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Into Haiti

Amidst Chaos, Relief Begins to Trickle In


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Even as the chaos so freshly created by Tuesday’s massive earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, settles to a level more manageable for the myriad authorities working there — including the first of nearly 10,000 U.S. troops that the Joint Chiefs of Staff promised by Monday — relief efforts still face a number of daunting challenges. With people still trapped beneath piles of rubble, the death toll — which has not yet been confirmed, but ranges in estimate from tens to hundreds of thousands of people — continues to rise. The New York Times reported Friday morning that the bodies that have been recovered are beginning to stack up outside of Port-au-Prince’s main morgue, and that the quickly festering corpses have added another facet of horror to a scene that has already been described as hellish. A relative degree of order has been established by the U.S. military at the city’s main airport (although there isn’t much fuel available) and reports have been circulating of planes circling overhead for hours as they wait to be worked into the landing pattern.

Two representatives from Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief International are currently on their way to Haiti. However, said DRI emergency response coordinator Brett Williams, they are unsure when they will actually arrive in Port-au-Prince. While the duo will be traveling aboard a FedEx cargo aircraft carrying $2 million in DRI-collected medical supplies bound for Haiti through Santo Domingo — on the other side of Hispaniola in the Dominican Republic — Williams said due to the high volume of air traffic, flights have been erratic. “FedEx is doing all of our logistics for us, but the flights have been on again, off again,” he said, adding, “This is the first of many shipments.”

[UPDATE, January 17: As of Sunday evening, DRI’s Brett Williams reported having arrived in Haiti and commenced relief efforts. He and Nate Brock, an operations specialist, are in Port-au-Prince to coodinate distribution of supplies that DRI brought into the country recently, as well as stockpiles staged for hurricane relief last spring. Williams — who coordinated DRI response efforts after Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake, and after one in China in 2008 — had traveled throughout Haiti in March 2009 to position hurricane prep modules containing patient care supplies.]

Some relief organizations that were headquartered outside of Port-au-Prince are in a position to help, but getting supplies and aid workers into the city could prove difficult. “The infrastructure in Haiti was bad before the earthquake,” said Howard Schiffer, founder of Santa Barbara-based Vitamin Angels, which has been working in Haiti for some time already. Another of the biggest problems described by relief agencies has been the difficulty in communicating with those already in the capital city. Fonkoze, an economic relief organization with microbanking projects throughout Haiti, is partnered with several Santa Barbara-based groups, but Schiffer said that their Port-au-Prince office was destroyed in the quake, making communication all but impossible.

The epicenter of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake was in Port-au-Prince, and reports indicate that most of the damage has been confined to the densely populated city. UCSB Black Studies Professor Claudine Michel, a Haitian émigré who had to wait until Thursday to learn that her parents and brother are okay, said that the concentration of people in the country’s capital city is part of the problem. Some of the organizations she is involved with are focused on moving people into communities in Port-au-Prince’s hinterlands, thereby alleviating some of the human congestion that exists there now.

Although many of the organizations currently working to ease Haitians’ suffering are not necessarily disaster relief agencies, they are adapting to the task at hand. Vitamin Angels, which normally focuses on getting vitamin A and pediatric vitamin compounds to undernourished people around the world, is shifting to multi-vitamin compounds to supplement relief foods being sent by the UN and other agencies. “Relief efforts usually drop rice and beans — maybe some milk powder — and that can lead to micronutrient deficiencies that affect the immune system,” said Schiffer. “In that case, a little infection from a cut, diarrhea, or even a cold can cause death.” By all accounts, relief efforts will be going on for quite some time.

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