Q&A: Up From the Rubble: A Red Cross Expert Weighs In on Disaster Relief

From Haiti to the Central African Republic, Jean-Pierre Taschereau works on the bleeding edge of crises around the world.

When Jean-Pierre Taschereau was in high school, torrential floods gutted his hometown of Sainte-Marie, Quebec. He volunteered at an emergency Red Cross shelter and "knew right then and there what I wanted to do."

Today, the 41-year-old Canadian is one of three heads of emergency operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The world's largest volunteer-based humanitarian network, the IFRC responds to natural disasters wherever they hit—from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone to the floods in Bosnia and Serbia—and assists more than 150 million people annually.

The IFRC is currently active in 40 countries and supports 25 others with emergency funding but no personnel.

For 23 years, Taschereau has been on the front lines organizing aid in natural disasters or armed conflicts in more than 30 countries, including Sudan, Indonesia, Peru, and most recently, the Central African Republic.

After the earthquake on January 12, 2010, that devastated Haiti, he coordinated what would become the largest single-country Red Cross disaster response in history, involving, initially, 300 people from 25 countries.

"For JP it's not a job, it's a calling," says Hossam Elsharkawi, director of emergencies for the Canadian Red Cross, who worked alongside Taschereau in Haiti. "He's tireless and can look at both the big picture and the most minute detail. The ability to remain engaged and sympathetic yet to compartmentalize at certain moments and get the job done is an art. He does it well and naturally."

In March, Taschereau returned from a two-month deployment to the Central African Republic, where everyone he encountered had a friend, neighbor, or family member affected by the violence.

You are one of three heads of emergency operations for the IFRC, which works with communities hit by natural disasters, so why were you sent to the Central African Republic?

I have experience in armed conflict, and when a crisis reaches a certain scale of complexity and magnitude, both the IFRC and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the branch  of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement that deals with armed conflict, have a role to play.

I was there in a highly advisory role to make sure the IFRC had the capacity to operate more safely and expand our presence to face the upcoming rainy season, then draw a plan of action. I spent a lot of time looking at what the needs, gaps, and capacity to bring in a response was, and coordinating with UN agencies to enter into agreements to deliver food and water. It was unlike anything I've ever done before. I was deployed not because it was a large operation but because it was a complex operation.

How would you compare working in an armed conflict zone like the Central African Republic and a natural disaster zone like Haiti?

In many ways Haiti was the extreme opposite of the Central African Republic. In Haiti we had all the resources we could possibly think of, and the whole world was supporting us. We had more than 300 people on the ground in three weeks, and we just couldn't deploy fast enough. Everybody was working together to answer the same call. We were sleeping on the ground, sharing two showers between 225 people and eating canned tuna, but nobody complained. Haiti was a life-changing experience and forged me into a better man.

How so?

In Haiti we were under an extraordinary amount of pressure. First, from the humanitarian imperative, we were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who were bleeding and dying and needed help. If you lose an hour, people die who would have lived. And the entire world was watching in real time. Everywhere we went, there were cameras. It was internal and external pressure to perform this unprecedented mobilization of humanity.

I had 24 technical disaster response experts who reported to me. This was the best team ever assembled, and my job was to make sure we are all going in the same direction because we were all connected—it was like juggling 24 balls at the same time.

There was an energy that flowed through me far beyond anything I could have imagined that allowed me to go on. And we saw the impact and results. One morning there's nothing, and a few hours later people were getting surgery, and the next day a hospital was set up. What was interesting for me is that when I left after three weeks, I had a clear sense that what we had done was huge. We delivered. We helped. But when I came back three months later, it seemed so insignificant compared to everything that still needed to be done.

And what about the Central African Republic?

The Central African Republic was like swimming in mud. It seemed that there was violence everywhere in the streets of Bangui, and no one cared because the whole world was watching the $50 billion Olympics in Sochi. We were in a very high-end hotel protected by the military, and in the evening we'd go out onto the terrace to have dinner, with a band playing Celine Dion covers, while 500 meters in the distance we could see tracer fire and mortars explode, and we knew people were getting killed.

How would you handle a situation like Boko Haram's kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria?

I can't comment on that. It's not a natural disaster, the IFRC is not involved in any way, and it's a very sensitive matter, which is clearly in the International Committee of the Red Cross's sphere of competence.

