UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2009
After the Storm
On the front lines of catastrophe
by Nathan Dinsdale
T

he ground begins to shake in China. A massive wave surges violently toward Sri Lanka. Ferocious winds and turbulent waters pummel levees in Louisiana until they shudder and crack. We all know what happens next.

For most people, the utter devastation wrought by disaster — both natural and man-made — snares our attention for a few fleeting moments with horrifying television clips, shocking headlines and somber radio bulletins. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled program.

But for others, the real work has just begun. They are the ones responsible for rendering immediate aid to devastated populations in the aftermath of a catastrophe. They are also the intrepid workers who help shattered communities recover, rebuild and protect against future disasters. When lightning strikes and the world splinters, two USD graduates are among those helping to pick up the pieces.

Tracy Reines has a peculiar way of telling time. She recalls most of the last decade less by strict chronology than by geographical calamity: In 2002, it was New York after 9/11. Then wartime reconstruction in Afghanistan (2004), the tsunami aftermath in Sri Lanka (2005) followed by famine in the Horn of Africa (2008). But it was a refugee camp in the Kigoma region of Tanzania (2000) that left perhaps her most indelible memory.

That’s where Reines met the man with the scar. He was one of the thousands of displaced survivors who’d escaped to Tanzania after fleeing civil wars in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, and massive floods in Mozambique to the south. The man bore a hardened wound beneath his chin that stretched from ear to ear, a ghastly memento left behind by an assailant’s machete.

“To me, it was the most horrific example of the darkness of humanity,” she says. “But at the same time, he was alive, he had a family — two little kids running around — and he was tending his own little garden in this refugee camp and just living his life.”

At the time, Reines was a backpacker-turned-volunteer-humanitarian. Now she’s director of the American Red Cross International Response Operations Center, but the image still serves as a reminder of perseverance in the face of peril.

“I’ve seen so many people in so many terrible situations, and their ability to cope and be resilient still amazes me. When you see that over and over again, it becomes very difficult to complain about a subway train running late. Everyone has their daily annoyances, but that just puts things into incredible perspective.”

After earning her communications degree from USD in 1994, Reines spent months traveling throughout Southeast Asia before returning to San Diego to teach English as a Second Language. Then she joined the Peace Corps and spent two years training teachers in rural villages (“It was very basic; no electricity, no running water”) in Namibia.

“I fell in love with [Africa] when I was in the Peace Corps,” she says. “I just connected with the environment, the people and the continent in general. It’s a very dynamic, very emotional place, and I had a very strong affection for it.”

After leaving the Peace Corps, Reines spent months backpacking across southern and eastern Africa. Then catastrophic floods hit Mozambique. She felt an urgent desire to help and suddenly found herself standing outside a Red Cross command post.

“It’s kind of funny to look back at me just knocking on their door and saying, ‘Hi, I want to volunteer,’” she recalls. “I didn’t know anything about how the system worked. It just felt very immediate. I wouldn’t say it was exciting, it was just very visceral and tangible and pressing.”

She worked as a Red Cross volunteer in the Tanzanian refugee camps before returning to the United States to earn her graduate degree in international education policy from Harvard, while also interning in the American Red Cross department she now heads. After graduation, Reines spent about 18 months working as part of the Red Cross international family assistance program, which is aimed at providing aid to the families of the more than 500 victims of the 9/11 attacks who were either foreign nationals or were supporting dependents outside the U.S.

In 2004, Reines became an education manager for the International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan to help train teachers and ensure that Afghani girls had equal access to schooling. The controversial assignment took place far from the relative safety of Kabul, in a remote region near the Pakistan border where Taliban fundamentalism still reigned.

The day she arrived, a United Nations employee was shot and killed and schools were burned to the ground. Reines had to be driven everywhere by convoy; she wore head-to-toe Western clothing, while her Afghan counterparts wore burkas.

“It was a very complicated and complex environment but it was also phenomenally interesting,” she says. “It could be a bit nerve-wracking, but the people I met and worked with were fascinating and, again, incredibly resilient.”

In late 2004, Reines rejoined the American Red Cross to head up hurricane relief operations in Grenada, then tsunami disaster response in Sri Lanka before returning to work at American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“I think there’s a very particular profile, a set of skills and interests that make you able to do this kind of work,” she says. “There’s not that many people who want to do it and can do it beyond a year or two. I just feel like a very fortunate person to have the experiences I’ve had and to be in the position I’m in.”

As director of the IROC, Reines oversees a team of six people who are responsible for handling the logistics of every international disaster response undertaken by the American Red Cross. That includes managing internal operations, dispensing funds, mobilizing response teams and deploying stockpiles of emergency supplies, all with the understanding that lives literally hinge on their job efficiency.

“I’d say 85 percent of what we do is not on the international news,” she says. “Our resources are limited, but there is always something happening. A lot of the things we’re working on right this minute — floods in Colombia, floods in Sri Lanka, food security in the Horn of Africa, aid in Gaza, cholera in Zimbabwe, fires in Australia, an earthquake in Costa Rica — most people don’t even know about.”

Reines spends less time in the field these days and more time shuttling between D.C. and the Red Cross’ international headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, but in the last two years has still assisted on the ground with flood relief in Mozambique and overseeing food security assessments in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

“There’s no question that when you travel a lot you crave normalcy and predictability,” she says. “So to quench that thirst, last year I bought a house and I bought a dog. That said, I have a lot of housesitters and dogsitters.”

Reines says she welcomes “dipping my toe” into some semblance of a typical 9-to-5 life and she eventually foresees herself working on more of a policy level, possibly with education reform within the United States. For the time being, however, she’s still invigorated by her work despite the rigors it commands.

“I don’t have any huge lofty ideals or naiveté about this work,” she says. “It’s complicated, it’s painful and it can be very ugly and frustrating and heartbreaking. But I also believe in this organization, and I feel profoundly fortunate to have a job that I love. You have to put your energy somewhere, and if you can affect people’s lives in a positive way — even for a moment — I think that’s a good use of your energy.”

J

ennifer Gerbasi didn’t have to wait long. Mere weeks after taking over as a disaster recovery planner in southern Louisiana, her first disaster came calling. And when word spread that Hurricane Gustav’s arrival was imminent, her reaction was immediate.

“We just left,” she recalls with a laugh. “When they said a hurricane was coming we didn’t sit around and think about it.”

She wasn’t alone. Gustav sparked one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history across a region still nursing wounds inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Then, 12 days after Gustav made landfall, Hurricane Ike struck. Talk about on-the-job training.

“We’re always on the edge of another storm,” Gerbasi says. “It’s just a fact of life in this part of the country. But one of the major complications is that we’re also always working on recovery programs for previous storms when the next one hits.”

After graduating from the USD School of Law in 1995, Gerbasi spent years working on environmental policy issues in California and elsewhere before earning a degree in environmental management from Cornell University, then a master of laws in advocacy from Georgetown University.

She eventually became director of policy and legislative affairs for the Tennessee Clean Water Network, an advocacy organization focused on water quality issues. In June 2008, after years of butting heads with government bureaucrats, Gerbasi officially became one when she joined the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government.

The biggest difference? “I can’t sue them now in order to get things done,” she laughs ruefully. “Filing a lawsuit or an injunction was pretty effective in Tennessee. I can be a little bit of an apologist (now that I’m working within the government), but in many respects it just gives me better access.”

But access doesn’t guarantee expediency. Gerbasi oversees the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for the Terrebonne Parish planning and zoning department. The federal program — administered through FEMA — is intended to provide recovery funds for local governments after a natural disaster. However, there’s a sizable gap between the allocation and implementation of those resources as they navigate through at least three (local, state and federal) different bureaucracies.

“Programs that are supposed to be very simple can languish for years going through all the red tape,” she says. “We’re only just now implementing projects from the 2005 storms because of how slowly the process works. That can be incredibly frustrating, but we find ways to be creative and do everything we can with what we have.”

In addition to helping residents recover from the damage of past storms, Gerbasi works to help insulate communities in the region from future disasters. That’s no easy task when considering the geography of southern Louisiana and how particularly susceptible it is to devastation.

“If you don’t live here, it seems like common sense to say, ‘Don’t build on the flood plain,’” she says. “But the topography is very different here. You go from sea level to an elevation of maybe 15 feet and that’s all. It’s completely flat and it’s mostly bayous and canals. If you see a light in the distance here, it’s probably a bridge.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that the parish’s booming economy — consisting largely of crabbing, fishing, oyster farming, shipbuilding and off-shore drilling — necessitates that the population live in close proximity to the water.

“In reality, you can’t move out of the flood plain,” Gerbasi says. “We have one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the nation with a huge housing demand; only eight percent of the region is on buildable land.”

Instead, Gerbasi is helping to design and implement new building and zoning regulations in order to allow communities to mitigate the risks of living in an area vulnerable to natural disasters. And in a region where erosion absorbs “a football field a day” of coastland into the Gulf of Mexico, building up natural safeguards — including erecting barrier islands and planting trees — is an essential part of her work. But those measures will take years to implement. In the meantime, yet another hurricane season approaches.

“Realistically, it’s going to take decades,” Gerbasi says. “Until then, we have to figure out how to pull people above the water and build better within the existing landscape.”

The work can be heartrending. She routinely works with citizens whose homes have been in disrepair for years while waiting on long-delayed government assistance. And while she relishes the opportunity to help alleviate that immediate suffering, her real focus is on making sweeping changes that will impact the region for decades to come.

“It’s a wonderful feeling when you’re able to help people,” Gerbasi says. “At the same time, my focus is more on long-term issues. When you can get an ordinance or a piece of legislation past the city council or the state legislature (that) makes a broad change in the community value or a shift in consciousness in order to build toward a better future, that’s very gratifying.”

C

ome hell or high water” is a phrase typically cast about with casual bravado. But for Reines and Gerbasi it might as well be a job description. Their work is predicated on bringing hope and comfort to people and places wracked with devastation and despair. Needless to say, it’s not labor for the meek.

“It can be very emotional, especially for the individuals who’ve been directly impacted,” Gerbasi says. “You certainly want to be attentive to that, but you also have to stay focused on the bigger picture in order to do your job efficiently and effectively.”

Bearing witness to widespread pain and suffering simply comes with the territory — but so does the ability to do something about it. And while Reines and Gerbasi have no grand illusions or naiveté about trying to save the world, both are emboldened by the fact that what they do affords them rare opportunities to make a real difference.

“I don’t think everyone can be saved just by giving them a tarp and a bucket,” Reines says. “But I believe in what I’m doing. I feel privileged to have a job I love where I can work with fantastic people and be a part of what’s happening in the world. You just have to shine your little light wherever it makes sense and, for me, this is what makes sense.”