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First on the Ground in Haiti

By  June 16, 2010

On January 12, 2010, a powerful earthquake left Haiti in ruins. Around the world, relief teams sprang into action. 

Verge looks at the challenging work of Canadian disaster response teams and what it takes to be a humanitarian aid worker.

Travelling to the heart of the devastation in Port-au-Prince in the hours following the earthquake, Jean-Pierre Taschereau recalled a conversation he’d had during one of his first humanitarian missions with the Canadian Red Cross. It was in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch hammered the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

“I remembered a colleague telling me that hurricanes and flooding were serious disasters, but the nightmare scenario [for humanitarian operations] was an earthquake,” Taschereau says.

Twelve years later, the 37-year-old native of Ste-Marie de Beauce, Quebec, now a senior manager with the international emergency response unit of the Canadian Red Cross, would find himself in the middle of that nightmare.

As leader of the Red Cross Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT) responding to Haiti’s earthquake, Taschereau was tasked with travelling as quickly as possible to the country. Once there, he would begin laying the foundation for what would eventually become one of the largest disaster response efforts in the humanitarian organization’s 147-year history.

A Red Cross FACT team, he explains, rushes to a disaster anywhere in the world, assesses the situation on the ground and tells planners worldwide what resources and personnel are needed.
In Canada, a world away from the unfolding chaos, text messages began flooding Taschereau’s mobile telephone.

Haiti’s earthquake struck just before 5 p.m. on January 12. With a magnitude of 7.0, it was one of the most powerful quakes ever to hit the region. In a country where an estimated 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and is largely concentrated in urban centres, the scale of the damage was staggering, even to people with decades of disaster relief experience.

Within minutes of the earthquake, large parts of the country were devastated. Entire city blocks fell, crushing or trapping hundreds of thousands of people who had no warning or time to escape. Countless others were badly injured as they fled falling buildings.

Haiti is often described as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and much of its already precarious infrastructure— from the power grid to water and drainage systems—was completely destroyed. The mobile telephone network, a lifeline in any developing nation, was severely damaged and what remained working was overwhelmed within the first few minutes of panic.

Haiti’s presidential palace lay in ruins and the government was instantly paralyzed. The headquarters of the United Nations Mission (MINUSTAH) in Port-au-Prince also collapsed, killing over 200 staff who otherwise would have helped direct relief efforts.

More than 200,000 Haitians lost their lives in the earthquake and an estimated two million people had their homes destroyed. Rebuilding the country, observers predict, will take decades.

As the news of the disaster began to reach the rest of the world, humanitarian organizations were already springing into action. International agencies tried desperately to track down local colleagues on the ground, many of whom were either killed or injured in the disaster, or were trying frantically to find lost family and friends.

“Everyone lost family,” says Mark Fried, a policy coordinator with Oxfam Canada who travelled to Haiti days after the earthquake. “Everything people had worked for their entire lives was lost.”

Even in the midst of one of the largest humanitarian efforts in history, the smallest details suddenly become crucial.Within hours, the humanitarian community began to initiate disaster protocols. Search and rescue teams boarded airplanes from as far away as China, South America and Europe.

In Canada, a world away from the unfolding chaos, text messages began flooding Taschereau’s mobile telephone. With 14 years of disaster response experience under his belt, the ability to speak French and a familiarity with working in Haiti during the 2008 hurricanes, his skills were very much in demand.

He immediately began making plans to travel to the stricken country but, as with other disaster response units, the process was complicated by a lack of reliable information coming from Haiti in the hours following the earthquake. There were rumours of closed borders and an airport so badly damaged that no flights could land. With the Haitian government out of contact and the country’s airport authority in chaos, it was decided that the quickest way to reach the disaster zone was through the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

By noon Wednesday, only 19 hours after the earthquake struck, Taschereau was on a commercial flight out of Ottawa, heading to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic via Newark, New Jersey. By 1 a.m. Thursday, he met with up the Red Cross FACT team at the airport and the group set out in a convoy of trucks laden with supplies, unsure of what was awaiting them.

As they made their way towards Haiti, other international aid mobilization efforts were hitting top gear.

In Ottawa, Mia Vukojevic, the humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam Canada, began scrambling to marshal resources and organize shipments. As an experienced disaster management specialist, Vukojevic’s job is to manage Oxfam Canada’s resources and fit them in to the larger international response.

Normally, she explains, Oxfam Canada’s operations in Haiti revolve around gender and equality programmes; like everyone else, they immediately switched to emergency relief.

As information began to trickle in, Vukojevic learned that Oxfam’s Haitian offices were badly damaged and a warehouse full of supplies had collapsed, leaving the local organization reliant on outside help. Within hours, Vukojevic found herself tracking down local staff, organizing aid shipments and, at one point, running around Ottawa’s airport, hand delivering transit documents to pilots waiting to take off with fresh water, medical supplies and baby food.

