It was ten years ago ; I had a different job at the French Foreign Ministry. At the time, I was in charge of the Web Unit. It operated a bit like a start-up, almost independently, with elbow grease as its renewable energy source. We had a deadline on 1 January : an improved version of the Ministry’s website, with a new design and revised content. No budget and no outsourcing, so we would have no time off at Christmas. The team consisted of a dozen people, dipped in the fountain of youth at an average temperature of 28 years old ; add to that a healthy dose of talent, determination and good humour… On 26 December 2004, aboard our little ship, it was all hands on deck.
The day after the disaster, there was just one priority for those who were at work. It goes without saying : we abandoned our posts to join the helpline response team set up by the Ministry. There was no outside call centre yet. One caller told us his son was in Khao Lak with his family, in a hotel that we knew to have been swept away by the wave ; another was worried about her young nephew who was backpacking “somewhere in Asia”. Overall, we received thousands of calls.
Doing what we knew how to do
We had to do something, quickly, and do what we knew how to do : web design. So we decided to set up an online response platform. It would be a practical web portal offering official, accurate, verified, up-to-date information : contact details ; advice ; maps that we were converting to digital format one after another, showing the precise topography of the area ; a set of FAQs covering as many questions as possible, in order to anticipate people’s requests and reduce the volume of calls ; and the addresses and account numbers of support funds, to allow people to contribute to the humanitarian assistance that would soon start flooding in. During that period, the Ministry was somewhat deserted and the chain of command was so short (one person before the Minister) that we could work almost in real time. The challenge of crisis management is to balance a fast response, which is crucial for the person waiting, with the need to check information to avoid mistakes, which are particularly unacceptable in such a tragic situation.
Simply getting on with it
We also set up a generic email address, which was publicized on all television news broadcasts and in all newspapers, and responded to emails from 7.30 a.m. to 1.30 a.m. - an exhausting task. We received hundreds of emails each day. The crisis management application told us if the people being searched for had been identified or not, if they were missing or dead, or if we needed to collect further descriptions to be able to match up data gathered locally. If the person had died or the situation was particularly grave, email was no longer suitable : we handed over to those who would find the right spoken words.
We also received emails with information to help identify bodies, which we passed on to the police and the courts : photos of jewellery such as wedding rings, an x-ray of someone’s jaw. The figures were alarming, the victims were mounting up and they were gradually being identified. To deal with the influx, I drafted template responses in which each word was selected with the utmost care, and we adapted them slightly to each case. That way, we could gather more structured information and thus – heartless as it may sound - build up the data base, obtain statistics and, in short, model the development of the crisis in order to adapt our response.
“Other lives but mine”
Yet each email was a story, one of very personal distress. I remember one woman in particular, we’ll call her Jeanne. We had all dealt with messages about her. She must have had dozens of friends in France, real friends, who were extremely worried. She was about sixty, suffered from motor problems and travelled to the beaches of Thailand each year, alone. She went missing from the ravaged island of Koh Phi Phi. There was no reason to hope. We were sent a photo of her : a portrait which gave off the warm fragrance of patchouli, a burst of brightly coloured necklaces and exotic earrings. She became our obsession. We searched for a trace, a piece of concrete information, but in vain. Then one morning, she sent us an email. She was safe and sound. She had been up in the hills on the island when disaster struck and had been unable to contact anyone since. She was reassuring, grateful, and very much alive.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve the Minister came to share a glass of champagne with us. We were practically living there, driven by the urgent tension of so many unknown fates. We had taken to eating every meal at our desks. And so, a little mouse had taken up residence in our offices. We caught glimpses of her, here and there, during that surreal period. We made her our mascot and named her Jeanne, quite naturally. And, quite naturally, she managed to escape.
So if you’re reading this, “Jeanne”, here’s to you.