Earthquake in Peru: Interview with MSF emergency coordinator

MSF Luis Encinas is coordinating the emergency intervention launched to provide care to the people affected by the earthquake that shook the Peruvian coast on August 15th. A cargo plane loaded with 12 tons of relief materials was chartered by MSF on August 18th. Luis Encinas who has been in the area for a few days gives an account of MSF activities is carrying out there and shares his first impressions.

Can you describe the first thing you witnessed when you arrived in the affected zone?
In Pisco, at first it felt like I was witnessing a bombed area. People were wandering about in the streets in a state of confusion, of loss. There was no access to basic services. In the most affected areas, like the towns of Pisco, Chincha and Ica, between 50% and 90% of the buildings have been destroyed. Four hospitals have been reduced to rubble and another four were severely damaged. So far, about 400 aftershocks have been recorded, of them some have reached over 5.5 in the Richter scale.

What are the main difficulties the arrival of humanitarian aid is confronted with?
Access ways have been badly damaged. For example, some parts of the Pan-American highway have virtually collapsed. Reaching Pisco from Lima took us three times the normal time. Although the chaos situation is fading away, humanitarian aid has not reached peripheral areas yet.

What does the intervention MSF is planning to launch consist of?
Firstly, on August 19th, MSF chartered a flight from Bogotá loaded with 12 tons of relief goods and organized an emergency team that I am coordinating. After the first assessments conducted in the area, the intervention focuses on the most isolated settlements where humanitarian aid has not arrived yet. Likewise, medical care and psychological support will be provided to the earthquake victims. The area where the MSF team is providing care is located east from Pisco town, along the route between Humay and Independencia (where from 20,000 to 25,000 people live). So far, we are distributing blankets, hygiene kits and shelter materials for 7,000 people in Humay. We are also assessing water and sanitation facilities to be able to provide rapid response if needed.

No other actors or humanitarian aid have arrived there yet. Medical supplies and drugs are lacking. Another important issue is directly linked to mental health. In order to reduce trauma and respond to the most urgent psychological needs, MSF is launching a mental health programme. Medical care and psychological support will be provided in the existing health centres and through mobile clinics. Drugs for respiratory infections, skin diseases,  and trauma are also being provided. In Pisco town, MSF is focusing on psychological care to the people affected by the havoc resulting from the earthquake and we will also collaborate with the actors in the area in water and sanitation tasks.

What are the major risks the population faces now?
As it usually happens in these types of disasters, children are the most vulnerable population group. Respiratory infections affect them severely. The rapid assessment conducted in Montesierpe, a community close to Humay, revealed that about 15% of the children with respiratory infections showed severe complications.

A risk of severe conditions such as trauma, skin diseases and ophthalmologic infections are also seen. The other problem has to do with the consequences for mental health for which a rapid response immediately after the emergency can be crucial in preventing severe damages in the long term.

After having participated in other emergencies, what has drawn you attention on this occasion?
From a human perspective, the strong, deeply rooted community spirit amongst the population in the area has amazed me the most. I have seen people older than 70 who spent the night in the open keeping watch in shifts to protect one another. They have nothing. They have lost everything but the capacity for lending a helping hand. In the midst of widespread havoc, the way the affected people spontaneously organise themselves is impressive.

How many people make up the intervention team you are coordinating?
So far, the intervention team is made up of 12 international volunteers and 12 members of the national staff, including doctors, psychologists, nurses, logisticians, water and sanitation technicians, and drivers. We estimate that the intervention will last two months