On Tuesday January 12th, 2010 a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the small island country of Haiti at a depth of 8.1 miles. The epicenter was located 15 miles away from Port-Au-Prince, the capital city of this country known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Over 230,000 people are believed to have died from this catastrophe and 3 million affected, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history. No doubt you have all watched TV footage of the aftermath of the earthquake- of people with bleeding head injuries carrying their dead children in their arms, of corpses piled up on the side of the road, of lifeless limbs being discovered in concrete rubble as futile rescue efforts continued on through the nights, of millions of now homeless Haitians begging for food and water, of riots breaking out at food distribution points, and of understaffed medical personnel attending to an extraordinary number of trauma victims in makeshift hospital tents. It was a truly desperate situation for all involved and a tragedy of unbelievable proportion beyond belief. Not being able to do anything while watching all of the painful footage on the news was unbearable. When I was called to go to Haiti for a humanitarian medical mission, I jumped at the opportunity. But nothing prepared me for what I was about to witness.
I went with an international medical organization that has many years of experience working in both natural disaster and conflict settings. Doctors, nurses, EMT’s and physician’s assistants made up my team of disaster response personnel who flew into Port-au-Prince. Until the time that we went, 12 such teams had already rotated through various cities in Haiti to attend to the massive medical needs that ensued after the earthquake. On the day that we arrived, we were taken through a tour of the central part of downtown Port-au-Prince where we all watched in shock at the wreck that once used to be a bustling marketplace. Not a single building or house was left unscathed, and there were piles of rubble and debris everywhere. Statistics quoted that 300,000 houses were destroyed in the earthquake, but I wondered if this was a huge underestimation. By the time I went to Haiti several weeks after the actual earthquake, the corpses had been removed from the streets and buried in mass graves, but there were still unidentified bodies trapped inside of the rubble that people have not been able to dig out.
As we got closer to Leogane, the city closest to the epicenter of the earthquake, the scenery became more frightening. Large concrete buildings were squashed flat to the ground like a pancake. Large deep cracks penetrated the paved roads and iron gates were bent in half from the weight of fallen houses. What looked like intact buildings were actually the 2nd or 3rd floors of those buildings which had completely collapsed onto the ground floor. It literally looked like an atomic bomb had exploded and took everything with it. Although the immediate needs of the people were food, water and health care, eventually the need to remove the massive amounts of debris will have to be addressed. Unless the debris is removed, people cannot return to their home areas to start the rebuilding process.
There was a lot of activity in the city, but the sadness and grief felt by all who had experienced this grave tragedy was painfully palpable. There was a sense of desperation in the air- a desperation to come to terms with what had happened, a frenzy to find food and water, an anxiety to search for a will to live and a worry of whether there was a future to look forward to. After the earthquake squashed everything down to the ground, the ravaged cities and towns were now overflowing with an extraordinary number of IDP camps (IDP means internally displaced persons). Approximately 1,500,000 Haitians are living in tent cities, but many more are still in need of shelter. Some of these shelters that were provided were sturdy camping tents, but many were tarps that were tied to sticks with a rope. A lot of makeshift homes that I saw were old torn up cotton sheets tied to wooden sticks that were barely holding up to the wind. How are these people surviving right now through the rainy season? By the time that I finished my month long medical mission, the rainy season still hadn’t started, and this was a growing concern among the aid community.
Providing waterproof shelter materials was one thing, but with entire families living in a tent or tarp shelter, and with hundreds and thousands of such tents in an IDP camp in crowded conditions, what was to become of sanitation and hygiene? And who was assessing and addressing drainage and solid waste management? Imagine living in a tent as small as your bathroom with 5 other family members, and living in a camp with 2000 other people with hardly any space in between each tent. Now imagine feeling hungry, thirsty and tired. You are also still recovering from the shock of watching your brother and sister die under the collapsed house. On top of that, your baby is malnourished and sick. Your other child has had diarrhea and vomiting for 5 days. There are only 2 latrines for the entire camp, and both of them are overflowing with feces. This was the reality of life in these camps. No human being deserves to live like that.
Everybody was suffering from the psychological trauma of living through the earthquake and losing not only their loved ones and their homes, but also their sense of identity and hope. In addition, there were numerous aftershocks that continued to torment these people. There have been over 60 aftershocks after the initial January 12th earthquake, and many were quite strong, ranging from 4.2 to 5.9 magnitude in strength. I experienced many such aftershocks during my term there, and each time I would hear people running through the streets in a complete state of panic, screaming with fear and trepidation. Many nervous people slept outside on the streets, far away from buildings and structures that could fall on top of them. There was no sense of calm or peace in Haiti.
By the time that I arrived in Haiti, there were some marketplaces and stalls that had opened back up. Various food and clothing stalls lined the damaged and cluttered streets as the people of Haiti tried to regain a sense of normalcy. With an unemployment rate of 85% before the earthquake, needless to say times were much more dire post-earthquake. It seemed like these marketplaces were bursting with life and vigor, but upon close inspection I saw that many people were selling junk- concrete blocks, bricks, broken pieces of iron, door knobs, and really anything that they could scavenge. These were desperate times, and I respected the strong determination and will of those who were trying to make something out of nothing.
The presence of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) was strong in Haiti, and it’s not an exaggeration to state that currently Haiti is functioning solely on foreign aid. Haiti was already in bad shape before the earthquake- as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, there were already a lot of NGO’s in Haiti pre-earthquake providing health care and environmental support. Over 230 organizations from all over the world responded to appeals for humanitarian aid after the earthquake, pledging funds and providing everything from medical care and food to shelter, latrines, engineers and other support personnel. Unfortunately in the beginning there was very little coordination among the organizations as the UN, which usually takes on an organizational and mediative role, was also affected. The UN building collapsed, taking along with it many of its employees, both expatriate and national staff, and even its mission chief. It was the gravest and greatest single loss in the history of the United Nations organization.
Confusion over who was in charge at the Port-au-Prince airport hampered early relief work. Flights weren’t being prioritized, and news reporters, TV crews and politicians were flying in first, while medical personnel and surgical supplies were diverted to the Dominican Republic, forced to find their own transportation across the border into Haiti. Who was to blame? Nobody was prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, and nobody could have predicted the exact needs at the time. It was one huge chaos that continued to deteriorate by the minute, rendering all who were involved into an unprecedented state of stress, panic and confusion. Although I have done humanitarian medical work in conflict/war settings, this was my first time working in a massive natural disaster scenario. Many of the aid workers that I met in Haiti who had a lot of experience working in natural disasters (like the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake) all unanimously stated that this was the worst that they have witnessed by far.
How does the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere survive after experiencing one of the worst natural disasters in modern history? What happens when you strip everything away from a country that had nothing to begin with? It is estimated that it could take as much as $14 billion to rebuild this damaged nation. From what I witnessed during my month long medical mission there, that’s not all that is needed to rehabilitate Haiti. Haiti may never be free from foreign aid- it never really ever was, but with hope, patience, donations and a lot of determination, we can all contribute in reviving this soulful country back to health. The beautiful children, the future of Haiti, certainly deserve a chance.
The most effective way that people can assist the ongoing relief efforts in Haiti is by making cash contributions to humanitarian organizations that are conducting relief operations. Information on organizations responding to the humanitarian situation in Haiti is available at www.reliefweb.int.
However, if you need some guidance on solid organizations to contribute to, here are the 2 medical organizations that I work with:
More photos and stories of my incredible experience in Haiti to follow…