On my last day in Haiti, a colorful sign at the airport for the Peace of Mind Hotel in Jacmel caught my eye. My friend Flo McGarrell died at that hotel on February 12th when the building collapsed. I felt Flo’s presence. His love for Haiti filled my heart and I shed some of the few tears I allowed myself during my time in Haiti. I had no time for tears; there were too many stories that needed to be told. That night I boarded a military plane used to evacuate people and transport soldiers to Miami, still putting my camera to use, still meeting people and listening to their accounts of how their lives had been forever changed by the earthquake. Ronny Gachelin was evacuating his daughters and planned to return to Haiti the next day. “Do people in America realize there are still bodies buried in the rubble all over Port-au-Prince?” he asked.
On my first day back I had the task of preparing a summary of my trip for the morning show on Fox8 in New Orleans (click here to see it)
. I started off talking about the military operation, pointing out the successes: the opening of the port and the completion of a major food distribution in which there was no major disturbance or violence. I clarified that the military has not been tasked to directly help the Haitians. They are there to support the Haitian government (a government the Haitians I spoke to think is utterly useless), the UN forces (there was preexisting tension between the Brazilian UN forces and the Haitians) and the NGO’s (first and foremost the World Food Program). As the military installs air-conditioners in the tents of officers, Haitians in tent cities are getting soaked by rain, the rain a reminder of the clock ticking down toward the rainy season that starts in March. The soldiers are not building temporary housing for the Haitians or directly distributing food. That is not their role. But the need for basic essentials in Haiti is extreme. If basic needs are met, security issues will diminish.
Few Haitians in the tent cities I spoke to received more than enough rice for a couple of days, if that. Even affluent Haitians don’t know where to locate tents. No one knows where to turn for help.I spoke to Col. Robin B. Akin after the food distribution surge was over. She is committed to her job, arriving in Haiti days after the earthquake with the first team. They set up the base camp, advised on the workings of the food distribution program and the reopenning of the port. Her logistics skills proved good enough to set up a way for the soldiers to watch the Super Bowl. (See a clip of the 377th TSC watching the interception the clinched the game for the Saints here
) She sees the food distribution surge as a major success. (Listen to her here)
The military goals were met. I wonder if, had she been a Haitian, she would have been able to to navigate a non-existing governmental system and an uncoordinated effort set up by the NGOs to secure a ticket to get a 25 pound bag of rice to feed her family.
Many small NGOs, individuals and missionaries who directly touch the lives of countless Haitians are also providing aid. I spent a day with Michael Brewer of ReachHaiti Ministries. Michael and his wife Andrea set up an orphanage six months before the earthquake. The building that housed them is ruined. They relocated the children and are now looking to buy land and erect a new building for the orphanage but are equally committed to providing aid to as many of those in need as they can. Sixteen volunteers from Tennessee have joined Michael in Haiti and are rebuilding a pastor’s home and setting up health care clinics on the streets in remote parts of Cite Soliel. They go out without security and provide medical services to anyone who needs them. (Watch clip of nurse Benny Parker in action here. and her
e )In the course of the day Benny treated over two hundred people. That day three people left the clinic with a fighting chance to save infected limbs that would have otherwise been lost, one woman having a miscarriage was rushed to a hospital and hundreds of others got a basic check up. Many of those who wait on line for medical care are not ill, but Benny treats them all with equal respect by listening to their chests and taking their temperature just in case. Most everyone lost a family member and is suffering from mental stress and anyone staying in the areas effected by the earthquake is experiencing eye irritation and congestion due to the dust. “People need to feel special, if only for a moment, so they wait on line to receive attention,” Benny explained. Those that don’t need medical attention leave with an aspirin and a hug.
Rev. Jean Frank Antoine” is in charge of eight tent cities and an orphanage. (Here is a link to a story I shot for the Guardian at one of the tent cities he set up.)
He introduced me to members of the board of Riedle, a NGO he is affiliated with. They took me to a tent city on the top of a hill in Carre Fourre that has up to 8000 residents for whom they are trying to secure tents and food . People there told me the only aid they’ve seen was a small amount of rice early on and that they need more. The distribution surge missed them. Bernadette Desir is nine months pregnant. Her shelter doesn’t protect her from the rain. “Only God knows when things will get better,” she tells me.Ben Constant, who opened up the National Stadium
for use as a tent city for 1000 families, also runs two orphanages
in Port-au-Prince with his sister Mary Jo Poux. Both structures are in need of repair. He has taken in newly orphaned kids at both places since the earthquake but has had to turn away others, as the facilities are full to capacity. To take more children in, he and his sister, based in New Orleans, need to raise more funds. She runs the Hope for Haitian Children Foundation , and will return to Port-au-Prince in mid-March with a container of supplies for the kids and others living in tent cities. Ben was in charge of the National Stadium before the earthquake, and is still in charge though no one in the government has said yay or nay to what he has done there. Professional soccer games being played again are a long way off so Ben’s commandeering of the stadium can be seen as a heroic action, though the stadium is no longer up to international standards. He has provided security for the people and clean water. There are only four toilets for 6000 people. None of those living there is not satisfied, but they are some of the lucky ones in Port-au-Prince. Everyone wondered why they are not recieving more aid. Many of them point the finger at Ben, wanting more from him since he is the only one who has helped them. When asked why he took the burden onhimself, he shrugs off the question as if what he did was what any man in his position would do. Many nights he sleeps there in his SUV, but had to leave one night as people screamed out in fear when a downpour occured. It was too much for him to bear.
Carnival, which would have begun on Feb. 14, was canceled and replaced by three days of national prayer. I joined Ben and his friend Evylen on the third day. (Watch Evylen remove a few objects from her destroyed apartment here.)
Ben manned a giant truck souped up with all his sound equipment and circled the Presidential Palace, blaring songs and prayers. Though Carnival was officially canceled, the euphoria of the crowd felt like Carnival to me. (What a clip of parade here)
I made my way through the packed crowd and climbed atop Ben’s float where I was able to be in the center of the pulsing sprit of Haiti. I was blown away by the spirit of the Haitian people. Though they have few prospects for a bright tomorrow, they retain their faith and hope for the future.
The empty pits near Titanyen, a small city 40 minutes north of Port-au-Prince by car, tell the story of countless unidentified victims. A worker there told me there are over 200,000 are buried there already. The turn-off for the site is marked with a small sign: For the victims of January 12th 2010. Haiti is no longer a top news story, but it is still my top story. Check back in the next few days as I write up and post more stories and pictures shot over the course of three weeks in Haiti.
How you can help:
1.Donate to ReachHaiti Ministries. Listen to Michael speak about his work here -To learn more about them and give financial support go to www.ReachHaiti.com
2.Funds are needed for the orphanage Rev. Jean Frank Antoine runs which is now uninhabitable. The children are living outside, sleeping beneath blue tarps. Make out checks to the Riedle Foundation, with a notation For the Orphanages. You can can find out more about the Ridel Foundation at www.ridelhaiti.org.
3. Hope for Haitian Children Foundation, run by Mary Jo Poux, supports two orphanages in Port-au-Prince. They are in the process of filling and shipping a container of donated goods to Haiti for the orphanages. You can help then by donating needed funds for shipping.. Their website is www.hopeforhaitianchildrenfoundation.org . Contact, Shon “Sable” Gipson at 504 460-4193 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
4.In Flo McGarrell’s memory, I plan to continue shining a spotlight on Haiti through my work. If you want to enable me to go on with my work in Haiti, please consider buying a print or funding me directly. You can contact me via email at email@example.com or from my web site
images top to bottom: Cathedral, Prt-au-Prince/ Ruined homes in Carre Foure/Crowd in front of palace on last day of National Prayer/ Parade around the palace on Feb 14th, Carnival/Bernadette Desir in tent city/ Sign indicating mass grave site outside of Port-au-Prince/Open pit for victims of the earthquake/Benny Parker at examining a child at a roadside clinic in Cite Soliel/ Sacre Coeur in Carre Foure/ Generator for AC unit on temporary military base at airport/ Street in Carre Foure where many bodies remain under the buildings/ Berlin Exantus under blue tarp next to the orphanage that is no longer safe to live in/ Col Robin B. Akin (soon to be a general) in action