Trainees Respond to Disaster Relief Simulation in Boone

Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) trainee David Phillips (on left) offers money and humanitarian assistance to DART trainee Hallie Powers (on right, holding gun), acting as a scared victim of an 8.3-magnitude earthquake striking Mexico City. This role play was part of a disaster relief simulation exercise in Deep Gap organized by international relief organization Samaritanís Purse. Photo by Megan Northcote

It’s Friday morning, September 23, and a kidnapping has just occurred in Mexico City.

In broken English, actor Hallie Powers stands defiantly, gun cocked, demanding money for food and clothing for her and her children, who have lost everything to an 8.3-magnitude earthquake that recently struck her home in Mexico City.

Actor David Phillips, being trained as a Disaster Assistance Response Team [DART] member, tries to negotiate with the Mexican woman, who is holding his friend hostage until an agreement can be reached regarding how much money he can give her for food and job security. At last a truce is reached, and Phillips’ friend is released.

This seemingly real-life scenario actually occurred in an open field in the Blue Ridge Mountains off Old U.S. 421 in Deep Gap last week, from September 22 until noon on September 24, as part of a disaster relief simulation training held by Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization based in Boone.

This is the first year Samaritan’s Purse has held training locally for its staff who are deployed year round to provide humanitarian assistance, such as food, clean drinking water and medical assistance, to victims of natural disasters worldwide.

“We do respond to disaster all over the world, but we’ve never had to respond to a disaster of the magnitude we’re playing out now,” Paul Chiles, Samaritan’s Purse simulation facilitator, said. “This simulation is going to increase our capacity. We’re going to be able, after this, to direct adequate resources to probably a disaster of any magnitude that might come along.”

To do this, approximately 250 volunteers, some trainees of Samaritan’s Purse and other community volunteers of various disaster relief response experience levels, were tested on how well they respond to a disaster situation. Others acted as disaster relief victims.

The simulation is based entirely on a script written by Chiles, kept secret from all participating volunteers. In the script, for every four hours, one day has elapsed.

Following the script, on Wednesday evening at 6:00 p.m., Chiles received a call notifying him of the earthquake, prompting Samaritan’s Purse’s Incident Management Team (IMT) to deploy four DART teams totaling 44 people, including surgeons, nurses and pediatrics, to respond to one of four site locales to tend to the disaster victims.

These four recreated site locales included: a highly industrialized area suffering from pollution, high rise apartments that collapsed on victims, the slums where victims are chronically hungry and a mudslide near a lake.

A city center was created, including a marketplace and banks where an actor playing the mayor of Mexico City negotiated supplies distribution and strategy tactics on site.

In addition, the United States Air Force assembled a hospital ward on site, powered by solar panels and a windmill, to test how efficiently this government unit could work with Samaritan’s Purse, a non-governmental organization.

All total, Chiles estimates the simulation site cost between $100,000 and $200,000 to assemble, just in the preparation phase.

Powers, who played the role of a Mexican female kidnapper living in the slums, is a full-time Samaritan’s Purse employee and DART member, having served on the financial assistance team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Powers said the greatest skill she’s gained from the simulation and real-life scenarios is “having to make tough decisions under pressure.” After playing the role of a disaster relief victim, she hopes she never has to be on the victim’s side of the disaster in real life.  

Chiles, who’s had 27 years of disaster relief experience worldwide, is highly impressed with the staff’s performance in the simulation as of Friday morning.

“Happily, we’re finding some things to refine,” Chiles said. “We’re finding some areas where we’re weak, and we’ll be able to use that to strengthen our response…and that’s what we wanted to see, so we’re learning what we needed to learn.”