Samaritan's Purse simulates emergency scenario

by: The Watauga Democrat Updated:

WATAUGA COUNTY, N.C.,None - “Chaos”  — in terms of refugees, hostility, language barriers and need — is the word Samaritan's Purse employee Susan Hatton used to describe the remnants of an 8.3-magnitude quake in Mexico City. 

“There's a lot of need,” Hatton said.

But unlike a real disaster abroad, this one had an easy commute for the organization's Disaster Assistance Response Team: to Deep Gap.

For three days, a portion of Deep Gap was transformed into “Mexico City” as actor-volunteers and trainees participated in Samaritan's Purse's first full-scale disaster simulation. 

“A lot of people make the shoe boxes,” spokeswoman Jessica Toews said about the organization's Operation Christmas Child. “This goes beyond shoe boxes.”

The simulation script, which took five months to write, was secret until Wednesday. Actors and trainees had no idea what they were getting into.

“I was a gang member,” Hatton said. “We kidnapped someone yesterday.”

And, just as in real-life, the disaster team had to respond. They gave gang members jobs.“It was real cool how they handled it,” Hatton said.

There were tents for the 200 participants to sleep in, but they had to haggle for spot.

“We tried to make it as real as possible,” Samaritan's Purse's Ken Isaacs said.  “The actors were speaking Spanish.”

Armed with “translators,” participants had to argue their way into sleeping arrangements with Mexican locals and dealing with real-life situations like price gouging. 

There were a few differences between Deep Gap and the field, organizers said.

“Regular food, three meals a day, sanitary water and hygiene,” Isaacs said. “We also had a sense of hours of operation. Even though we attempted, and we did, create an atmosphere of chaos, it was chaos in an orderly fashion.”

While there was fun to be had, the training was serious business.

“We do disaster response all the time,” Isaacs said. “We need to train more people to be on our teams. We need to constantly review our systems and make them better.”

The three-day simulation will impact future response situations, he said.

“We've learned the importance of real, clear communication between our management team at Headquarters and DART in the field, how slight variances in what's communicated translate to huge differences in operation. We can see it in real time,” he said.

Preston Parrish of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization played the role of Mexico City's deputy mayor.

“(The Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization) has rapid response chaplains and our rapid response chaplains deploy alongside of Samaritan's Purse in disaster situations here in the U.S. and internationally… so it helps to be a participation in an exercise like this. We understand more fully the inner-workings of response in a crisis situation and can more seamlessly integrate our chaplains' efforts.”

Hatton, who operates the phone system at Samaritan's Purse, was surprised at the effect the exercise had on her.

“How overwhelming it must be for our teams, to see people hurting,” she said. “The first day I was here, to see so many people in need. They're so few (DART members) and yet so much need. I don't know how, mentally, they're ready for that. It's really hard.”

The simulation made Hatton take her job at headquarters even more seriously.

“I'm going to make sure I have got all my ducks in a row so when they hit the ground running, they're ready with their communication,” she said. “I know now how extremely important that is. I never knew how much it was important before, and praying for our teams. They need a lot of prayer.”

Samaritan's Purse's regional director for Northeast Africa and the Middle East works in the headquarters now. The exercise gave him an opportunity to return to where he got his start: in the field.

“This has been good in some ways, to refresh some thought of being in the field and being on that side, to feel the pressure from headquarters on the things that need to be done,” he said.

Four DART units were deployed for the exercise, which lasted from Thursday to Saturday. The teams were notified Wednesday of the disaster and told tremors were felt as far away as Los Angeles, with 50,000 people moderately and severely malnourished in and around Mexico City. The teams were told 304,000 were dead and 80 percent of Mexico City suffered severe infrastructure damage.

Then they were told to develop a plan and get to work.

“That's what happens,” Isaac said. 

To find out how you can help in future real disaster relief efforts, visit www.samaritanspurse.org.