There were criticisms that enormous amounts of relief money were poured into Haiti with seemingly slow and limited results. Was the effort and money wasted?

Oh God, no. Nobody could have worked harder, and nobody could have given anything more than what they did. But in the big scheme of things when talking about rebuilding an entire city, it was just a drop in the bucket. The emergency phase is one thing, but the reconstruction and development of an entire country is another thing. That's when the criticism comes in.

It took years for Hurricane Katrina damage to be repaired, and the devastation wrought in Haiti was far worse. You don't rebuild a country with money. You rebuild a country with people, institutions, and a culture of accountability. Some things were not going well in Haiti before the earthquake, and the disaster did not improve them.

After all these years, what have you learned is the key to successful disaster recovery?

The key is the earlier you can transfer the ownership of the recovery process to the people, the better. You need to empower people. The sooner you can do this, the more efficient and effective the operation is. It also contributes to restoring their dignity.

You have a disability. Do you think that's made you more suited for humanitarian work?

I've given that a lot of thought. I was born without a left hand. I have my elbow and four inches of my forearm, so I can flex my arm and lift and grab things and pull myself up, and I've been wearing a prosthesis since 2006 that gives me a better center of gravity. Maybe I've felt more sympathy toward people who can't fend for themselves, but what it's really done for me is forced me into lateral thinking early on. To tie my shoelaces I couldn't imitate others, so I had to find my way of getting the same result. Or when I was a lifeguard I had to use my own techniques to stabilize someone with a spinal injury. I think this habit I've developed to think outside of the box has expanded to other areas of my life.

How have you thought outside the box in a disaster situation?

In Haiti we were very short on French-speaking delegates. I knew that we could tap into French-speaking delegates if we mobilized people who were in our regional response systems, like our West African colleagues, but that hadn't been done before. Many of the African Red Cross societies had great emergency responders who spoke French, but they didn't have the money or resources to send people to Haiti. This time we had the resources, so we were eventually able to make it happen. These delegates have since gone back to their countries and brought the experience they acquired back with them.

Would you call yourself an adrenaline junkie?

If you ask my mom, she would say yes. I like adrenaline sports like snowboarding or rappelling. But I consider myself pretty risk averse and even a bit of a coward. In disaster response, most people want you to be there. I call it the honeymoon phase. There's always a honeymoon in the first few weeks after a disaster, with the local authorities cooperating. That's when you've got to go big and get things done. The first time I went to Haiti, right after the earthquake, there were no customs or immigration, and that was the time to bring medicines and chemicals for the water plants.

Last year was a slow year for disasters, with fewer than the average every year from 2003 to 2012. But isn't the scale and scope of natural disasters still increasing?

It is true that 2013 was exceptionally quiet. But the trend is certainly that there is an increase in both the number and scale of disasters and that the nature of disaster response is changing. One of the things we're thinking about now is how we adapt our responses to urban environments. There are a number of large cities like Vancouver, Los Angeles, Kathmandu, and Istanbul that are at risk of an earthquake. Another example is Hurricane Sandy in New York, where people were caught in high-rises for weeks without electricity. How do we reach them? How do we tweak our tools to respond to those kinds of disasters? It's not easy to set up shelter where one high-rise alone can be home to 4,000 people.

A lot of it has to do with preparedness. We have predeployment agreements, prepositioning materials, evacuation routes, all that kind of stuff. The better prepared we are, the easier the response. Sometimes you don't need a huge response when you're well prepared.

You once said that in this line of work you need to accept contradictions, paradox, and ambivalence. Can you explain that?

Many people are drawn to this work because they think it's so black and white. But even with good intentions everything can go to hell if it's not well thought out. We can do so much wrong, and it's never black and white. Everything is shades of gray.

That's what I find so fascinating about it. One of the things I've learned is that the drivers of the resources in humanitarian action aren't just about needs, they're about the emotional reaction that the crisis generates in people who donate. In Pakistan [in 2010] 25 million people were affected by floods, but compared to Haiti we barely heard about it.

How have you kept going in such a high-intensity line of work?

In war and disaster you see the best and the worst of humankind. The one thing that has kept me going is that I believe in what the Red Cross is doing.

Read This Next

Rome wasn’t built for today’s climate. Is there time to save it?
Do earthquake warning apps really work?
The woman who helped save Egypt's temples from doom

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet