A port in a storm
Caroline Teyssier is the go-to oracle of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster
Being deployed to the Caribbean may sound like a dream mission. But peering out of the window of the tiny helicopter as it attempted to land on Abaco island, the full horror on the ground shattered any illusions. Hurricane Dorian — one of the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic — had just slammed into the northern islands of the Bahamas, causing widespread devastation and leaving more than 40 people dead. Just a few days after the hurricane finally passed, Caroline Teyssier had her boots on the ground as Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) Coordinator for the response.
“Honestly, it was like a ghost town,” she recalls. “You would see the search-and-rescue teams looking through debris. The smell in some areas was strong — a mixture of garbage and bodies. Streets were being cleared at the time and entire houses were destroyed. There’s so much to do to recover but at the same time you can’t do much,” Caroline says, now back in her duty station of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She looks out of the window at the desert landscape and shakes her head. “It was so weird on the island as you look around and see the beach and the colour of the water and…it really was a paradise before.”
Caroline was — luckily or unluckily, depending on how you look at it — already in the Caribbean, helping to conduct, of all things, disaster-preparedness training in nearby Barbados in her role as Deputy Global ETC Coordinator. The team was acutely aware that Hurricane Dorian was on its way and had to conduct the training while also tracking the storm.
WFP’s Barbados Office for Emergency Preparedness & Response in the Caribbean was established in 2018 after hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated large parts of the Caribbean, allowing for swift response as well as pre-emptive action like that taken ahead of Dorian.
“One facilitator had to be pre-positioned in the Bahamas ahead of the hurricane so he’d be able to respond,” says Caroline. “It definitely added a real-life dimension to the training, as we were explaining the importance of preparedness and what happens when we have to deploy to an emergency — while we were doing exactly that.”
It was a near-perfect deployment scenario, as not only was there an experienced coordinator close enough to deploy, but many key ETC partners were also in Barbados with full emergency equipment kits ready to go.
In an unusually quick and tidy operation, the ETC had deployed, set up critical services and then packed up again within three weeks. “I was very happy with the coordination of the partners on the ground and [in that sense] it was one of the smoothest operations,” explains Caroline. “We were lucky with the people that we had there as most knew everyone from previous operations and training over the years.” Responding in an emergency with familiar faces around you makes all the difference and can help to create small but special moments — one well-known partner pausing an assessment with Caroline to save a baby turtle that had been washed up and stranded on the road is an example.
In the often chaotic, unpredictable world of WFP’s IT Emergency Preparedness and Response branch, Caroline, who has been with WFP for eight years, is widely regarded as a steady presence and the oracle of all things ETC.
Originally from a picture-postcard village in the French Alps, Caroline didn’t always know what she wanted to do but knew it needed to involve travel and the chance to use different languages — she made a concerted effort when younger to master English for this explicit reason.
A few short weeks after returning from the Bahamas, Caroline was en route to autumnal Germany for another training exercise, the joint ETC-Logistics Cluster gear.UP disaster simulation. While she usually supports operations from remote, advising the various ETC teams on the ground in emergencies, she is more involved in ETC training these days. A wealth of experience — she has also been deployed as coordinator in Guinea in the Ebola emergency and after the earthquake in Nepal — means she is well positioned to support the participants of gear.UP in what can be a gruelling exercise.
“gear.UP is definitely fun but it is very challenging — you forget how your comfort will be affected: long nights, lack of sleep…so it’s important participants are prepared for that,” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Because not everybody is meant to do this. Even in the Bahamas, which I know sounds amazing,” she laughs, holding up her hands in mock surrender. “Abaco [island] was hard on us. We had no running water, no bathroom, no transport, lots of fuel issues. You know, we just had some bottled water and wet wipes. You’ve been dropped off on Abaco but you’re not sure when you’ll be picked up, so you need to be mentally prepared.”
Highly respected and ever the calm, measured diplomat, Caroline is often found patiently fielding questions in person, by email or on the phone — sometimes all at once. Such is her knowledge and patience, that Caroline’s advice is specifically sought out by ETC and non-ETC personnel around the world.
And then there’s the gender question: as one of only a handful of female coordinators in the Global ETC team, does being a woman in the field make a difference? She smiles before answering carefully: “My preferred answer is that it shouldn’t make a difference, but in some cases it can be a good thing. For example, we [ETC] often have limited interactions with the affected population but if there is a woman present, they can be more approachable.”
She hopes this may encourage other women by showing that emergency response is not a man’s world. “The same goes for IT. There are a lot of women and the organization is encouraging more women, and I see a real shift to attract attention to these roles,” she says.
Indeed, 78 percent of the Global ETC team is female. Most units, including preparedness, information management, communications, training, services for communities, the chief of the branch and the chair of the ETC, are all headed by women. “There has been this perception of IT but it’s not about coding or being geeky,” Caroline says. “It’s drones, services, people, coordination, which all require very different profiles. It’s everything and so much more.”
The oracle has spoken.