In the eye of the storm

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Two years after the Westgate attack TABITHA AREBA spoke to a man who has seen all the bad and the ugly sides of disasters. Read about the behind-the-scenes tales of a terrorist attack that East African and the world would love to forget.

When the Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013, I first read about it on Twitter. But it was a following update that shocked me. The death toll was estimated to be in the thousands. Then the photos followed. The destruction to life and property was catastrophic. There was death and desperation everywhere.

Human suffering caused by natural hazards are the worst the world has experienced in the recent past. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest recorded storms ever, had killed over 5,235 people (by 26 November) and injured over 23,501. Despite meteorological predictions that it would sweep through the Philippines as a ‘super typhoon’, the risks from the accompanying storm surge were not fully appreciated, reports the BBC.

A man who has seen all the bad and the ugly sides of disasters is Abbas Gullet, the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) Secretary General. Natural or man-made disasters, you can never be fully prepared, he says.

Gullet has been in the eye of the storm many times. When he speaks, you can see from the look on his eyes that he probably knows what death and suffering is all about. He is one executive who cannot afford to ignore his customers because it is normally a matter of life and death.

Reflections on Westgate

Two years after the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall, Gullet is still shaken. The memories are still fresh in his mind. He was right in the centre of the “Westgate” storm.

The approach used by the government to rescue victims and end the siege at the Westgate mall attack that killed 67 people received varied criticism both locally and internationally. The larger public complained about the slow pace in rescuing victims and in ending the siege. Noting the gaps in the rescue mission, security experts called on the Kenyan government to embrace a new approach in fighting terrorism by advancing its weaponry, applying new technologies, gathering intelligence by infiltrating terrorist cells and by being ahead every time.

Gullet admits that the situation would have been handled much better, but notes that the attack was so complex and difficult that despite training and preparation, the reality was different.

The first few hours of any disaster are always difficult and complex. In his article Managing the Emergency Response, Thomas Drabek notes that despite the important augmentations and specialised functions that are provided by state and federal agencies, especially during the recovery phases of many disasters, the first line of responsibility for public protection resides with the local government.

“The government has the fundamental responsibility. The civilian side of the Government works closely with the military side, while private institutions such as the civil society, foreign actors and United Nations agencies come in to help. Ours is to support their initiatives. KRCS is linked to the Government by law and is expected to respond to emergencies and disasters when they occur,” explains Gullet.

Role of the government

Coordination too is a government responsibility and this should emanate from a central point in terms of who speaks for that disaster. The Kenya National Disaster Operation centre is mandated to manage and coordinate disaster response at a national level, to act as the command centre for all communications and information relating to response operations and to liaise with responsible ministries on national response efforts. “If you ask me about the Kenya Red Cross, at a national, regional level, branch level, we know what our specific roles are in terms of disaster, whether man-made or natural,” he says.

Despite specific and general roles assigned to different organs of society, response to disaster hugely depends on what the emergency is made of. Gullet says that if it is a terrorist attack like the case of Westgate, things can be made better by looking at initial interventions by humanitarian organisations and first responders.

“But given the circumstances, the security and complex nature of that particular event, I could say people accounted for themselves very well. We could have been there sooner than later, we could have evacuated more people but from a turning point of view, I think it was not overly bad, but there is always room for improvement both on quality service and response time,” he says.

From Gullet’s analysis of the context, means and resources in the country, what had to be done was done at the time it was to be done. However, he admits that the impact in terms of loss of business, economic difficulties, the stigma and trauma that people have to live with is immense. “But as sad as it may be and sound, we have to pick up the pieces and go on with life. We should work hard to averse the next one from happening. We should get ahead of the terrorists and not be reactive,” he advises.

Disaster preparedness

The Westgate attack was indeed an eye opener. The attack shows the need to embrace information on specifics such as education on how to handle scenes of crime, coordination between hospitals, security forces and organisations handling cases of family reunification, missing persons and the bereaved.

