Thoughts on Disasters

The following post is contributed by Dan,  a wilderness guide, who has led teams of doctors and nurses on medical diaster response trips throughout the world. 

What does a person who has “been there, done that” have to say?

* * * 

Many of us ponder, even fantasize over what our world here in the USA would be like if we had a wide-scale disaster, whether it be natural or man-made.  We plan, we prepare, but we still don’t really understand the impact.  Even when a large-scale disruption like Katrina occurs, because of our nation’s affluence and infrastructure, we overcome much of the physical hardship. This is not to minimize the true pain and suffering individuals encounter, but to point out it’s all relative.

For example, I was part of a disaster relief team in a heavily damaged location in Mississippi, arriving four days after Katrina hit. The local Lowes had tractor trailers lined up unloading supplies. I’ve never seen so many chainsaws piled so high. There were backhoes and heavy equipment of every description on every street with dump trucks…you get my point. In Haiti, six days after the earthquake, you could still smell the decaying bodies. I only saw two backhoes the entire 18 days I was in Port-au-Prince. 

My point is, if you want to experience the end of life as we know it, volunteer to work in a disaster in a third world.  But don’t just show up, join a legitimate disaster relief organization, get some training on what to expect once you are “in country.”  Here is some advice:

1.  Join a credible organization that has specific goals that meet your world view. You might not appreciate the evening Bible study if you join a Christian relief organization even though I’m sure they would enjoy your company. By the way, we had two representatives from a NGO (non-governmental) stay with us in Haiti. Their mission: to evaluate all relief organizations, both governmental and private.  The Christian relief organizations were much more effective, their words-not mine!

2.  Research what type of medical care you will be providing in a disaster. In Haiti, we had three brilliant ER Doc’s who were not happy because they were doing clinic work. They felt under-utilized.  When we moved into the hospital setting, our ER Docs were happy but our family practice Doc felt uncomfortable with the steady stream of trauma patients.

3.  Get disaster training!!  I cannot over emphasis how important this subject is.  I’m sure most of the readers of this article are very well trained in medical issues, but here are some things to consider:

  1. Do you know the indigenous signs for landmines?
  2. Do you know how to prepare safe drinking water? How much water?
  3. What local foods in this 3rd world country can I eat without getting sick?
  4. What do you mean I have to squat over this hole in the ground to relieve myself!!  Oh – no, I forgot the toilet paper!
  5. No shower for two weeks?!?!?!!!
  6. There’s nothing like a 14 year old boy with an AK-47 searching through your backpack at a road block.
  7. What should be in my bug out bag?
  8. Team security – rally points – escape/evasion
  9. Be mindful of “when helping hurts!”  If you’re not familiar with this term, find out! 

Advanced, real life training will help you determine if disaster relief is your cup of tea.  Probably a good 80% of the people we train for disasters, never go on deployment. To be honest, some just cannot arrange time off on short notice, but a good percentage just don’t like the hardship a disaster will bring. It’s really hard, hot, exhausting, and at times scary work, yet very rewarding. 

Now to tie this all back to Armageddon Medicine.  Experience is the best teacher.  I’m convinced we in the USA do not really know hardship and therefore it is difficult to prepare for it. Working with disaster relief is one concrete way to prepare.  Yes, we can stockpile food, water, guns, ammo, and medicine, but by working in disaster relief teams, you can prepare while serving your fellow man and most importantly, God!

Copyright © 2011 Dan, Wilderness Guide, Disaster Relief

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About Cynthia J. Koelker, MD

CYNTHIA J KOELKER , MD is a board-certified family physician with over twenty years of clinical experience. A member of American Mensa, Dr. Koelker holds degrees in biology, humanities, medicine, and music from M.I.T., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the University of Akron. She served in the National Health Service Corps to finance her medical education.
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7 Responses to Thoughts on Disasters

  1. KF says:

    Dan J,

    In the Eastern US, which organizations will sponsor or provide Professional Medical Personnel the education programs that prepare them in Disaster Response Training?

    Thank you in advance for your assistance.


    • KF says:

      I would recommend Mission to the World’s (MTW) Disaster Response Training. MTW is the mission agency for the Presbyterian Church in America. They have been deploying disaster teams since 2001 and provide professional training at a very reasonable cost. Their main focus is refugee camp clinics. Typically, these disaster response teams live within the refugee camp. The training covers such things as landmine awareness, cultural awareness, refugee camp life, safety, and much more. It is obviously a Christian organization so there is a Biblical emphasis to all aspects of training. MTW is based in Atlanta. Training is held once or twice a year either in western Pennsylvania or in the south.
      I know of other organizations that teach various specialized topics but they don’t cover the broad subject. Hope this helps!

  2. pa4ortho says:

    -gunsite in arizona for firearms training
    -insights in bellevue washington for firearms training
    -there are multiple basic landmine military textbooks along with a google image search for landmines
    -I have not attended it but I heard about a tracker school in arizona? that also teaches urban escape and evasion courses as of a few years ago.
    -link up with a former operator and get cross trained.
    -when you deploy for the first time go somewhere tame,
    -bring former operators along on your trip.
    -bring simple gifts like a lighter to smooth checkpoint crossings. smile and be polite and respectful. stay calm if they are not, as it is contagious. be prepared to transition from kind and relaxed to violent and brutal if the situation warrants, work through questions like where is the nearest object that stops bullets. how do I get out of here in a car or on foot. As a last resort do I have the skills and How fast can I take the kids rifle away and is it loaded.
    -travel the back country with a color copy of your passport and keep the original in a safe in the capitol. this way they cant confiscate the original. do not return to the states with copies as it is illegal here.
    -were local acquired clothes to include the shoes to blend in a little.
    -on arriving in an area make contact with the powerful folks in the area. buy the police chief a nice dinner, provide health care for the local colonel, show respect for the local imam and work with him for a day helping all his friends. this builds him up and makes you valuable. Also everyone now knows you are with him and under his protection. Of course be careful not to build up the wrong folks too much.
    -be very careful around local militia etc… as weapon safety skills are poor. accidental discharge still kills even if it one of your own security forces.
    -ask the embassy staff what local security firm they use or recommend.
    -whenever possible don’t personally drive or carry a weapon to reduce the risk of local incarceration and trial.


  3. Pete says:


    Where is a civilian physician/medic/caregiver to get escape and evasion training, or for that matter, to learn how to recognize where landmines have been placed or how to handle a roadblock staffed by child soldiers? These are military/paramilitary skills, not generally taught in civilian settings. Any comments? Thanks..

    • Dan J says:

      The Department of Defense provides landmine awareness training to organizations upon request. Due to budget cuts, it has really being scaled back but still offered. They are located in Missouri (I can’t remember which military base). As to other training, it is available, granted it may be hard to find. Our denomination, for example, requires all medical personnel to participate in our “Disaster Response Training” before they can be deployed on a medical disaster trip. The training is an extensive 5 day course covering the topics, in varying degrees, referenced in my original posting including landmine awareness. It also includes living in a mock refugee camp and running a clinic. As to a AK-47 toting teenager, nothing really prepares you for that but knowing it might happen during a disaster trip just might keep you at home.

      • Dan J says:

        I just remembered the DOD landmine training location: it’s Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The training is conducted by the Humanitarian Demining Training Center.

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