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Grad lends expertise to Japan recovery

March 29, 2011
By: 
Amy Dove
Tags: newsalumni

The skeleton framework of a warehouse came into view as Pat Laberge moved closer to the coast. Exposed metal was softened by the clothes draped across the beams, left haphazardly behind when the massive wave rolled off Japan March 11.

Laberge, a Royal Roads alumnus, describes the impact of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami as "mind blowing." Now the senior manager of Asia programs for the Canadian Red Cross, Laberge traveled to Japan five days after the earthquake to help the Japanese Red Cross make a plan of action.

"It's really sobering. It's hard to recognize what you are looking at," she said. "Most of the houses are made of wood and what's left are bits of wood. Everywhere you turned it was just unbelievable destruction. The cars were just sort of tossed around and in the most awkward of places."

Windows in one apartment building, roughly three kilometres from the coast, were blown out up to the third storey. Whole warehouses were reduced to framework.

Laberge was part of a high-level liaison support team.  A graduate of Royal Roads Master's in Conflict Analysis and Management, she was paired with Red Cross managers from South Korea, China, Turkey, Australia and Norway. They were there to offer advice and insight to the Japanese Red Cross as it mobilized toward the areas hardest hit.

"The Japanese Red Cross quickly realized this was bigger than anything they had planned for in terms of need," she said. "They knew the response internationally was going to be huge."

The local Red Cross has a strong disaster response plan, with the ability to mobilize people quickly into areas of need, Laberge said. The major highway running to the coast was closed to all by emergency vehicles, a feat in itself that impressed Laberge. "They had 800 people in within a couple of days ... (but) this disaster was going to require that they expand their role."

That task brought struggle in the first day of Japan's new reality, she said, noting the country is very structured and people have defined roles to play. This disaster dictated that roles had to change, mandates had to be stretched. Watching such a large scale organization expand its operations within a manner of days was fascinating, she said.

The international team worked well with local officials, Laberge said, noting the conversations were tense but productive and respectful. The Japanese officials were able to provide context of what was feasible while the visitors stretched people's thinking with new ideas.

"My background with Royal Roads was very much about how we work with other organizations ... and making the best use of the tensions to be creative and push the envelope of our thinking. That's exactly what we saw happening here."

Ideas were put on the table fast and quickly moved around. By the end of discussions there were six workable recommendations on the table to address longer term needs for the Japanese people, she said. It was important to remember where they were and the fact that in two weeks time the people of Japan would have their immediate needs such as phone service and better access to food addressed. Japan would scale up to the challenge and pick itself up, she said.

The few days Laberge spent in Japan were an amazing professional experience, she said, but also tested her emotionally. While touring the coast she met people in shelters who had been sitting there for five days, cold and without electricity. They had nowhere to go, no money and nothing more than the clothes on their backs, she said. The majority of them were seniors.

"They are incredibly stoic, but just imagine when you are 70 years old thinking 'OK, I am going to have to restart my life,'" she said. "I imagined my father, people that I care about being in that situation and it's really heart wrenching."

Learn how you can help at www.redcross.ca.