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Cover Story

The master of disaster

The Master of Disaster

By Nicole Sweeney Etter  |  Photo courtesy of Catholic Relief Services

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The Communists were coming. For weeks, the Khmer Rouge army marched toward the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where Patrick Johns, Arts ’71, was a Catholic Relief Services rookie on his first assignment abroad. When the Khmer Rouge started shelling the city, rockets and artillery rained down on his neighborhood. One Sunday, while Johns and his coworkers were drinking their morning coffee, a rocket screeched overhead and leveled the house next door, where the director of the International Red Cross lived. Fortunately, no one was home. “All that day we had the shakes. When we went next door, we fully expected to see our neighbor and his wife in pieces,” Johns remembers.

It would later take much more than that to shake the man his coworkers call “the master of disaster.”

For 30 years, Johns has been at the frontlines of nearly every major humanitarian crisis in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. He has lived through wars, weather-related disasters and unfathomable human suffering.

“Picture a situation where it is lawless and people are desperate, whether it’s a tsunami or Somalia where warlords are ruling the streets,” says longtime colleague Frank Carlin. “All of a sudden somebody walks off the plane who is sizing up the situation, determining what needs to be done. That’s the God-given gift Pat has. When he walks into a situation, he’s sizing up in a way that few people can. And so much hangs in the balance. There’s a real price to pay for mistakes.”

It’s not a job for the weak. Johns has endured malaria, hot and sticky weather with no running water, sleeping at his office quarters or with 30 people to a house, and work shifts that sometimes stretch 50 hours. “You’re not so cognizant of the time and exhaustion — it’s the adrenaline pumping in your veins,” he says.

His is a life of amazing adventure. “Every one of my assignments with CRS has brought new challenges that automatically regenerated my interest,” says Johns, who speaks some French, Thai, Tagalog and Indonesian. “It’s the uniqueness of the environment. Every one of my posts has been fascinating.”

At Marquette, Johns majored in political science and history but had no post-graduation plans. But his potential was evident, says Ted Larkin, Arts ’71, who was Johns’ college roommate and later a CRS colleague. “Pat often thought globally,” Larkin says. “He had a passion for things to be just, to be fair.”

Johns worked for his father’s bank for a while before calling on the family priest. “I’d really like to do something different with my life,” he told him. The monsignor made a call, and within a week Johns interviewed with Catholic Relief Services. As the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic Church, CRS serves more than 80 million people in 100-plus countries. “I always had ambitions to travel and see the world,” Johns says.

He got his wish in 1974 when CRS sent him to Cambodia. The Vietnam War was raging next door and the Khmer Rouge was turning Cambodia into the infamous “Killing Fields.” Cities became safe havens, and 1.5 million refugees crowded into Phnom Penh. “It was a war in all its ugliness,” he says. “It was dangerous and exciting at the same time.”

As CRS program administrator, Johns, then 25 years old, suddenly found himself managing a staff of 400 people. He was responsible for getting food and supplies into Phnom Penh. First the guerillas cut off the river, then the roads. The situation grew more desperate every day. “CRS was the lifeline for those people. We were really keeping 1.5 to 2 million people alive,” he says. It was exhausting but meaningful work. “That whole experience in Cambodia really drove home my niche in life,” Johns says.

In Cambodia Johns met his future wife, Sunny, a Filipina whose father was a war correspondent working in Phnom Penh. When they were evacuated to Thailand, they married and prepared for Johns’ next assignment, this time in India.

CRS shipped 200,000 tons of food to India per year, and Johns handled logistics and managed programs that fed nearly 2 million people. Regular work was interrupted with the occasional emergency: first a cyclone, then floods.

A few years later, Johns was back in a war zone. He was called to relieve Carlin in East Timor. The tiny Southeast Asian island was struggling with mass starvation, the result of a guerrilla war with invading Indonesian forces.

“He was a quick study,” Carlin says. “I remember sitting down and going over the battle plan in East Timor. We were talking about the obstacles, and as I’m mentally unloading, Pat’s loading. And I thought, the situation’s in good hands.”

