How did a former laboratory technician end up coordinating humanitarian logistics support for people affected by tropical cyclones in Vanuatu?
Trish Thornhill’s career path was never conventional. After six years in a medical laboratory in Canberra, she joined the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service and was soon assessing the biological risks of imported goods arriving in Australia. Thus began her foundational knowledge of shipping, ports and customs and quarantine services. From here, it wasn’t a big leap into managing the biosecurity of all imported sea cargo for the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests and her focus on imported cargo supply chains remained.
When she took a fly in fly out position in Jakarta that involved capacity building local authorities to prevent and rapidly respond to zoonotic disease events across Indonesia, Trish found herself designing simulation exercises involving local government and the World Health Organisation. A long-term volunteer with the ACT State Emergency Services, she saw the opportunity to combine her skills and experience in the humanitarian sector, responding to global crisis, and applied to join RedR’s humanitarian roster.
This year, Trish was deployed to work with the World Food Programme in Vanuatu and document the infrastructure that plays a key role in the country’s logistics capacity during a humanitarian response. Logistics in Vanuatu is particularly challenging as the population of 270,000 is spread across many islands, most with limited or no port or airstrip infrastructure. Trish travelled to the country’s six provinces and recorded vital information on the location of ports, capacity to land a barge, road conditions, capacity of airstrips, storage availability, and how various disasters impact the needs and supply chains on the islands.
Vanuatu is one of the world’s most disaster prone countries and regularly in the path of tropical cyclones. In 2015, Vanuatu was ravaged by Cyclone Pam which affected 80% of the population and infrastructure is still being repaired. Last year, El Niño caused widespread drought across parts of the country affecting replanted crops and water supplies then, a couple of months ago, disaster struck again.
Whilst Trish was gathering and mapping data on ports, roads and helicopter landing points, Vanuatu was hit by Tropical Cyclones Cook and Donna and she was co-opted to support the humanitarian efforts that provided vital supplies to 176 households in the northern Torres islands.
“Cyclone Donna was a weird one and started as a Category 2 then 3 and, initially, was tracking through the northeast coast of Vanuatu . It then swung over the top and tracked all the way down the west coast escalating to a Category 5. lt sat close to the Torres Islands for many days; they are the most northern islands of Vanuatu,” Trish explained.
“There was significant destruction of housing and crops particularly on Hiu island and damage to water systems,” she said.
Earlier, Cyclone Cook affected the Shepherds Islands in the country’s southeast causing crop damage. Flooding led to the evacuation of 1000 people in Efate, and evacuation centres were opened in Tanna.
Trish provided logistics support to the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) and helped ensure relief supplies like shelter, water and hygiene kits reached those affected in Torres. It was also an opportunity to road test the logistics capacity assessments she was compiling.
“The local people are quite resilient. They even started to build back natural shelters immediately. They cleaned streets and airstrips and just got on with it. I guess they accept it is part of life there,” she noted.
During her deployment, Trish provided mapping information for Vanuatu’s NDMO that included all the road conditions, ports and whether it was possible to land on the beach, or sit at anchorage and banana boat off supplies under certain weather conditions. As a result, those planning a response to the next tropical cyclone that hits this archipelago of 83 islands, will be able to determine the most effective and efficient means of transporting life-saving relief supplies to affected populations; saving both time and money.
Trish’s logistics capacity assessments are now living documents that will be regularly updated by the NDMO and provisional disaster offices.
Are you interested in a career in humanitarian logistics? Our annual Humanitarian Logistics in Emergency course is running from 23 - 28 October at Dookie in Victoria. Click here for more information or to book your place now. Limited places available.