What a Microsoft rescue worker saw in Haiti

Gisli Olafsson tells CNET about being part of a team of international rescuers that pulled three people alive from beneath the rubble of a collapsed market.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
7 min read

While many people have jobs at Microsoft that aim to avoid disasters, Gisli Olafsson's job is getting through them.

As a full-time disaster management specialist for the software maker, Olafsson works with the United Nations and other agencies to prepare before devastation hits and also to coordinate efforts once it does. Olafsson has been sent across the globe to deal with the aftermath of earthquakes and hurricanes, offering help in rebuilding the infrastructure that nature has wiped away.

But, that's only part of the reason Olafsson so often finds himself on the scene of natural calamities. A native of Iceland, Olafsson also volunteers as part of that country's national search and rescue team.

Microsoft employee joins Haiti rescue effort (photos)

See all photos

It was chiefly in that role that Olafsson found himself on the ground in Port-au-Prince just hours after the massive quake struck earlier this month. As part of one of the first international rescue teams on the scene, Olafsson was among those who helped pull three survivors from the rubble of a collapsed grocery store.

In an interview, Olafsson talked with CNET about his experiences in Haiti, what's still needed there, as well as how his work on the ground influences his day job working to prepare for when disaster strikes.

Before he switched to emergency planning work full-time, Olafsson worked in various roles at Microsoft Iceland and before that was based at the company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters where he was a lead program manager for Microsoft's SQL Server database.

Here is an edited transcript of our interview, conducted just after Olafsson returned to Iceland last week, following many days on the ground in Haiti.

What did you see on the ground?
We flew in and arrived on the 13th, just before 4 o' clock. We were the first search and rescue team to arrive in the country. As we landed, the airport was still pretty quiet compared to what it was when we left. Right now, it is endless flights, takeoffs and landings--as busy as a major international airport.

The first thing we saw as we were landing was simply collapsed houses and damaged buildings. We got off the plane, got all of our equipment. Our first task was to go do a reconnaissance of the city and see the initial information about where were things really bad. As we drove through the city, it was getting into the evening hours. It was getting darker. We saw people everywhere out on the streets. Nobody wanted to stay inside. There were...many people going to sleep on the sidewalks.

Related coverage
Companies pitch in for Haiti relief
The tech industry helps gather donations and rebuild communications following the massive quake.

There were also a lot of bodies that had been put on the sidewalk and just covered with something. It was not a very pretty sight that we saw as we got in there and drove around the city and saw the destruction.

You participated in a couple of rescues, is that right?
Yes. What we did is we went to work at a supermarket where people could hear voices coming out from the rubble. We went in there and rather quickly managed to get two women out of there who had been trapped. Then we worked for about eight hours to get out the third woman who was actually located in the middle of the rubble, so it took a long time for us to break our way all the way through.

After that, were there a lot of times you were hoping to rescue people but didn't find anyone alive?
The thing is there were so many houses that had collapsed there. We spent the following days to search through schools and churches and also private houses that had collapsed. Unfortunately, in all of those we ended up finding simply dead bodies. At the same time, that is part of the whole work. You go out as an urban search-and-rescue team and you very seldom find anybody (alive). It's simply that most of the people who get saved, they get saved in the first 24 hours, which is before the international teams even arrive. In this case, over 120 people were saved from rubble in the first week. That is an amazing thing to accomplish.

It seems like one of the challenges in Haiti was it struck the capital and so what little infrastructure there was, I imagine, was either badly damaged or destroyed. And there wasn't that much to begin with. Can you talk a little about that?
It definitely did cause some issues. The entire government was affected itself. The UN had a big presence there and they were affected extremely themselves. It, of course, paralyzes the local response. A lot of the effort had to be put on the international community coming in.

You had no telephone system working for first 72 hours. You had no electricity still in the capital and running water is very scarce. All of these basics that we would have in many other countries were not there.

This meant that all communications we had, we were using satellite phones for all voice communication and BGANs (broad global area networks) for all Internet connectivity.

"You go out as an urban search-and-rescue team and you very seldom find anybody (alive). It's simply that most of the people who get saved, they get saved in the first 24 hours, which is before the international teams even arrive."

When you say BGANs, what are those?
It's the little terminals that CNN and all the news crews now have to be able to do live broadcasts. We use the same things to be able access information and provide information out to the community and the rest of the world.

What other kinds of technology were involved?
We of course made use of all kinds of (mapping) solutions. There was a group of volunteers from an organization called MapAction. We were using a lot of the imagery that was made available by the different providers. This was Microsoft, this was Google. Some of it came from the military. Other (maps) came from the satellite owners. During the disaster nobody cares where it came from as long as it comes.

What are the individual encounters that have stuck with you the most?
For me it was meeting the people there. People in the media were saying there are riots there and people are angry. We met the complete opposite--people who were very thankful that we came there to try to help search for loved ones. Yes, we did see riots or people trying to get things out of stores, looting. You take something that you can trade for food. Even when we saw those kind of things, they would stop, allow us to go through and then continue to do what they were doing.

What kinds things do you take back to your day role at Microsoft?
What I see out of this since my daily job is linked to disasters is that I see which things were not working. Where might technology have played a bigger role. But you also learn where are the ways technology makes things too complicated. Coming into a country like Haiti there is very little infrastructure. You have to keep that in mind.

One of the things that has been noticeable as someone watching this is just the immediacy of information getting out there over things like Twitter. I would say there was also misinformation, reports that turned out to be false--things like American Airlines was flying doctors for free to Haiti or UPS was shipping boxes for free.
We did get a lot of reports of people reporting they had gotten SMS (text messages) from phone calls from friends underneath certain buildings. They got this from Facebook and other things. In less than 1 percent of those cases did it turn out to be correct. People think they are doing a good thing by repeating rumors like that. Rumors are sometimes good but they are sometimes bad. We heard a rumor that one of the teams had rescued 63 people from a car park underneath a house that had collapsed. It was completely bogus.

We did do one thing that was an interesting use of social media. We were searching the Hotel Montana, which was one of the areas where a lot of the Westerners--UN people--were staying. As we were searching it someone reached out to me through Facebook, realized I was leading the Icelandic team and we were working there. After that, I was in communication with relatives of missing people through Facebook. I was able to provide them with information about our work.

They could provide us also with information about which rooms (their relatives) were in possibly. As you dig through the rubble of a building like that it's just as much detective work to try to figure out 'where am I right now' because of course, it doesn't look like it used to.

Unfortunately we only recovered a few bodies out of there and nobody alive, but at least that provides a certain measure of closure to those families.

What are some of the most critical needs right now in Haiti
A lot of people have lost shelter and food is of course an issue, and clean water. If you look at it from the point of view from people reading this story. The big needs is for all these different response agencies to be able to provide for those basic needs. They can only do that if they get funding. The key thing is funding--the cash they can turn into shelter and other things for people.

Very often a big mistake people do is they think they should be donating food locally in the U.S. and have it shipped or collect clothing and have it sent. Usually those things just block up the delivery channel.