Responding to Haiti Earthquake – The Technology Perspective

In this post I will discuss my mission to Haiti following the Haiti earthquake and the role technology played.


Last January I was the team leader of the Icelandic Urban Search and Rescue team (ICE-SAR) that deployed to Haiti following the devastating earthquake that struck the island on the afternoon of January 12th. Our team is made up of 35 volunteers that normally respond to various kinds of search and rescue missions in Iceland. Our team recently went through a classification process by the United Nations and that helped us is having everything well organized and exercised. This coupled with the speed of decision making within the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs meant that we were the first international urban search and rescue (USAR) team to arrive in Port-Au-Prince in the afternoon of January 13th.

The situation as we arrived was devastating and very few of us will ever forget the sights and sounds we witnessed those first days in Haiti. Thankfully we were able to rescue 3 live victims from a collapsed super-market within 24 hours of landing in Haiti. Images of the rescue were broadcast live on CNN and our team became a target for media outlets to call for updates.

In this post I want to focus on the aspect of how technology played a role in our operations in Haiti. One of the first things we did after we landed was to call back home to Iceland via satellite phone to let them know we had arrived safely in Port-Au-Prince. Our second phone call was to the UN office in Geneva which coordinates international USAR teams. We let them know that the airport was open and that other teams would be able to get landing permissions via the tower at the airport which was still semi-operational. Our next task was to get connected to the Internet via a satellite based internet system called BGAN. Through it we were able to update other USAR teams on the situation via a restricted web platform used by all the USAR teams worldwide.

The First 48 Hours

After we had set up base camp at the airport the rest of the team deployed into the city to perform search and rescue at a location called Caribbean Super-Market. At the base camp we were in constant contact with our headquarters back in Iceland and with UN in Geneva via our BGAN connection. As other teams arrived and the UN set up a coordination center (in our base camp), we were able to utilize the same technology to get maps of the area that could be used to plan the search operations.

Since our team working in the field was also equipped with a BGAN then they could retrieve information specific to their location as well as send and receive information to/from basecamp. This made all information processing much easier than relying simply on radio or satellite phone communications. They were also able to upload images of the first rescues that our headquarters then distributed to the media and our families and colleagues back home in Iceland.

The Importance of Maps

In the days that followed we were searching through areas of Port-Au-Prince and the coordination of that effort was made possible through the access to satellite imagery and maps that were downloaded through the BGANs. This was a stark difference from the earthquake in Bam, Iran in 2003 when everything was coordinated using a map of the town drawn up from a guidebook. A great NGO called MapAction deploys along with the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team that is responsible for the overall coordination of large disasters. The MapAction team consists of GIS experts that work daily on creating maps. When they deploy to disasters they are key to getting good reference and situational overview maps on the ground.


Having the ability to communicate easily back to headquarters also made it easier for us to do our job. On day 4 we were given the assignment to go to the town of Leogane which is approx. 30 km outside of Port-Au-Prince. It had been severely damaged by the earthquake since it was closer to the epicenter than the capitol. We were handed that assignment late in the evening and were given security clearance to go there early the following morning. Instead of staying awake the entire night retrieving information about the town and plan how to perform operations, we were able to hand over that work to our headquarters team. They had a great internet connection (compared to our 32kbps connection) and were all experienced search managers. When we woke up at 5am, we had a great information package waiting in our email inbox with maps, pictures of large building in the town and GPS locations of the schools and government offices. This remote planning of the search effort was made possible through the increased ability to connect to the Internet, even from disaster locations.

Hotel Montana

On our final day in Haiti, the team unanimously volunteered for a very difficult task, which was to go to Hotel Montana, a hotel and apartment complex where UN and NGO workers frequently stayed many of them along with their families. The hotel had already been searched for 10 days and likelihood of live finds was very low. Instead the team knew the main task would be body recovery. In the words of the squad leaders as they informed me of their decision to volunteer for this task, “we feel the humanitarian workers are our team members and we know our families would like to get closure”. 

As the team went up to Hotel Montana from our base at the airport, I put a message on Twittersaying that I was proud of this decision of my team to take on this difficult task. A few minutes later I got a message via Facebook from a relative of a family member still missing in Hotel Montana. The message pointed me towards a Facebook group focusing on the efforts at Hotel Montana. I started posting information on the group page about our efforts there and answer questions from relatives in dire need of information. There was a media blackout at the site imposed by the UN peacekeeping team controlling the site. This meant relatives were not getting any information at all and many thought nothing was being done at the site. I could provide them with detailed information about the number of teams working on the site and give them insight into the progress being made. Relatives also sent me information about where their loved ones had been which I made sure to pass on to those coordinating the efforts at the site. 

The team came back to camp around 2am after a very long and difficult day. At that time I was able to share with them some of the messages I had received from the relatives and it is needless to say that there was a very emotional atmosphere in the base camp. I was happy to find out later that rescue teams that came after us to Hotel Montana continued this practice of reporting back to the relatives.

Rebuilding Haiti

Haiti will never leave the minds of those who have responded there and when we meet we all admit our thoughts go back there every day. It is my hope that the current efforts to rebuild Haiti will receive the funding and support needed to help them get back on their feet.

Published June 24th 2010 at DisasterExpert