“Without my experience in the IDF, I wouldn’t have been capable of a project like this,” says Fernand Cohen-Tannoudji of Rescuers Without Borders, who led a team of locals after Hurricane Irma.

Fernand Cohen-Tannoudji, 55 years old, has been the Team Leader and Logistics Officer of Sauveteurs Sans Frontieres-Rescuers Without Borders in St. Martin after Hurricane Irma. Close friend and President of Rescuers Without Borders Intl., Arie Levy asked Fernand to volunteer to lead the mission. A web marketer by profession, Fernand knew this was his opportunity to do something great. Rarely do we meet these moments in life that challenge us to go beyond ourselves and make a difference. This was Fernand’s moment. But the decision did not come at an easy time. A week prior, he had lost his mother and the traditional week long mourning period had just ended when he received the phone call recruiting him to St. Martin. “I knew I had to go”, Fernand said. His mother served as a head nurse in one of the largest hospitals in France. “I knew I had to do this for her…in her memory.” Two days later, Fernand got on a plane to Guadeloupe.

Rescuers Without Borders emphasizes the importance of being prepared before disaster strikes. The organization has 14 different disaster relief stations across the world located in disaster prone regions. Seeing as there were already local representatives present before Hurricane Irma, they were the first non-government private organization to lend a hand after the storm.

Fernand Cohen Tannoudji

Fernand Cohen Tannoudji (2R) with French firefighters who joined the rescue mission in St. Martin.

Supplying food, water, and equipment to survivors of a natural disaster is not an easy mission, nor a safe one. Aside from the physical damage the hurricane left in its path, the socio-economic level had also been left asunder. With police stations left destroyed, locals had ransacked and stolen weapons in order to gain control and steal supplies. “It was quite dangerous in the beginning,” Fernand tells, “…total chaos.”

After immigrating to Israel from France 23 years ago, Fernand drafted into the Israel Defense Forces where he served part time in the Border Police and part time as a Coordinator for the Sar-El military volunteers. Fernand also fought as a reservist in the Second Lebanon War (2006) and Operation Cast Lead (2009).

“Without my experience in the IDF, I wouldn’t have been capable of a project like this. Not just on a logistics level, but on a safety level. Knowing where to find a safe station point for supplies, securing the area, safety awareness, etc…In a situation like St. Martin, it helps to have a security background.”

‘This Was Holy Work’

After meeting up with local Rescuers Without Borders representative on the ground and finding a safe place for the supply station, Fernand then had to recruit a team of volunteers. Going from door to door, Fernand was able to recruit a team of nine locals who had never before volunteered, five of whom were women. “They were absolute fighters, these women…I’d never seen anything like it.” Together with his team, Fernand was successful in flying 19 tons of aid from Guadeloupe to St. Martin.

For Fernand, this mission meant more than simply supplying aid. “This was holy work….sharing the knowledge of Israel with the world. It’s important people see a positive side to Israel….everywhere we went, people said to us, ‘Thank you Israel!’ It was an incredible feeling.” Fernand hopes that through this mission, the locals will have a better understanding of how to prepare themselves for whatever may come next.

For more information on Rescuers Without Borders, visit www.hatzalah.org.il/en/home or contact Projects@hatzalah.org.il.

Article by Rami Diamond

Rami Diamond was born in California and moved to Israel in 2011. After an extensive fencing career, Rami served for two years in Combat Intelligence in the IDF. Her professional background includes speech writing, public speaking, and radio. Rami is currently studying Anthropology and History at Hebrew University and is the Field Operations Coordinator for Rescuers Without Borders.