How are people educated and prepared about disasters? How do they behave in such situations? Rescuers went into the mall without bulletproof vests. But in hindsight says Gullet; “At the time when we were going in to help, we could not think for even a minute that we should first secure ourselves, so what we did was fine and well-intended, but in future, we can do it differently.”

Gullet shares a lesson he learnt from a discussion he had with the New York team that was involved in the 9/11 rescue operations; “The biggest thing a nation or a country can do is by all costs preparing for the next attack. We need to be proactive as we deal with this issue.”

Preparation means better coordination and intelligence to prevent future attacks. “We have to go after these terrorists and understand where they are, who they are, who their financiers are, who their pay masters are and how they operate so that we are not caught off-guard,” says Gullet.

From an intelligence perspective, the government should ensure another terrorist attack is averted. While noting that corruption is the root cause of most calamities in Kenya, Gullet is concerned about immigration officers and the police allowing foreigners to come to Kenya through the border posts. “People should put the nation before themselves, and report to the government suspicious people in the neighbourhood or estate,” he says.

During disasters, Murphy’s Law tends to apply – what could go wrong most often than not goes wrong. Top of Gullet’s priority list is communication that should be streamlined to avoid contradiction. During the Westgate disaster, communication went out a lot from KRCS and other humanitarian actors. However, the different levels of communication from the government on what was going on was a glaring gap.

Accounting for funds

Since disasters never announce their arrival, KRCS has to be ready at all times. Fortunately, they have been able to ask for financial help through crowd sourcing.

The funds collected during a disaster are managed through a grant. In the case of Westgate, a task force chaired by KRCS was set up to look into the management and allocation of funds collected. The taskforce comprised of Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, Martin Oduor-Otieno, Mugo Kibati, and the chief executives of five hospitals: Aga Khan, MP Shah, Avenue, Guru Nanak and Nairobi hospital, auditors Deloitte and Touche, St Johns Ambulance and KRCS. Close to KSh135 million was raised. The major mandate of the taskforce was to look at who was hospitalised where and the costs incurred.

“Deloitte and Touche receives bills from hospitals. We have identified two private doctors who will look at invoices raised by the hospitals to ensure that amounts charged are correct. The bills then go back to the auditors for approval, after which we make payment, which is approved by the committee. We are not worried at all on the issue of accountability and transparency,” says Gullet.

A huge amount of the money collected went to hospital bills, and for counselling and psychosocial support for people who were traumatised. Some of the money will be used to buy equipment for Kenyatta National Hospital’s blood centre for national blood transfusion services. We are replenishing the items used for blood donation.”

In six days, Kenyan donated 17,240 pints of blood against a demand of 1,500 pints by the National Blood transfusion, which was achieved on the first day. Any remaining funds will go towards supporting families who lost their beloved ones.

Media coverage of Westgate

The coverage of the Westgate attack also put the media on the spotlight. Gullet notes that at some point, the media put the humanitarian institution into conflict with the Government.

“If the media went to the Government to get information and they did not get any then came to the KRCS and we gave them that information, the Government may have perceived that the KRCS was contradicting their stand.”

There was a perception that the media was being gagged and not given correct or enough information, but Gullet argues that that can vary from one media house to the other. “We had no other vested interests than doing what we had to do for the ordinary person affected by this conflict and secondly, passing this information as and when it is needed.”

What about the issue of missing persons I ask? “When we gave some figures of even dead or missing persons then of course the government had different views. It is sad that sometimes these things happen, but I talked to the Cabinet Secretary and told him that we are not in competition,” says Gullet. KRCS has a programme where people come and report that certain persons are missing. In situations like Westgate there are people who take advantage and claim to have lost their beloved ones, which sometimes is inaccurate.

“The media has plus and minus, but for Westgate, the Government would have been more proactive and more forthcoming with information and how to engage with the media, what to disseminate to the media and what not to disseminate, and the appropriateness of that information,” concludes Gullet.

Email: tareba@kim.ac.ke

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