While television footage showed soldiers landing at the Port-au-Prince airport, aid organizations found that their planes were being denied permission to fly directly into the Haitian capital. Using the city’s harbour wasn’t an option as it was badly damaged. So, Oxfam began ferrying supplies from warehouses in the United Kingdom and Panama City to the Dominican Republic on chartered planes, then loading trucks for the journey to Haiti.

“We just gave up trying to land in Port-au- Prince,” Vukojevic says.

She was soon able to find additional space for supplies on airplanes being sent by the Canadian government and other humanitarian agencies. “The biggest challenge wasn’t getting the planes in the air,” she explains, “it was offloading them once they arrived. The airport in Santo Domingo was in chaos.”

In the midst of this humanitarian effort, the smallest details suddenly became crucial. Having the right documents in the pilot’s hands became almost as important as delivering the plane’s valuable cargo. Without the former, the latter might end up sitting on a runway for weeks.

During the first week, Oxfam was able to land 14 airplanes filled with supplies, and then to start distributing fresh water and medical supplies almost immediately.

Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre Taschereau and the Red Cross team had made the 375-kilometre journey from Santo Domingo to Port-au -Prince. The convoy was the first step in an operation that would quickly become the biggest in Red Cross history. Among the gear that was eventually brought in to Haiti were two field hospitals equipped with operating rooms, several logistics and communications command centres, two base camps and two mobile water treatment plants. In addition, there were three mobile basic-care clinics and hygiene and sanitation units.

Even before day broke, Taschereau’s team was stunned by the scale of the destruction that was unfolding in front of them. “This was bigger than anything any of us had ever seen,” he says.

An entire city and most of a country, terrified of returning to their homes, had moved into the streets. Haitians desperately dug through the rubble of collapsed buildings to free trapped people. The world watched as bodies began to pile up in the streets and the sheer scale of the number of dead and injured became more clear.

As leader of the mission, the first thing Taschereau had to do was set up a base from which to run the operation. Under normal circumstances, he explained, this base would be located as close to heart of the disaster as possible so the teams could start administering basic care quickly. With the city destroyed and so many people in public squares and streets, there was precious little space to operate. The team eventually found a spot outside the city in a warehouse district just beside Port-au-Prince’s notorious Cité Soleil slum.

For the next week, the team worked around the clock assessing the medical and basic living supplies needed by the desperate population. The experience, Taschereau says, was humbling.

“I saw so many acts of heroism, I can’t even begin to describe it.”

As the days passed, the operation grew as the FACT team called in more and more resources to try and stabilize the chaos. Soon, the team started to see results. A local mobile phone provider donated air time and over seven million text messages were sent out to Haitians, providing them with information on hygiene and basic medical information. Mass vaccination campaigns were launched. Twenty-six thousand tonnes of relief supplies were driven and airlifted into the country. Over 600 Red Cross disaster specialists have rotated in and out of the emergency since it began.

Even with all these resources arriving on such short notice, the scale of the disaster was, for several days, too large to cope with.

“We couldn’t even get outside the city,” Taschereau recalls. “There was so much need all around us; 1,500 people in need on one street, 2,000 on the next and the next street is the same story. Every hospital we set up was at full capacity right away.”

They worked flat-out with little rest, sleeping when they could. After a few days on the ground, Taschereau noted the team starting to show the strain. As more workers arrived and the operation spread out to other regions of the country, the base, now located next to the airport, grew. Soon, several hundred humanitarian workers were living together in cramped quarters. The entire compound was sharing three showers and two latrines. Inevitably, people started getting sick. Diarrhea and waterborne infections spread through the camp.

Compounding the chaos was the fact that Haiti was experiencing dozens of aftershocks, causing panic amongst an already traumatized population.

As the physical and psychological toll began to show on his team, Taschereau made the decision to rotate the next team in more quickly than originally planned.

“In these situations you give it all you have got and then make way [for the next team],” he explains.

Looking at the operation from afar, Taschereau predicts that the emergency phase of the operation will continue for at least nine months, maybe even a year.

He points to another potential catastrophe that is looming for the embattled nation. The spring rains and the hurricane season are coming, and resettling hundreds of thousands of people whose homes have been destroyed has become the next urgent priority. Plans are being made to build refugee camps outside of major cities and to relocate people who, since the earthquake, have been living in public spaces.

It will be a mammoth task, Taschereau says. Relief agencies are trying to encourage Haitians to find host families but for those unable to find someone to take them in, temporary housing is being organized and plastic sheeting is also being distributed. Plans are underway to ensure that the camps will have adequate clean water facilities.

Once the housing emergency is contained, the next task is to rebuild the country, in many cases, literally from the ground up. Oxfam Canada’s Fried cautions that despite the strong urge to act quickly in these situations, what is done has to be well thought out and basic human rights must be respected. Tachereau agrees and his commitment to the people of Haiti is evident.

“We must make this entire operation about building Haiti back better.”

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency.

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Published in Work Abroad
James Stairs

James is a multimedia journalist originally from Montreal, Canada. Over the past several years he has written, filmed, photographed and recorded from the heart of major events across four continents. James has reported from several major international conflicts, humanitarian crises and national elections in countries including South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Bolivia and from several points across Europe and North America.

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