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What’s in a Disaster Response Go-Bag?

This was written a few years back but we thought we’d unearth it as John Woodberry, MAF’s disaster response manager, has just arrived in Haiti during the Hurricane Matthew relief effort. John won’t be taking a full kit this time as he’ll be based in Port-au-Prince, which received minimal damage from the storm. Some items have changed or been added to the kit since the time this was first published, so we’ve updated the story to include those things.  


MAF Go-Bags
MAF Go-Bags

John Woodberry’s non-descript gray bag sits in an adjacent office like Pandora’s box, begging for me to open it. Another co-worker told me it is his disaster response “go bag” but there was only one way to be sure. My general curiosity about mysterious things is so strong that I would have used up my nine lives in 10 minutes had I been born a cat.

Rather than risk getting caught and labeled an office snoop, I concocted the cover of writing a blog on disaster response. So, here I am covering myself and writing about how I coerced John into opening his bag to display its innards.

MAF staff media guru man and documentarian Paul O’Brien joined me to capture the mysterious gray bag’s contents with evidentiary photographs.

Here’s what we found:

The Essentials

Contents of MAF Go-Bags
Contents of MAF Go-Bags

According to John, no disaster response “go bag” is complete without a few things: the ability to get drinking water, stay warm, be fed, and sleep without being dinner for a pack of pestering insects.

John uses a Katadyn water bottle that he claims has such a powerful filter that he could dip it into a disease-infested river and drink the water without fear of getting sick. (I passed on the demonstration offer, thinking it might be some initiation prank.)

Then there’s the bug hut – basically a 100% mesh tent that makes way for the breeze in the warmer regions MAF mostly serves.

Next come the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that need only boiling water to miraculously turn into a piping hot meal. And you thought fast food wasn’t healthy? (John quipped, “The only rule to eating healthy in these situations is to ask yourself, ‘Would my grandmother recognize this as food?’ Probably not.” Check please.) Clif Bars, the energy-packed snack bars, are also considered an essential side item for MREs.

Other odds and ends include a mini-first aid kit, electrolyte replacement tablets, USB sticks, bug spray, sun screen, soap, toilet paper, flashlight, and a small Leatherman tool.

Finally, the go-bag contains a package of chemical substances that only require water to create fire-like warmth. The only thing left to do is crack open a package of freeze dried marshmallows and pair it with a “chocolate-like” substance on a graham cracker.

The Extras

Some people might consider this an essential, but the mere thought was tough to stomach – Rocket Chocolate. Individually wrapped, flavored chocolate pieces with an unnatural amount of caffeine – for a quick jolt on the go. John carries these chewy candies everywhere, but never showed me his toothbrush. What’s really essential for John? Hmmm.

Then there were body wipes for when there is no access to showers. My experience on the mission field is that after a few days the only thing that you can actually smell is a fresh pot of coffee. Other than that, it’s an olfactory nightmare. So, John insists on pampering himself with luxuries like a wipe-down shower so he can smell fresh for his team members who have long since quit sniffing voluntarily.

John also carries a blow-up pillow with lumbar support and a Cool-Max Travel Sheet, which serves as an ultra-thin sleeping bag. He claims it is to protect against bed bugs and sleeping in unwashed sheets as he never knows where he could be sleeping. I didn’t think John would be afraid of such things. I thought it was rather luxurious and started to anticipate John telling me about his travel assistant who fanned him with a palm tree leaf when he was hot during naptime.

The E-communications

Some people have an obsession with their iPhone; John is obsessed with cell phones and satellite phones in general. He carries his personal cell and three more in his go bag. There are two sat phones and one regular inexpensive cell phone he can use for local calls.

John also carries a standard laptop, a printer to produce official permissions and requests on letterhead when necessary, and a battery-powered “BGAN” remote satellite internet unit that allows him to transmit data such as email and photos anywhere in the world.

A mini office kit holds simple supplies that might be hard to come by quickly after a disaster. Last but not least, John has a compartment in his bag that keeps a few sets of dress clothes as wrinkle-free as possible. “You never know when you’re going to have to meet a government dignitary and plead your case for why you should be allowed into a country to serve,” John said.

John assured me he only worked for MAF even though I was quite sure I could see a hidden parachute bulging out of the back of his “go shirt.” Nevertheless, John’s passion about what he does for MAF and the way he prepares is a good sign that the organization’s disaster relief program is in good hands.


Persevering in hard places

Just over a week after a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked southwestern Haiti, MAF pilot Eric Fagerland landed in the town of Jérémie with a load of relief supplies.

Read More »

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