It was pretty surprising, just two months into my new role at Inmarsat, to be offered the chance to join a group of colleagues on a two day retreat to induct with a disaster relief NGO, but after reading about Team Rubicon, what it stood for and how it operated, I chased down this rare opportunity until I found myself speeding past Stonehenge towards a repurposed military hanger where I would later sit drinking tea and learning more about what drives the people at Team Rubicon, what they’d achieved and, perhaps most importantly, where we fit in.
The two days in the beautiful, and unpredictably sunny, Chilmark countryside was spent gaining a deeper understanding of Team Rubicon UK (TRUK), learning some basic new skills and developing an enhanced appreciation of the value ordinary people can add in a disaster response environment when properly coordinated. I was left exhausted but enthusiastic and I wanted to be a part of this.
Later, I learned the extent to which Inmarsat supports Team Rubicon. Going beyond simply allowing a group of staff to train with TRUK during work time, Inmarsat provides BGAN terminals and IsatPhones to TRUK with services included at no cost, enabling teams on the ground to stay connected and to coordinate safely and efficiently wherever they operate. I felt proud to work here.
My role at Inmarsat can be time demanding and requires significant travel so being able to drop everything at short notice to deploy internationally with TRUK seemed an impossibility. I resigned myself to the idea that I could help in other ways, volunteering at HQ at the weekend if required or maybe supporting a domestic response for a few days – whatever supports the overall cause.
Then Hurricane Irma happened, and the roll-call went out. Then Hurricane Maria happened, and the roll-call went out again. I saw a gap in my travel calendar and made the unfair request of my incredible boss, Xavier Bouthors, to let me deploy with TRUK and to cover my work while I was away. I couldn’t believe the level of support from both Xavier and our VP, Diana Goody. I was really impressed.
Driving past Stonehenge again, I realised I had very little idea of what was ahead or what value I could add and I felt slightly nervous not knowing how significant a contribution I could make, because I’m not from a military background, or a firefighter or police officer, engineer or tech. I’d find out later.
On arrival at TRUK HQ, I found the rest of the team already settled in and gathered round in reverent silence, listening attentively as Dan Cooke relayed the heart-warming story of Nurse Daisy, one of the local heroes of Virgin Gorda, who had worked day and night in incredibly tough circumstances providing care to islanders injured by the hurricanes and storms. I was fortunate a week later to meet Nurse Daisy in her little clinic in the hills of Virgin Gorda while en route to deliver aid supplies to North Sound Distribution Hub. Her unimposing, warm and cheerful manner masked the impressive strength she obviously possessed and hearing her describe, with nonchalance, her planned trip to deliver urgent supplies to her stranded family was deeply moving.
After a layover in Antigua, our deployment in the BVI began on its largest island, Tortola, with a population of just over 20,000 people. The green island that I’d seen in pictures appeared scorched as our plane circled to land, leaves and other foliage having been ripped from their trees by the terrific storms. The bark stripped wood looked out of place against the unaffected crystal water, ushering the first sense of something being not quite right; an eerie picture. Over the course of our two weeks in the BVI, the landscape transformed significantly as the cocktail of sun and rain delivered rich new life to the trees and undergrowth, providing a glimpse of how the island should be. Upturned yachts though could still be found lying in-land, dumped by the two category five hurricanes, and so many homes remained damaged or destroyed. Nature was healing quicker than the infrastructure around it, growing over the evidence of destruction, and there must now be concerns about the potential environmental impact of this concealed waste going forgotten.
The Tortola experience is best framed as one of collaboration I think, working closely with the Red Cross, ShelterBox and Rotary International, receiving and distributing aid and sharing skills to enable deployment of temporary shelter and rebuilding of homes. We helped turn a warehouse into a school in time for exams to start on time. We worked hard as a small team to pool our resources with these other NGOs, as well as the government, and between us we achieved a lot.
Half way through my deployment our Incident Commander, Charlie, informed me I’d be heading to Virgin Gorda in the morning for a day or two…maybe three. The next day I arrived on Virgin Gorda and remained there until our flight home. I have no complaints. Apart from missing the team I’d worked with on Tortola and the friends I’d made from other NGOs there, I couldn’t have been more pleased to be on Virgin Gorda, where a concrete floor was a bed and a funnel balanced delicately atop a drain pipe served as what we politely referred to as ‘the gents’. This was where I saw TRUK making the most tremendous impact.
In between managing our comms on Virgin Gorda, ensuring those who needed it had access to BGAN powered Wi-Fi and keeping the IsatPhone close to hand as a lifeline in remote areas, I had the opportunity to be involved in some brilliantly rewarding work; bringing an airport back into operation so aid deliveries could land, clearing nurseries and schools of debris and stagnant water, delivering emergency supplies to more remote parts of the island and making classrooms and washrooms safe for children already back at school, but these were small achievements for TRUK, even the airport, compared to one colossal one.
It’s hard to express the significance of what I perceive to be TRUK’s greatest achievement in the BVI but I suppose it’s best summed up by the ‘teach a man to fish’ concept. Before I arrived, in fact in the immediacy of the aftermath of Irma, a TRUK and Serve On team worked with the community on Virgin Gorda to establish a framework for managing response, relief and recovery. It became known as the Virgin Gorda Recovery Operations Centre (VGROC). VGROC, comprised entirely of volunteers from the local community, is a self-sustaining group of dedicated individuals working together to coordinate relief and recovery activities across the island. I understand that they have subsequently secured NGO status, allowing them to better manage funds offered to support recovery efforts, work with other NGOs and collaborate with the government. The existence of this organisation, and the public information broadcasting radio station they established, has been a lifeline for people across Virgin Gorda. Those involved in getting VGROC started and those involved in keeping it alive should be incredibly proud.
There’s a tremendous amount left to be done to rebuild the homes and lives of people affected by this disaster and there are islands in the region that I understand sustained even greater devastation than we witnessed on Tortola and Virgin Gorda, but it feels as though cooperation between government, NGO’s, donors and local communities paves the right path to rebuilding. I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to be involved in the valuable, tough but truly rewarding work that Team Rubicon has undertaken in response to this disaster and I hope I can be of service in the future.
I miss my BGANs.
Team Rubicon UK is looking for keen, capable people to join our community of volunteers who care about the world around them. No prior experience of disaster response is required, just an enthusiastic approach and a strong desire to get stuck in and help others, whatever the task may be. Join Team Rubicon today.