In a radio interview only days after the scale of the flooding in Central America became apparent, Nicaragua's ambassador called on the international community to send doctors to the area and pleaded for aircraft, especially helicopters, to bring supplies to the stranded. On the same day Claire Short, minister at the Department for International Development, spoke of the need for immediate assistance, referring to emergency supplies. Although the relief effort has now included engineers, the first reaction of politicians and the public almost never mentions the life saving role engineers can play in disaster relief. Engineers are needed to reopen roads, repair bridges, restore water supplies, ensure safe sanitation systems, and provide storage and shelter. Through prevention, engineers will save many more lives than doctors can if the doctors have to work with polluted water and sanitation, which opens the way to epidemic diseases. Engineers are the hidden profession in the restoration process.
Over the last 20 years in the relentless catalogue of disasters, progress has been made. Appeals for blankets and warm clothing in crises in the late 1970s all too often resulted in warehouses filled with the right supplies which could not reach the needy and the wrong goods which choked the overstretched supply lines. But in the aftermath of the Nicaraguan and Honduran floods, the British Red Cross specifically asked for people not to send blankets - they are readily available in the region. Instead they appealed for money (which travels light) so that purchases could be made locally.
RedR has been asked for engineers and others with technical skills and they will play their part. The US Corps of Engineers has 1,300 people beavering away. On the long road to recovery engineers will be key, and they will be instrumental in restoring some normality to shattered communities.
But who will know? Who will associate the saving of life and the relief of suffering with the engineers' role? More importantly, why are we still faced with key players on the political scene who do not identify engineers as front line players in disaster relief?
The answer probably lies in the innate professionalism of engineers and their reticence in promoting their role and contribution. We as a profession are content to make a difference, a real difference, to the quality of life and yet we rarely seek to advertise our value.
If we wish to play our full role on the public stage and if in disasters we want to be in the vanguard, then we will have to do more to sell ourselves. We will have to involve ourselves more in the wider process and become politically more aware. As well as being good at doing the work that we do, we must persuade, influence and cajole. Doing the job well is only part of the story.