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When Disaster Strikes

By Binyamin Rose, New York

As a kid, Will Recant explored New York’s ethnic neighborhoods on foot. As an adult, that same spirit of adventure — combined with a passion for helping the helpless — have positioned Recant as one of the world’s top experts in emergency relief and disaster assistance programs.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

man in officeIt was one of the most devastating days in the history of mankind.
The final death toll will never be precisely known, but more people perished in the massive 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami than in the combined atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Will Recant was on holiday with his family when the devastation struck.
Recant, the senior executive in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, or Joint) responsible for nonsectarian programming, raced back to his New York desk and labored through field representatives and other local partners to set up a relief system and distribute food to survivors.
After three weeks, he traveled to perhaps the hardest-hit area, Banda Aceh, in northwest Indonesia, which had been slammed by 30-foot high seismic sea waves.
“It was uncanny,” Recant envisions the scene. “You turn to the left and you see total destruction. You see boats sitting five miles inland mixed with cars, rubble, and seashells. Then you turn to the right and you see roads and banks and businesses and life as usual. It was surreal to have this view of how far the ocean came and receded, and how life on one side of it was just fine and life on the other side of it was totally destroyed.”
If this scene seems as vivid as if it happened just yesterday and not almost eight years ago, it’s because the details of widespread devastation, along with many others from Will Recant’s 30-year career in disaster relief, are well-etched into his memory banks.   
Recant has spent more than half of every one of those 30 years on road trips. “I’ve never counted the number of countries I’ve been in. My kids stopped counting for me at 50 several years ago, and there have been a few new ones since,” says Recant, whose job entails organizing relief efforts on behalf of victims of natural disasters, wars, and poverty.  
Recant is not the man tasked with physically pulling people from beneath piles of rubble from fallen buildings, but he is chiefly responsible for helping to assess the overall picture, determine the most pressing needs, coordinate rescue and relief efforts with local partners and international relief agencies, and ensure that reconstruction and redevelopment aid are utilized as intended.
“We accompany or mentor the local agencies as they’re running and developing the programs,” Recant explains. “It’s not just writing a check to a local organization that says they’re going to be building a school, and then walking away. We have letters of agreement with every partner, and at various benchmarks, we will make the next allocation.”
The JDC’s main mission, which sometimes dovetails with Recant’s work, is to help Israel and Jews in need around the globe. The nonsectarian programs Recant pilots are funded by special, external campaigns.


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