The last thing the people of Haiti — a country where political assassinations, brutal, unstable regimes, and foreign intervention have been frequent since the beginning of its history as an independent nation — needed was a massive earthquake in the very center of their population and culture.
But happen it did, and for the past week and a half, headlines have been plastered with tales of intense suffering in the impoverished country’s capital city of Port-au-Prince as many of the tens of thousands of now-homeless Haitians are going without food, water, and medical attention. Relief workers have poured into the country during the past week, as the yet unconfirmed death toll hovers somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 — comparable to the number of people killed after the U.S. military dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Bodies bloated with decay were beginning to pile up outside of the overwhelmed city morgue last week, but most have since been disposed of in mass graves. “It’s been over a week since the quake, so they’re starting to see a lot of infected wounds and gangrene,” said an exhausted Brett Williams, emergency response coordinator for Santa Barbara-based relief agency Direct Relief International (DRI). “They’re doing a lot of amputations.”
Williams and DRI operations specialist Nate Brock arrived in Port-au-Prince on Sunday to handle logistics and set up for DRI’s relief partners, a list that includes groups such as Partners in Health and FedEx. “It’s been a huge undertaking,” said Williams. “It seems like 80 percent of the city is destroyed. Almost every building you see is cracked and there’s rubble everywhere. There are only two of us here right now, working as hard as possible to get our partners here.” Williams noted that aside from some light rain the other day, it has been warm and dry outside — a blessing considering the number of people who are without housing for an indeterminate time.
Haiti is regularly blasted by hurricanes and tropical storms, so Williams had traveled there last April to set up a hurricane preparation program. “To see the place now is incredible — it’s so brutal,” he said. “You really feel for [the Haitians] and wonder when they’re going to catch a break.” Despite huge challenges looming ahead, some progress has been made since the magnitude 7.0 quake hit on January 12. Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Port-au-Prince, filling the void left by a national government that has been rendered nearly ineffective by the destruction. The deaths of the two top commanders of Haiti’s permanent UN force occurred when their headquarters building collapsed in the quake. With the Haitian police force said to be in disarray, the arrival of U.S. troops has been welcomed by relief workers.
Many Santa Barbara organizations are jumping into the fray, raising money and sending much-needed humanitarian supplies to Port-au-Prince through DRI, with FedEx providing flights for deliveries. Dr. David Thomasco — an area psychotherapist — and his wife, Carol, own the Santa Barbara Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy franchise, and appealed to their employees to help suffering Haitians. Working out a deal with one of their wholesalers, the couple was able to purchase 500-count bottles of doxycycline — a strong, flexible antibiotic Thomasco says is crucial to treating infections in Haiti — for $21 each. They normally retail for about $250. “We cleaned out the wholesaler’s warehouse, but the 66 bottles we did get are enough to treat 3,000 Haitians,” he said, adding that the generosity of everyone from college-aged employees to friends and family has been overwhelming. “People have been stopping by our home and leaving checks in the mailbox.”
Others have been active, too. Center of the Heart, a nondenominational spiritual center located on Turnpike Road, is hosting a multi-band concert on Saturday from 3 to 10 p.m. to raise money for earthquake victims. While the response from generous people all over the world has been impressive, Williams indicated that reconstruction will be a long-term operation. “We’ll probably be here for five years working on this,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”