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Thousands of miles from home in Vietnam

Things have been a bit of a blur since I was asked to get on a plane to Vietnam yesterday. The first few days of an emergency are always a bit surreal, being plucked from the relative calm of your desk and onto a plane within 24 hours is always a bit stressful. And as I’d only been back at Save the Children for two and a half weeks I think it threw me a little more than usual. The 26 hour trip from London to Hanoi via Kuala Lumpur didn’t help. You end up thousands of miles away from home, in a completely different environment, without really noticing. I think everyone is the same though – if you ask anyone working on the emergency what day it is, it normally takes a good few seconds to get a response.

I was only in Hanoi four months ago on holiday so there wasn’t the same sense of trepidation as I would usually get travelling to a new place. I always wanted to return to Vietnam as I fell in love with the country the first time, but I wish it had have been under happier circumstances.

I know my job here is going to be difficult. With three emergencies affecting five countries it means that journalists are spread very thinly. Column inches and newspaper budgets devoted to international stories are always limited – so with three disasters in four days there would be difficult decisions for editors to make about which story to cover. Decision processes in newsrooms around the world would have mirrored those in Save the Children’s media unit: What’s the story? Who have we got? Where should we send them?

In this situation journalists tend to rely on death toll as the main factor in the triage process – it’s normally the only thing they have to go on immediately after an emergency. The rule of thumb is the bigger the death toll the bigger the story. It’s not until those camera crews are in the disaster zone that the pictures start reaching the rest of the public. Most big TV crews had focussed their resources in Indonesia and there was few journalists left to tell the story in Vietnam. The last emergency I worked on was Myanmar, where I had a very different challenge – coping with the sheer number of journalists wanting interviews and stories.

The good news in Vietnam is that very few people died – from what I have heard travelling in the field in the last few days, people knew what to do and where to run for higher ground when the storm came. A real success story of local knowledge and disaster preparedness.

But the death toll only tells part of the story. Our challenge is to help the survivors who have lost everything.

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