Earthquake Call

When I returned home from the Sudan in early December, it was nice to have a break and spend the holidays with my family. Many issues were resolved and I was back to being a normal day to day security guard, back at the National Defense HQ in Ottawa. I was not sure if I would be having more opportunities within the INGO sector, but had started applying to various positions through ReliefWeb, which can be a good source for finding work in the sector.

Not far into the new year of 2010, on January 12 at 1653 a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck in Haiti. I had arrived home that evening shortly after 1800 when I was informed from my family about this catastrophe. Immediately, I turned on the television and started watching all of the news. This was one of those moments in life when you know where you were and what you were doing, similar to those in the 60’s who remember the JFK assassination and in 2001 when the twin towers were attacked. It was horrible to see and knowing that nightfall was upon Haiti, I was sure that this was a disaster that I would be able to provide my new-found skills.
Earthquake Map

The following day, I sent an email to Carmen at CARE US and offered any support that may have been required. I was informed that I was being considered, but at that moment, evaluations and needs assessments were difficult as the airport had been damaged and no one could get in. So, I continued my normal life for the next few days when I got a call from Carmen asking if I could go in to Haiti. As of now, I had only been to eight different countries in my life, Haiti would be number 9 and this number would grow exponentially over the next eight years.

The contract to the Haiti response with CARE US would be 12 weeks, or three months. Another long deployment that again would need a family discussion. This time, the discussion was short and it was decided that this would be a good move considering it was still with CARE, whom I was with in Sudan. I was excited to be getting another opportunity in the INGO sector and getting exposure to my first natural disaster. Carmen informed me of the required field kit that I would need to purchase prior to deploying and my initial contacts. It seemed relatively straight forward and I was definitely pumped to be going and adding more tools to my knowledgebase.

Deployment

On January 24, 2010, I began the journey to my deployment in Haiti. This was just short of two weeks after the earthquake and the airport had recently been reopened for small craft. There were still no commercial airlines flying in other than for aid supplies. My route to Port-au-Prince took me via Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. I spend an evening in Santo Domingo before catching a flight on a World Vision charter from La Isabela International Airport to Port-au-Prince.  The morning of January 25 I was to meet a representative from World Vision in the hotel lobby who would guide me through the process of catching the flight. Little be known, this person would eventually become an amazing friend who I think the world of.

At the small airport and prior to flying on the small six seater Cessna, one had to go through security, similar to regular flights. A new lesson was learned, be careful of what you pack. Not realizing that security would be so tough, and having specific tools of the security trade packed, some were not allowed. The small Cessna did not have under plane storage meaning everything went inside and was accessible. The most prized item I had packed was my USMC KA-BAR knife. Since this was prohibited from the flight, the captain said he would put it in his office and I could retrieve it on my way back through. Think I ever saw that knife again? I am sure the captain of the flight is enjoying his new prize somewhere.

The flight from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince took just over an hour. I was accompanied on the flight by two World Vision staff members who were also deploying. I think the most dramatic part of this flight was crossing the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti. From the air, the border was visible, and visible in the fact that on the Haitian side there were literally no trees! Everything was green on one side and brown on the other, this looked pretty cool from the air.

The conversation with my fellow humanitarians during the flight was interesting, we established good connections and exchanged information. I was informed that a Brendan B was the security manager for World Vision and that I should connect with him. This would prove to be the connection that vaulted me into this line of work.

Flying over Haiti and into Port-au-Prince, one could see the devastation caused by the earthquake. The images below show photos that I took as we were flying in. Although the airport looked fine from the air, the structures were completely useless. When we landed, we were met by a gentleman who would help us with our immigration process. He told us to wait by the aircraft while he took our passports to some location where they were processing them. He came back after about half an hour with our passports, stamped and ready to go.

As I learned in my first trip to Sudan, drivers are not always punctual, if they show up at all. Apparently, the CARE office had overlooked my arrival and I had no means of communicating with anyone. Fortunately, my new World Vision friends offered me a drive to the CARE office, which was not far from the World Vision office. During the drive from the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince to the CARE office in Petionville, the three of us fell silent. The damage was simply beyond words. What was interesting was about how the buildings collapsed, they literally pancaked down upon themselves. There were people still everywhere trying to dig through rubble and search for anything.

The further we drove up the mountain to Petionville, the more camps we could see that have been established. There was a large camp just down the road from the CARE office in Place Saint-Pierre that I would get to know over the next couple of days all too well.

Arriving at the office and saying farewell to my new-found friends from World Vision, I was immediately introduced to one of my mentors, Alex. For the first time, I had someone with significant experience in the INGO sector of security who would be showing me the ropes. I was replacing Alex, who had already been on the ground for short time and was from another CARE office on loan for the earthquake. Fortunately, I had just under a week to quickly learn what my role was, to get up to speed, and take the NGO security training wheels off for my first (but not last) disaster response.

Alex had introduced me to all the staff as they became available in the office and provided me with a local cell phone, not that it was 100% functional due to damaged infrastructure. As you can imagine, as Haiti is a French speaking nation, most of the international staff were either from Canada or France. Sadly, my French was (and still is) very limited but for the most part, most of the Haitian people I would be working with were bilingual.

Since there was nowhere inside to sleep, we had to find somewhere outside. Although the CARE office was still structurally sound, and some people chose to live inside of it, there was not much room. For the first couple of nights, I elected to sleep in the parking lot, where several others had also made camp. I was given a mattress, had my sleeping bag and mosquito net and chose a nice spot out in the open air to set up. This continued for just less than a week before I decided to find a place inside the office, where I spent the remainder of my nights.

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My Bed on a balcony

Next – Haiti 2010 – The first 20 days

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