The Indonesian government let only two agencies enter East Timor: the International Red Cross and CRS. As CRS fed one-third of the country’s population, the government watched Johns’ every move. All the while, Johns also was navigating life as a husband and new father. His son, Bryan, was born in July 1981 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Sunny got used to packing the family’s bags whenever CRS called.

The family was living in Madagascar when Johns was again called to relieve Carlin, this time in the mountainous country of Ethiopia. It was 1986, at the height of a drought and famine. Millions of people were starving, hundreds of thousands had already perished and rebel groups were fighting the Ethiopian government. “We were functioning in a war zone again,” Johns says. His CRS crew was the only international agency working in the embattled provinces of Eritrea and Tigray. Johns, then 37, was more ready to shoulder the awesome responsibility of keeping alive 1.5 million people.

One day, rebels attacked a CRS convoy and destroyed seven trucks that provided critical food transport. “I was at a loss as to what to do. Without the trucks, we were in serious trouble,” Johns says. He telephoned John O’Neil, the owner and founder of General Tire and a CRS supporter. Within an hour, O’Neil wired $1.5 million so Johns could buy new trucks.

Soon food had to be airlifted into Ethiopia, and there was no way to communicate between aid stations. Johns spent half his time on the road, where landmines were a constant danger, checking on CRS centers at the front lines. Often, he’d find a center was gone, destroyed.

It was depressing, exhausting work, and Johns found himself trying to lift the spirits of his staff, learning when to tell a joke to lighten the mood. There was no time for emotional breakdowns — not until the work was done. “I’ve become hardened,” he admits. “That’s the gut-wrenching element of this work.”

At the same time, Johns is often “the caregiver to the caregivers,” says Jamieson Davies, CRS director of emergency operations. “Usually your rough-and-ready, disaster gypsy, cowboy sort isn’t really strong on the caregiving,” she says. “That’s one of the things that’s really special about Pat.”

Johns’ three-and-a-half-year assignment in Ethiopia was tough on the entire family. When Sunny left to visit her sister, there was a coup attempt and tanks rolled through the streets of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital where they lived. Johns and his son “went into shutdown mode,” hunkering down until the trouble passed, while Sunny had no way to reach them to know they were safe. Johns decided he’d had enough war. “That program in Ethiopia really took a lot out of me,” he says. He returned to CRS headquarters in Baltimore, where he worked first in the external affairs department and later as the coordinator of CRS programs in Africa.

In the fall of 1992 Johns was sent back into the field — this time to Somalia. The country was in chaos: no government, bloodshed between clans, massive drought. “People were dropping like flies,” he says. This was before the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers, and the streets were filled with 8- and 9-year-old boys toting machine guns and automatic weapons. “It was one of the scariest situations I’ve ever been in,” he says. “It was complete breakdown of law and order.”

Johns had his small staff under a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. They were forced to go two to three weeks without a shower. When U.N. peacekeepers arrived in December, Johns turned over the program to a new CRS crew and flew to Kenya. “I was never happier to see a place than when I arrived in Nairobi,” he says.
In 1994, Johns’ mission was the genocide in Rwanda, where CRS maintained an office. “More than a million people were butchered — most by machete. The streets were full of bodies,” he says. “Our first challenge was to get our people out. But as soon as we got them out, we started to plan our return.”

When the holocaust was over, Johns and others focused on getting people back to rebuild their lives. “Rwanda was a turning point for our agency. It got us thinking about being more than just emergency responders to civil conflicts. We needed to address the root causes,” he says.

He put that new approach into practice during his next assignment in the Philippines, where he redirected the program away from food aid and toward peace and justice, development and health programs. Johns focused on the troubled island of Mindanao and was single-handedly responsible for bringing the island’s Christian and Muslim religious leaders to the table for peace-building talks. It was an uphill battle at first, but now, more than a decade later, the inter-religious coalition is still strong.

In 1999, Johns got a midnight call from Carlin at CRS headquarters. “We need you in Macedonia immediately,” Carlin said. Johns caught the first flight and was there in 36 hours. His job: set up a camp for the Kosovar Albanian refugees flooding across the border from Kosovo into Macedonia.

