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All the right people in the right places:

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All the right people in the right places:

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Some dates are forever engrained in your memory. Just hearing them can call back visceral responses, voices and smells and feelings wash over you. For me, August 14 is such a day.

Arriving at work that morning we were alerted to the fact that there had been a bad flooding somewhere in Freetown. This is not unusual in Sierra Leone, a country where the rainy season´s territorial downpours can cause already fragile houses and roads to break down. But this was one was bigger, we were told, and we might have to activate the UN emergency response.

There were plans in place, hour-by-hour instructions about how we should react, but first we had to get an idea of what was going on. I said I would go check it out and took my camera, my phone and a pair of — would I later realize — woefully inappropriate sneakers and got in a car up to the area.

Already when we were several hundred meters away from the site, the driver and I realized there was something much bigger going on than we had expected. It was impossible to keep driving, cars and people were flooding the road and I had to continue by foot. I could see some other official response vehicles, but they were also stuck, with their drivers sitting idly waiting for their passengers to come back from the site.

As soon as I stepped out, I heard the sound of people wailing and crying out. This would become a constant sound over the next several days, as the number of dead and missing continued to rise and family and friends realized their loved ones were lost.

People gathering to get an overview of the disaster site and try to find their loved ones

People gathering to get an overview of the disaster site and try to find their loved ones

The site was an organized chaos, with the Government of Sierra Leone having set up a response unit in a civilian house nearby and with the military attempting to provide some sort of rescue effort in the rubble, while we were acutely aware that we did not know if there could be a second slide.

Walking up to where the road abruptly ended, I was surrounded by military personnel and none of us could see further than a few yards, the rain and the fog was so thick. When it finally lifted and we had a chance to view the destruction, there were audible sighs and gasps. We realized that what we thought was an isolated flood or landslide was in fact several hundred yards wide, and that we could not see the end or the beginning of the devastation. This was much bigger than we could have ever imagined, but we still had no overview. Very few people were walking into the area as it was just considered too dangerous.

The fog made it almost impossible to gauge the severity of the disaster

The fog made it almost impossible to gauge the severity of the disaster

Using nothing but shovels and pickaxes that UNDP had bought from a local store, volunteers tried to save people from the rubble

Using nothing but shovels and pickaxes that UNDP had bought from a local store, volunteers tried to save people from the rubble

The following hours were a struggle to get organized and see how we could best support the Government in their task. Cell phone service was poor because of the sheer number of people overloading the system, and a colleague at UNCDF who worked with the Telcom providers in the region contacted Africell and Orange and they immediately promised to set up temporary access points.

The WFP Incident Coordinators worked together to cover the entire affected area

The WFP Incident Coordinators worked together to cover the entire affected area

I managed to pick up a call from a local company that did drone surveillance of building projects, “Track your Build”. They asked if there was any need for them to come in and help survey the landscape and, if so, if I could arrange with the military for them to be allowed to the site. I immediately said yes and told them to just come.

Luckily, the military were open to working with the drones, and once TYB managed to get down to the site we were able to get the first images from the site, confirming what we already knew — this was an unprecedented disaster with many, many lost lives

While TYB worked on trying to cover the area with photographs, I also got a phone call from a colleague at FAO. She asked me about a system called Copernicus — did I know about it? No, I admitted, I had no idea what it was. She explained that thanks to a UN treaty, we could ask to activate the Copernicus response, which would ask any satellite passing through the airspace to take a high-resolution image of the disaster site and send it to European Union scientists who could examine it and determine the extent of the damage. Did I think that was a good idea? Yes, I thought that was a brilliant idea. She got to work getting the necessary permits and made sure the request was made.

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In the end I believe it was a Nigerian scientist who was able to locate an American satellite that would be passing over the area and then we just hoped for the clouds to clear so that we would get good images. We were lucky. High resolution photos were sent to Europe and analysis started. It was through this effort that we were able to get a first estimate of the number of dead — roof top counting together with average household size in the area, courtesy of the GoSL and UNFPA census undertaken a few years prior.

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Note the red outlet in the ocean — that is the mud and landmass flowing into the water

Note the red outlet in the ocean — that is the mud and landmass flowing into the water

But it did not end there. For several days, the drone company fed the European scientists with even better images that they could use, of potential secondary landslides and other areas of concern. UNOPS, the UN Office for Project Services, stepped in as the natural home for the drone support and analysis — in direct contradiction to the reputation the UN sometimes has of being slow and inflexible, they saw what needed to be done and just did it. I remember one UNOPS senior official simply saying he would immediately support this project because it was desperately needed, and figure out the bureaucracy later.

Thanks to them, analysis could be made of infrastructure damage that could have been devastating to the capital. OCHA´s UNDAC team were able to use the data, put it together and did GIS mapping of the area which was useful for both the response and the recovery.

In the end, through the work of fast-thinking and dedicated individuals working for the Government and Military of Sierra Leone, the UN, private sector, the European Union, space agencies and academia, the response was greatly improved. I hope that everyone involved is proud of what they accomplished and through me telling this story, some of their hard work is recognized.

There were many heroes — CSOs, NGOs, INGOs, individuals — working that landslide disaster and I do not want to diminish anyone by leaving them out of this narrative. The UN in Sierra Leone tried to highlight some of them through official communications efforts — see some of their Exposure stories here and here, UNOPS has a great multimedia story here— but it is inevitable that some are left out and for that I am sorry. Photos: Olivia Acland, Caroline Thomas, Linnea Van Wagenen, Saffea Gborie, Alpha Sesay. United Nations -Sierra Leone

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