January 14, 2010
Aid Workers Scramble Amid Haiti’s Chaos
By LIZ ROBBINS
Governments and aid agencies from China to Grand Rapids began marshaling supplies and manpower to send to Haiti on Wednesday, while overwhelmed rescue workers already living in the earthquake-devastated capital of Port-au-Prince scrambled to set up makeshift clinics beside rubble from collapsed hospitals.
The worldwide rush to provide aid to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere was immediate and enormous. But the logistics of getting help to Haiti proved a frustrating challenge a day after the quake.
Flights were severely limited at Port-au-Prince’s main airport, telecommunications were barely functioning, operations at the port were shut down, and most of the medical facilities were severely damaged, if not simply razed. Some aid agencies were still trying to account for missing workers, while others found that merely entering the country was a difficult task.
A Red Cross field team, made up of officials from several nations, had to spend the night in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to gather its staff before taking the six-hour drive in the morning across the border to the earthquake zone.
“We were on the plane here with a couple of different agencies and they all are having similar challenges of access,” Colin Chaperon, the field director for the American Red Cross, said in a telephone interview. “There is a wealth of resources out there, and everybody has the good will to go in and support the Haitian Red Cross.”
But the conditions, he said, could be turning even more dangerous. “Obviously it’s a densely populated area and there have been reports of looting,” Mr. Chaperon said. “Clearly, there’s a big need to get the search and rescue efforts under way.”
Medical personnel from Doctors Without Borders, which had 800 people already in Haiti before the earthquake, established tents for triage and to accommodate patients evacuated from severely damaged hospitals. But they were mobbed by people who had suffered severe traumas and crushed limbs, and by others begging for help in rescuing trapped relatives.
“It’s a very chaotic situation,” said Paul McPhun, a director of the emergency management team for Doctors Without Borders, based in Toronto.
“We’re looking at private charter options, looking at getting people through the Dominican Republic,” Mr. McPhun said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning. “We need to get people in, and get people fast. There’s not a shortage of getting people to go, but it’s how to get them there.”
Many international relief agencies have large presences in Haiti, not only for disaster relief from two hurricanes in 2008, but for AIDS education and other social and economic issues plaguing the nation. On Wednesday, religious-based and other non-profit organizations rapidly developed aid plans and quickly raised millions of dollars through social networking sites and other technologies.
The Pentagon said it was sending an aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson based in Norfolk, Va., to Haiti. It is expected to arrive by Friday and serve as an offshore staging area for helicopters and air support for the island. General Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said he was also considering sending an amphibious assault ship with an expeditionary unit of roughly 2,000 marines to help maintain security in the Haitian capital, which he said was “a serious concern.”
The United States Coast Guard dispatched four cutters, some equipped with helicopters, to Haiti early Wednesday morning.
France said it would send three military transport planes with aid supplies, and that 100 troops based in the French West Indies would be sent to help, according to TF1, a French television network. Britain, China, and Germany were sending assessment teams, and pledging financial support. .
Robyn Fieser, the regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services, said her office was able contact some of its 300 relief workers in Haiti overnight. Its Port-au-Prince office was still standing, and some workers slept outside overnight there, afraid or unable to get through rubble-blocked streets.
“All they heard last night was chanting and praying,” Ms. Fieser said by telephone from her office in Baltimore, Md.. “They did not hear any emergency vehicles or emergency efforts at all. All they saw was people doing rescue work on their own, with their bare hands.”
Caring for children was of immediate concern to at least two organizations with offices already in Haiti. Caryl Stern, chief executive officer of the U.S. Fund for Unicef, said that all but three of the 100 workers were accounted for on Wednesday. After helping communities with rescue efforts, she said her agency would gather unaccompanied children and “create safe havens,” for them and then focus on curbing diseases and providing clean water.
Smaller aid agencies said they did not have the resources to arrange large shipments and some said they must rely on airlines either to wave extra baggage fees or find enough volunteers to stuff their suitcases with first aid supplies.
The Haiti Foundation Against Poverty, a small nonprofit organization based in Grand Rapids, works with orphanages, schools and clinics in Les Bours and Cite Soleil. All have been damaged, said Kim Chapin, the director or education and child sponsorship, and another orphanage the foundation was about to purchase in Cite Soleil — called Hope House — was leveled.
“The best thing for people to help right now is to send money,” said Kim Chapin, the director of education and child sponsorship. “Shipments can’t get in. Shipments were terrible anyway because of the red tape with the government.”
In two weeks, Ms. Chapin said, volunteers from Grand Rapids plan to go to Haiti full of suitcases with supplies, including Pedialite, Gatorade, protein bars and rubbing alcohol. The director was planning to bring a 2-year-old girl, Kalenica, back to the United States for emergency heart surgery. “Now,” Ms. Chapin said, “we do not know if she’s even alive.”
For organizations that worked with medical centers outside the capital that were not damaged in the quake, the prospect for immediate relief seemed a little more optimistic. But even travel within the country was difficult.
Mr. McPhun, of Doctors Without Borders, said that any roads that were not strewn by rubble were made impassible during the night by people sleeping or lying wounded there.
Partners in Health said it was trying to send supplies to the capital from its nine medical centers in the Central Plateau of Haiti, about 100 miles from Port-au-Prince.
“The important thing is getting what we already have in country to the place that it’s needed,” said Andrew Marx, a spokesman for the agency. “There has to be a ‘there’ there.”
The World Food Program said it was airlifting additional food supplies from its emergency hub in El Salvador, which will provide more than half a million emergency meals.
Military and charter flights were not the only aircraft trying on Wednesday to land at the Port-au-Prince airport, where the control tower was reportedly destroyed by the quake. JetBlue said it would provide supplies and equipment to transport aid workers, the Haitian consul general in New York, Felix Augustin, said at a news conference.
“Most needed are medical supplies and water,” Mr. Augustin said.
Spirit Airlines, which operates flights between Port-au-Prince and Fort Lauderdale, said it planned to resume service as soon as possible, and also planned to participate in transporting aid workers and equipment to Haiti.
Donations flowed into aid organizations over the Internet and through mobile giving services, where people could give small donations in $5 or $10 amounts through text-messaging. The musician Wyclef Jean, who was raising money for his Yele Foundation to rebuild Haiti, had one of the most popular Twitter feeds on Wednesday. The American Red Cross said it had raised more than $700,000 through its mobile giving service, and more than $1 million online.
Even as medical supplies dwindled for the Haitian Red Cross, how soon they could be restocked was still in doubt. Mr. Chaperone, of the American Red Cross, said that supplies were being sent from the group’s warehouse in Panama — including enough tarpaulins, cooking sets and mosquito nets to assist 5,000 families left homeless by the destruction. He said, however, he did not yet how they would get there, by boat or by air.
Reporting was contributed by Maria Newman and Jon Elsen from New York, and Brian Knowlton, Eric Lipton and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington.