‘Every night, you have to be ready’: What it’s like to work in a disaster zone

Thương Nguyễn’s job is a far cry from the average 9-5. It has taken her into the centre of some of the world’s worst crises, where situations can worsen fast.

“When you go on deployment you’re basically working 24/7,” the Brighton-based disaster response worker tells i. “There’s no rest day. If anything happens in the middle of the night, you need to be ready for it.”

Ms Nguyễn, 34, studied physics and engineering at Leeds and UCL before she began volunteering with the British Red Cross. She has now spent seven years working for the organisation in disaster and conflict zones in 15 countries including Malawi, Haiti, Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I have a bag that’s always ready to go,” she says. “Everything you bring is about self-sufficiency and to make sure that whatever the conditions are, you can manage.”

Her bag contains a first aid kit, medicine, basic cooking equipment, battery packs, mosquito repellent, and a backup passport – and she can be required to leave home within 48 hours.

Ms Nguyễn, community engagement and accountability adviser on the Red Cross Global Surge Team, provided survey training to the Red Crescent team responding to the floods in Libya and is in contact with one of them as they assess the scale of the emergency.

“They’re providing first aid, and they’re assisting with search and rescue and evacuations from the flooded areas,” she said, adding that the team would be working out what the priorities are.

Her last deployment was to Malawi earlier this year during the deadliest cholera outbreak in the country’s history, with more than 1,000 deaths. While she was there, a tropical storm hit the country causing huge flooding, which exacerbated the outbreak.

“A lot of people were evacuated into schools because entire villages got destroyed,” she said, recalling meeting people living in “appalling” conditions after a landslide demolished everything in its path.

She was there for two months, working with local communities to ensure that different groups had the help that they needed.

Ms Nguyen describes one hair-raising moment from a few years ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country plagued by decades of conflict, where the team was helping with the Ebola outbreak.

“We were living in a town surrounded by militia groups, and one day they started fighting each other.”

The team, along with local volunteers, sheltered inside their base. “We could hear the gunshots, they were quite near,” she says, adding that for the local volunteers, it was a regular occurrence.

The ability to stay calm under pressure is essential for the job, says Ms Nguyễn. “The last thing you want is people to be stressed and panic, usually it is quite a chaotic situation. Because it’s quite volatile, and it can change a lot. So you want to also be able to judge quite quickly what’s a priority and what’s not.”

Rescue teams – both local and international – are working hard to save as many people after two devastating disasters hit North Africa; in Libya after Storm Daniel caused massive floods to sweep through the northeast, and in Morocco where they are pulling people out from under collapsed buildings following a 6.8 magnitude earthquake.

The British Red Cross recently launched an appeal to raise funds to support local teams on the ground.

In such a high-pressured job, how does she cope?

“I think it’s important to make time for yourself,” she says.

“If you don’t take care of yourself, then you become a liability to your colleagues in a way. So the last thing you want is for yourself to burnout.”