Tracking human tragedy in Haiti

Editor's note: For full coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and the Boston-area response, see our sister publication Boston Haitian Reporter.

Local residents continued to scramble for information about relatives in friends in Haiti following Tuesday night’s catastrophic earthquake of 7.0 magnitude that has caused untold damage ten miles off the coast of the capital of Port-Au-Prince.

On Wednesday, Mayor Tom Menino rolled out plans for the city's response to the events, including the opening of a crisis response center inside the SEIU 1199 headquarters on Columbia Point.

Reports from various sources said the city of Port-Au-Prince has essentially been destroyed, said Dr. Alix Cantave, associate director at the William Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who is an expert on Haiti. The loss of life from the catastrophe has not yet been estimated, but reports on Wednesday were speaking of a toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Port-Au-Prince is a city of 2 million people, Cantave said. “It’s extremely dense,” he said. “There has been chaotic development and people have built homes on top of each other.”

“I ask everyone to pray for those in Haiti and those of us here,” said Dorchester state representative Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian American, yesterday. “All of us and all the great friends of Haiti we have in Massachusetts are affected by these horrible events. For those of us with family and friends in Haiti – all of us are understandably upset - but we need to stay calm. This is the time to step up – especially Haitian Americans – and respond to a great human tragedy. We have to do it earnestly and quickly, but it’s also important that our response be well-planned and well carried-out. Haiti and Haitians are a resilient people and we will pull through this. “

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have indicated the U.S. response will be robust and President Bill Clinton is currently serving as UN Special Envoy to Haiti, Forry noted. “Later today I am hopeful that the first US planes carrying aid will touch down in Haiti,” she said. “ Already we can see that staging areas in Miami are busy as supplies are loaded and sorted. I, along with my colleagues in the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, will be in touch with the White House later today [Wednesday] as we start to organize the recovery effort. On an individual basis, we can all do something to help.”

A meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. last night at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End to begin organizing the local recovery effort.

People seeking information about family in Haiti should use a hotline set up by the State Department: 1-888-407-4747. The Boston Haitian Reporter is also gathering a live blog reaction to the earthquake. See the site, bostonhaitian.com, for the latest updates.

At the same time, area residents have begun organizing ways to help. Dorchester resident Dr. Larry Ronan of Massachusetts General Hospital said yesterday that a highly-trained disaster response team composed of doctors and nurses from the hospital is “ready to rock” and could dispatch 16-20 people to Haiti that same day.

In the longer view, Ronan said he will be leading an insert team from MGH under the direction of the U.S. government.
 “Our team is on alert to deploy,” Ronan said. “They have to be released by the federal government. We have a team of between 40 and 60 people – very seasoned people. They are fully equipped to be in that environment and to be helpful.”

On the ground in Haiti, medical resources are being deployed, but stateside experts are concerned about the state of the country’s infrastructure and the ability of people to get to medical centers.
Boston-based Partners in Health has opened its clinics in the Central Plateau region of Haiti for “anyone who can get there,” according to Donna Barry, policy chief at the organization. “The biggest need will be blood,” she said. “We’re going to need more supplies, pain medications and surgical kits.”

There is also concern about the ability to disseminate aid given reports of the collapse of the United Nations headquarters in Port-Au-Prince.

“I am very concerned that international humanitarian efforts led by the United Nations have been critically affected by the collapse of UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince,” said Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “Our thoughts and condolences extend to the UN community. We are already working with local leadership to find ways to coordinate Massachusetts resources to aid as well. Our assistance to Haiti must be generous and sustained to ensure that Haiti recovers from this humanitarian crisis and can eventually rebuild.”

The Obama Administration’s reaction has been speedy and well-coordinated, Kerry said. “The White House, U.S. Agency for International Development, State Department, Southern Command, and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince have mobilized effectively and are already rushing assistance,” Kerry said.

Before the earthquake, the country had not fully recovered from severe damage to roads and buildings in the northern coastal area caused by several hurricanes in the fall of 2008, Dr. Cantave said. “Roads were destroyed. Most of them have not been rebuilt,” he said. “There is a question about what is the local capacity to respond to this disaster.”

Haiti has struggled not only with poverty, but also with poor governance and lack of infrastructure, which could hamper its ability to respond, he added.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s office released a statement saying, 
“Boston’s ties to Haiti are deep, and our thoughts and prayers go out not only to
the victims of this tragedy, but also to the Haitian community in our city whose
loved ones have been affected by the disaster.”

Local residents have been calling community centers and anyone who may have access to information coming from Haiti. “My wife has cousins and aunts in Haiti and she has not been able to contact anybody,” Cantave said.

He also has not been able to get in touch with colleagues at the Institute of Public Administration, Management and International Studies in Haiti, which has partnered with the Trotter Institute for many years on Haitian issues. “I don’t even know if the building is still standing,” he said.

Some information may be filtering out via cell phone or text messages.
Early this morning, friend and colleague Richardson Innocent, who moved to Haiti from Boston last month, was able to send a text message that he is alive and okay to the Reporter’s Bill Forry.

Kenson Calixte, a Haitian-American from Abington, has talked to two relatives on the ground in Delmas, a community about 15 miles from Port-au-Prince. Calixte said they reported widespread devastation, including a hotel that had collapsed.

For those looking to help out, Partners in Health, run by Dr. Paul Farmer, is accepting monetary donations at its website, pih.org. The American Red Cross is accepting donations through their International Response Fund. Donations can be sent to the Red Cross, PO Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013 or made by phone at 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 online at redcross.org. Donations may also be made through MercyCorps.com. National Nurses United is calling on nurses to join the effort for emergency medical support. Nurses can sign up at nationalnursesunited.org.