Blog post

A port in a storm

With a wealth of wisdom and experience in humanitarian emergency response, 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 hurricanes 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 ETC Coordinator for the response.

“Honestly, it was like a ghost town. 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, UAE. She looks out 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, a 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.

“One facilitator had to be prepositioned 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. 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.

Photo: WFP / Angel Bruitago

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.

Caroline in the helicopter during her mission to The Bahamas.

“gear.UP is definitely fun but you can go in as the best team leader and then when you’re in that environment 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.”

gear.UP 2019
Participants gather for gear.UP 2019 in 

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 from ETC and non-ETC personnel around the world; the often-panicked instruction to “ask Caroline” is one that bounces around numerous times a day.

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 organisation is encouraging more women and I see a real shift to attract attention to these roles,” she says.

Indeed, 78% 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.