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Out of the comfort zone

Working with local communities to provide shelter following major disasters is a world away from the beach-side town of Coffs Harbour, on the east coast of Australia.

Famous for its banana plantations and an idyllic tourist and retirement destination, the town provides a picturesque and comfortable lifestyle for engineer David O'Meara. 46-year-old David is a true local, being born and raised in the city, but he finds that he is most content when he is away from the sunny beaches, working with people who have been devastated by natural disaster.

David is an aid worker with Australian Red Cross and specialises in the provision of shelter for displaced people. He has been at some of the biggest and most challenging natural disasters in recent history, including the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods of 2010, where millions of people became homeless and displaced.

Today he is designing a pedestrian bridge for a tourist precinct in Coffs Harbour. David, says while he is happy being a partner of a local engineering firm, he really enjoys being sent to do aid work.

"You get out of your comfort zone and you hope you're doing some good for the people you're there to help," he says. "It puts a lot of things into perspective when you see what these people have gone through. It resets your own goals and what you want and need out of life."

David's first mission with Australian Red Cross was in October 2009, when he went to the Philippines to help with the emergency response for Typhoon Ketsana. He was struck by the anguish of the people.

"I remember this man, the desperation on his face. We were there to help, but sometimes you feel helpless."

David recalls how people were crammed into school classrooms for shelter, and that he could only access them by canoe. "There was a desperateness in all of them."

When David was in the Philippines he was part of the Field Assessment Coordination Team, whose role is to assess the damage, identify the needs and report back to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) so that aid money is channelled into the areas of greatest need.

"The best way I could help the people was to report back to the funding bodies just how bad it was."

In February 2010, Haiti was struck by a catastrophic earthquake and David assisted with the distribution of tarpaulins and tents. In October of the same year Pakistan flooded and David, now a seasoned aid worker, was sent as deputy team leader of the Field Assessment Coordination Team.

David's assignments are generally short term, about four weeks, and directly after the event has happened. He arrives in locations when they are in complete chaos, but is always inspired by the resilience of the local people.

"Their recovery process begins from the moment they pull themselves out of the rubble," he says.

"The devastation in Haiti was horrendous. We were there to help vulnerable people but Haiti was a situation where most people would be considered vulnerable before the earthquake even hit. We then had to go in and work out where to begin to help these displaced, vulnerable people, many of them so poor that they didn't have anything to lose in the first place. They were all desperate."

"There was a major lack of shelter. People were living under whatever they could. People who had homes that were still standing chose to sleep under tarpaulins because they were too scared to sleep in their homes for fear of another earthquake."

David's team, a combination of aid workers from the Finnish and Australian Red Cross, had 1300 tents and 2600 tarpaulins to disburse. They worked with other aid agencies to distribute the shelters and other relief items.

"Having shelter is so important. It provides security, privacy and an area people can call their own. People were grateful for our help. They just wanted to keep going with their life."

David conducts training for other Red Cross/Red Crescent aid workers from around the world. He recently co-convened a specialised shelter and assessment course near Melbourne for aid workers from Asia and the Pacific, including Tonga, Samoa, Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Nepal. The training aims to build the capacity of Red Cross/Red Crescent societies in disaster prone regions to respond to major events.

A recent project resulted in Dave preparing guidelines for the IFRC around resettlement and reconstruction after a major disaster. He travelled to Sri Lanka and the Maldives to review the recovery process from the 2004 Tsunami.

"It was interesting to go back and see people living in the houses that were built, funded by international donations. It was good to see the results. It actually does work."

David was an experienced aid worker prior to coming on board with Australian Red Cross in 2009. Between 2004 and 2008 he had been to Southern Sudan to support people who were displaced from the war, Sri Lanka and the Maldives following the Tsunami, and Papua New Guinea and Fiji after cyclones and destructive winds.

Now, he is ready to leave his comfort zone again. "Coffs Harbour is a nice place to come back to, but I'm ready to go abroad and do more work in capacity building and community development." David plans to work long term in developing countries, supporting communities vulnerable to disasters as they prepare for, respond to and recover from major events.

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Photos: Haiti: Jose Manuel Jimenez/IFRC, David: Finnish Red Cross

Click here  for further information on the Red Cross response to the Haiti earthquake 2010.