Helping Sri Lanka in tsunami crisis


Joseph LaFleur's work in Sri Lanka never made the evening news - he never bandaged gashes, gave water to babies or pitched tents for the homeless.

But the Bel Air man's work behind the scenes had an impact. His low-profile effort among high-ranking Sri Lankan officials helped restructure a bare-bones emergency operations office so overwhelmed by the December tsunami that initially it could not track the more than 30,000 citizens to get aid to them.

"He clearly was able to pull together a major, critical organization," said Brent Woodworth, worldwide manager for IBM's crisis response team.

IBM hired LaFleur as a consultant through its charitable arm, which assists governments in crisis. IBM spent more than $3 million in four countries hit by the tsunami.

LaFleur, a crisis management consultant, spent 17 sweltering days in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, cobbling together not only a plan to guide the government through the crisis, but a blueprint for a comprehensive national emergency management plan, as well.

Sri Lanka, a country the size of West Virginia where one in four live in poverty, had no such strategy.

"It's a heavy challenge for a government to manage if it is not prepared ahead of time," LaFleur said.

And Sri Lanka struggled. Operating out of cramped, dank quarters in a British-era colonial house, the Center for National Operations (CNO) was equipped only to handle aid to victims of anticipated natural disasters, such as cyclones or mudslides.

It had "maybe two computers," LaFleur said.

As a result, the CNO - with headquarters out of harm's way in Colombo - was crushed by the magnitude of the tsunami's aftermath, he added.

Sri Lanka was among the hardest-hit nations. Surging waves swept away fishing villages and cities along the north and east coasts. Galle, on the southern coast near Colombo, also was hit. Colombo remained largely intact, but flooding killed an estimated 80 people in the city of about 2 million.

The country also has been strained by an ethnic civil war between Tamils in the north and east and the Sinhalese, who control much of the country, despite a tenuous, three-year truce.

LaFleur originally was supposed to be stationed in the hardest-hit area - the Banda Aceh region of Indonesia, where some of his IBM colleagues still sleep on bug-ridden floors. But two days before he was scheduled to leave, LaFleur was reassigned to Sri Lanka.

IBM's Woodworth said the government requested help in long-term recovery, LaFleur's area of expertise.

"[Joe] is highly trained in dealing with catastrophic events," he said. "He has the ability to quickly determine which action should be taken ... to aid recovery, minimize losses and to return a disaster-stricken situation to a sense of normality."

LaFleur, 53, has been executive director of emergency management agencies for Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where he managed traumatic events such large oil spills and fatal plane crashes.

In the 1980s, LaFleur served as an assistant associate director with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and later oversaw the U.S. Chemical Stockpile Preparedness Program at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Until 2003, he was senior vice president of Marsh and McLennan Cos., where he consulted with Fortune 500 companies on crisis management. He has since been self-employed.

His work has taken him to troubled, far-away places such as the Cayman Islands after Hurricane Ivan - where he traveled with a three-man security detail - and to rebel areas in India.

In Galle, LaFleur said he encountered a strikingly disconcerting picture - armed soldiers in machinegun nests among glimmering golden Buddhist shrines and squatters living amid the tsunami's rubble.

The disaster in Sri Lanka is "the worst I've ever seen," he said.

One of LaFleur's first tasks was to help the CNO analyze the aftermath. It had no data-gathering mechanisms, so it could not develop an accurate count of the dead, injured, missing and displaced. It was not clear where survivors were. This slowed efforts to put workers in the field, and in getting food, water and shelter to refugees, LaFleur said.

"There was definitely a breakdown in communications concerning what was and wasn't getting to tsunami-struck areas," he said.

The CNO could not track the flow and amount of supplies, a problem that left room for error and manipulation. Although LaFleur witnessed no aid delays to rebel areas, he did encounter situations in which more aid was directed to some CNO employees' favored areas - a situation he said he ended.

"He's a very patient and understanding man," Woodworth said.

LaFleur then helped the CNO move to temporary quarters in a government building, and found a permanent location nearby. He brought computers and networks to the office. He taught mitigation strategies and ways to reduce costs.

He also drafted a blueprint for a national emergency management plan, a crucial coping mechanism Sri Lanka needed now that it must tie into an international tsunami warning system.

He suggested ways to streamline all operations into one center that could handle any emergency, from earthquakes to biochemical hazards.

LaFleur also worked to develop a training program for children and adults suffering from severe traumatic stress. One of IBM's pet projects, it is run through the country's agency that aims to stop the trafficking in children.

LaFleur returned to Bel Air on Jan. 29 to his wife and 13-year-old son, who are accustomed to family members responding to crises. LaFleur's wife, Cathy, 40, is a 20-year veteran of the Red Cross. She served when the Pentagon was struck by an airliner in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

And when she once mentioned her concern about LaFleur working amid civil unrest in Sri Lanka, their son, Adam, responded: "But who's going to help all the people?"

LaFleur handled his return with aplomb: One hour after arriving, he was coaching his son's basketball game.

"So much of this is not ego anymore," he said. "It's about the idea you can help somebody."

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