Working with a British brigadier general, he designed a refugee camp for about 15,000 people. Soon, the sprawling camp called Stenkovic was sheltering 45,000 refugees. Johns and his colleagues worked 50-hour stretches with no sleep. He was bombarded with questions, requests and visitors at all hours. CRS executive Ken Hackett says that Johns was essentially “the mayor of Stenkovic.”

“When you’re managing camps or large resources for people in great need who are going through calamitous circumstances, you need someone who is very focused and fair and organized,” Larkin says. “There’s a lot of emotion and craziness in a disaster, and some people are better at handling that than others.”

Humor is one way that Johns copes: “I didn’t just blow in with the last typhoon,” he jokes.

“He has a good sense of humor,” Carlin says of Johns. “Nothing really intimidates him, and yet he isn’t a cowboy. ... He doesn’t have a lot of ego, and he has a deep faith. Without that, those shoulders would sag.”

In 2003 Johns became director of the agency’s emergency response team. He manages a dozen people, including specialists in shelter, water and sanitation, health, logistics, finance and security. “A month doesn’t go by when I’m not deploying someone somewhere,” he says. 

Johns wakes up as early as 4:30 a.m. and scours the Web for the latest international and humanitarian disaster news. If something happened overnight, he wants to know about it before he gets to the office.

One of the agency’s greatest tests came after the Asian tsunami in 2004. CRS had no history of working in Aceh province, a primarily Muslim part of Indonesia, and Johns had to start from scratch. Within days of the tsunami, Johns was surveying the coast by helicopter. Debris and bodies were everywhere. “I had never seen destruction like that before,” he says. “The devastation reminded me of pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bomb.”

A Catholic priest led him to a local clinic that was destroyed by the wave. Johns immediately organized clean-up crews that worked for more than 10 days to clear the debris, which was 10 feet high. Johns was proud when the clinic reopened for business in just eight weeks. By the end of 2005, CRS transformed the clinic into a full-fledged hospital.

In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Region. Although CRS usually only works overseas, the Catholic bishops in Louisiana asked “the master of disaster” to help sort out the chaos at home. Within 12 hours, Johns and Carlin flew to Houston, the closest they could get to the disaster scene, then drove to Baton Rouge. From there they led a convoy of school buses toward New Orleans International Airport, which was overflowing with medical cases waiting to be evacuated.

As the rest of the region poured out of New Orleans, Johns and Carlin fought their way in, talking their way through checkpoint after checkpoint. “Bureaucracy and red tape were preventing any movement of these helpless disaster victims,” Johns says. When they finally arrived at the airport, they filled the buses with Katrina victims and became the first convoy to evacuate from the airport.

The Hurricane Katrina story became a legend in the CRS offices, but in time, it will likely be trumped by yet another Johns story.

“The situations keep getting more and more dicey as we go on,” Carlin says, “and I always worry about it because I know when the flag goes up, Pat’s off and running.”

How to help

In addition to emergency response, Catholic Relief Services’ 5,000-plus staff members concentrate worldwide on issues such as peace-building, HIV and AIDs, food security and education. You can support their efforts in the following ways:

—Sign up for the CRS Legislative Network to receive action alerts and a newsletter about upcoming legislation and advocacy campaigns.

—Give a unique twist to your holiday gift-giving. The CRS gift catalog allows you to purchase shares in projects that provide food security, health services and vocational training. Through the CRS Fair Trade Web site, you can ensure a fair wage for disadvantaged workers in developing countries by purchasing fair trade chocolate, coffee and handcrafts.

—Share educational resources with your school or church.

—Consider participating in Operation Rice Bowl during the Lenten season.

Donate to specific emergency relief efforts or other CRS programs.


Comment by dan sweeney at Oct 22 2008 02:47 pm
As a Catholic, I am very proud of the Master of Disaster. I think Nicole captured John's spirit and his willingness to serve the less fortunate.
Comment by Marvin and Janice Newberg at Jan 25 2010 03:56 pm
As Catholics, we have always been aware of CRS but our gifting has been very limited. It took the article on Pat Johns to point out what CRS really is. We have made a commitment to ourselves and our Heavenly Father to change that. God Bless you all,.
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