P!Nterview: ShelterBox in Turks and Caicos

Traci Oliver with the young Turks and Caicos cadets who helped deploy 200 ShelterBox tents.

Traci Oliver with the young Turks and Caicos cadets who helped deploy 200 ShelterBox tents.

P!Nterview: Traci Oliver, a ShelterBox Response Team member, describes her first deployment to the Caribbean Turks and Caicos islands

How did you become a Shelter Box SRT member?
ShelterBox began as a project of the UK Rotary Club, but grew into its own entity.  I was attending a Rotary Club meeting, and the guest speaker there volunteered for ShelterBox.  I was talking to him before the meeting; at some point he said, “Boy, have I got the organization for you.”   

How are ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) members selected? 
There are 200 SRT members throughout the world. The selection process is intense.  There’s a one hour interview in the host country followed by a 3 day assessment in Fort Walton, FL.  This tests whether you can work outdoors for 3 days straight and use a map and compass and work well with others.  If you pass that, there’s a more intense 9 day training in the UK to see if you can work well on a team in harsh conditions. Then, you are put on a deployment list.

Your first deployment was in 2008, to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Why were you sent there?

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Traci Oliver

I was actually chosen for Haiti, but then, several ShelterBox volunteers there were shot at. No-one was injured, but the organization decided to send me to Turks and Caicos instead. They didn’t want to risk our safety or exacerbate the situation in Haiti by sending more volunteers there. ShelterBox feels that our ability to provide relief is compromised if volunteers become media spectacles.

You were deployed in Turks and Caicos for 15 days. What were your first impressions?
We arrived in Providenciales, a vacation hub. It was not devastated, and I wondered initially why we were deployed there. We took a plane 21 degrees south of Providenciales, to the islands of Grand Turk, Salt Key, and South Caicos. Then I understood why we’d been sent. All three looked like they’d been ripped apart by bulldozers.

What did your team do there?
ShelterBox provides basic necessities after a disaster. We don’t come to rebuild, we come to address shelter, water purification and base needs until long term comprehensive plans can be put into action. ShelterBox addresses the interim between a storm’s landfall and the arrival of aid agencies.

What was the biggest logistical challenge you faced?
We had no electricity. It was September, and we were told the power might come back before Christmas. There were no phones. We went to the Customs office. It was destroyed. Shipping office: same story. . .So we had to rely on word of mouth to identify the government officials and partners like the Red Cross, who we needed to deploy our 200 boxes. Being on a small island facilitated that network building, but it was challenging.

What was the greatest emotional challenge you encountered?
We only had a certain number of boxes and tents. Tough choices had to be made about who got supplies and who didn’t. If there was a single man standing in front of a family of 5, we had to ask whether the man, who still had a need, could partner with someone so as not to deny him completely.

What would you say is important in terms of storm planning?
I think people need a plan and stowed supplies. This is especially important in the Caribbean islands. Residents there don’t have the advantage of a large land mass to take refuge in, which makes planning even more crucial.

Was poverty an issue in Turks and Caicos?
Turks and Caicos islands include an interesting mix of Turks, Haitians, and various expatriates. The islands do not have the dramatic wealth extremes of other Caribbean destinations. That said, I was taken aback when I learned that the disaster relief efforts there focused on rebuilding the tourist industry before addressing all the residents’ basic needs. But, since the tourism industry feeds the islands, I can see how that strategy was also addressing basic needs.

Who of the people you met, impacted you most profoundly?
As I shared, when we arrive in a country, we form teams with locals and other volunteers. In Turks and Caicos, we partnered with teenage cadets. Their school had been destroyed and they were very distressed about this. They kept saying that if their school was not rebuilt soon, they would not be able to prepare for the test that would allow them to go onto the next grade. I was very struck by their level of concern, and back at our camp at night we would sit up asking: “So we’ve deployed the boxes, but what are we going to do for these kids?”