner says that for the team’s initial hires, “people came unprepared because they were rushing out here.” Some of the team still sleeps in a tent while others are under a canopy. “We’re basically out under the sky.”

Inexperienced arrivals have to cope with mental and physical trauma, as well as a pace of work that is significantly faster than normal. “Every relief operation, and I’ve been to many, never seems [to] go well. It’s learning and being able to implement that learning in the future.”

Though his team was uninjured, the second quake less than three weeks later left deep scars. “One earthquake was bad enough and people were traumatized. But then, when that second one came, people didn’t trust the ground they walked on.”

And the Nepalis have been left very nervous by the earth. “People are still sleeping out under tarps, even wealthy people. They’re not going to work. People are staying at home because they want to stay close to family.”

Tanner says his biggest inspiration has been the attitude of the Nepali people. “They’re still smiling. A family that lost their mother or one of their kids, and they’re standing in front of a pile of rubble that was their home, and they’re smiling and thanking us for helping them. It breaks your heart.”

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Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the June / July 2015 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine