Dispatch 8 - February 10, 2010
HRDF Presentation: “Earthquake Recovery: Mission Possible”
for the Hot Topics Discussion Group, Weston, Florida February 10, 2010
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting us tonight.
The Haitian Resource Development Foundation (HRDF) was established more than twenty years ago and for the past ten years has been based in Weston. Members of HRDF include physicians and surgeons such as me who are also specialized in teaching emergency medical response and community civil defense. Recently, HRDF has added partners who are specialists on saving the environment.
Let me take this opportunity to introduce two colleagues – Dr Weiner Leblanc, from Weston, a retired pediatrician and Mr. Stuart Leiderman from New Hampshire whose work concerns environmental refugees and ecological restoration of damaged homelands, such as Haiti. In the next few minutes, I will briefly tell you about our experiences with the earthquake.HRDF has initiated numerous projects with the cooperation of civic leaders, Haitian and foreign organizations and since 2004 with the United States Military Southern Command when their humanitarian teams come to Haiti for medical outreach. Among the projects are: drinking water, establishment of a vocational school, teaching emergency medicine to physicians and nurses, as well as first response techniques to firefighters and other paramedical personnel. New projects include a fishery school, and mountainside catchment lakes to control flash floods.
Mr. Leiderman and I were working in a project of environmental protection for the city of Aquin. For several days, we surveyed the environment, investigated the cause of problems and met with group of residents about what to do to avoid future disasters.
When we came back to Port-au-Prince; I decided we will have dinner at my friend Gilbert’s restaurant “La Plaisance.” It’s a restaurant where old friends meet to talk about everything and nothing, have a drink and a nice dinner. We were sitting outside at a kind of picnic table. It was getting to be twilight and we had just ordered.
Imagine if you were with us, very relaxed. Suddenly, there was an apocalyptic noise, as if my head were tied to a railroad track in Times Square, New York City, during rush hour. Then the ground violently shook, I lost my balance. My first instinct was to run towards the building. Meanwhile, Stuart had ducked under the table. I saw the building falling towards me; I never saw anything like that. I ran to a big palm tree on my right at the edge of the yard. The shaking was continuing. I did not know if it would ever end. Then Stuart ran over to the tree and we just hung on. Slowly, the proprietors and the diners staggered into the yard wondering what happened. This generation of Haitians had never experienced an earthquake in their country. Probably, one hundred thousand had died in that minute of shaking.
It became dark. Stuart and I walked to my sister’s school nearby. We found the building mostly destroyed. We discovered that she was trapped underneath the concrete slabs. Neighbors tried to help us, but she had to stay there overnight before anyone could help her escape. Our own apartment was still standing but some of the walls were cracked, so we slept outside in the courtyard with everyone that night and for several more nights.
In the daylight hours, when I went out to find food and water, I saw a completely destroyed city, like a scene from a First World War movie. The national palace, the ministry buildings, the churches, schools, police stations, businesses, gas stations, hotels, hospitals and houses had fallen. On the second day, bodies wrapped in sheets appeared on the streets and sidewalks. There were growing piles of garbage and debris.
There were no phone services. During those days, we went to the national civil defense office, to the general Hospital in Port-au-Prince, to the Community Hospital in Petion-Ville, to the field Hospital to the airport to help. We discovered there were a big mismatch between the availability of doctors and other relief workers, and the supplies and facilities they needed to do their job. So we helped matched them up. This is the kind of thing that HRDF has been doing for years, although never after an earthquake.
Also at the airport, we saw the Israeli flags above there field hospital and rescue team, and were reminded of the big things that a small country can do. We want to make more of this relationship that has a history of more than sixty years, to the founding of the State of Israel.
Eventually, several days later, on the 17th, a private rescue plane offered a flight to Fort Pierce, Florida. We drove from there to Weston and resumed working from here. A week later, Wiener and I flew back to Haiti for four days work as physicians at different hospitals.
What I saw was even worse than the days immediately after the earthquake because a second earthquake has destroyed more of the country and killed many of the original survivors. The deaths were now probably more the 200.000 and the environmental refugees were now more than a million. People were fleeing the cities for the countryside, to place like Aquin that were unprepared for housing and feeding them. This is the disaster after the earthquake. This is where Weston’s HRDF has to go into action again.
At this point, we are calling our work “Mission Possible” for two reasons:
- HRDF for a long time had a “culture of preparedness” built into all its projects such as the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), the medical training for physicians and nurses in emergency training, planning for catchment lakes, drinking water etc. This means careful design, budgeting, staffing and anticipating problems along the way because Haiti may be the most difficult place in the world to improve people’s living conditions.
- Especially after the earthquake, it is essential to have a positive attitude that recovery is and will be possible. There is no room for failure or pessimism. Those who have the culture of preparedness should have the responsibilities for leadership. Others who have been living in blind faith have become victims. We hope they survive but there is no guarantee. The whole country has so much to learn.
If organizations such as HRDF are to accomplished “Mission Possible”, there are the usual requirements – adequate staff, headquarters here and in Haiti, equipment, mobility, program contributions. But there is also a unique requirement – a clear, detailed, practical and affordable definition of the “Reconstruction of Haiti” that everybody is calling for but no major power or relief organization has yet put forward. Essentially there have been flying in band-aids. They have not been asking or deciding where the refugees live? Who will be trusted with the money? What would be the check and balances? Will old cities be repaired or new cities built? Can the food, water and housing come from Haiti or everything have to be imported? Questions like these obviously need to be answered soon. HRDF and its partners have some answers but very lithe influence. A brain trust from Weston, however, taking these questions one by one and reaching upward to decision makers in Florida, the United States, Canada, Europe and Haiti could help achieve “Mission Possible”.
So the same as you invited us here to meet with you, we invite you and all of Weston to meet with us.
Thank you very much.
Aldy Castor MD, President Haitian Resource Development Foundation (HRDF)