JDC Haiti Mission: Landing in Port-au-Prince

Jacky, Vice President of JDC’s Board of Directors, continues reporting from Haiti.

January 27, 2010

Jacky, Vice President of JDC’s Board of Directors, continues reporting from Haiti.

Arrived yesterday 2am into Santo Domingo … checked into hotel. Ocean view … a bed, clean sheets, a shower … Oh for the simple pleasures we fail at times to appreciate … Repacked our rucksacks taking only essentials: sleeping bags, mosquito nets, satellite phone, water purification tablets, solar powered chargers, malaria tablets, some clothes. Left all but essentials back in Santo Domingo with Mandie running logistics out of the hotel for the next few days. Breakfast at 830am … at 9am email came through from MercyCorps, with whom we have good relations, that a US military Black Hawk helicopter is awaiting us at Hangar 1 at the US Airforce base. We call Sam who is in the middle of a World Bank meeting … he leaves Mandie to finish the meeting. We pack and are gone 15 minutes later.

Traffic is a nightmare. The driver tells us that Dominicans invest in a car before a home. It wasn’t always like that, he tells us. We arrive at Hangar 1 at 1030 … are welcomed and told that flight would leave soon. We take off eventually at 1230pm. On board there are two ladies from the US embassy, and one NGO professional from Paris on an exploratory mission. There is something special in the air—you can almost feel it … a sense of camaraderie … all of us united in a common effort to help the people of Haiti. As soon as you meet someone you immediately feel a bond—even a total stranger. Friendships are easily made … conversations simply happen. Why do we need tragedy to bring us together? Such, I suppose, is the human condition.

The helicopter flight took 90 minutes. We flew low over the terrain. As we headed seaward, we flew over the slums of Santo Domingo … small clusters of simple shacks … then over the sea along the sea front … hotels, casinos, and apartment buildings under construction … Leaving the sea behind us we cross over into hilly terrain … rolling hills covered in green with the odd house here and there perched on top, seemingly inaccessible. The hills turn to mountains. It is truly a beautiful country. Nature knows no boundaries, it seems … it overflows with beauty … and we are about to see it in full fury ….

We arrive in Haiti. It is a country in agony. It is now more than a week since the earth convulsed here beneath this tiny island. The human tragedy is everywhere—the people here have yet to plumb the depths of suffering and want … Nobody knows the numbers, but whatever they are they are staggering … more than 100,000 dead, 200,000 injured and maimed, and one million homeless … desperate now for water, food, fuel, medicines, and shelter. I look around me and see the profound generosity of the world’s response … Americans alone gave more than 190 million dollars in the first week of the quake. But matching the demand and the supply is going to be a challenge… The UN has gotten food to 200,000 people … hundreds of thousands more are desperate … and on top of all this, because the quake devastated the capital, both the government and the UN have been left helpless, losing essential staff and buildings … the government is operating from a police station near the airport, and the UN mission has been destroyed, with 49 of its people dead and 300 unaccounted for. More aid needs to come in and come in fast. The delay and disarray has already cost the people here lives.

America has already sent substantial forces to maintain peace and order, and the UN is calling for more peacekeepers. Water will need to be the first priority. People can go longer without food than they can without water, and contaminated water can lead to outbreaks of diseases like cholera. Food aid will be necessary, and already hundreds of rationed nutrient-enriched biscuits and prepared meals have been distributed. But for distribution you need infrastructure, and the repairs to improve port access are not yet completed, limiting supplies coming from the sea. Airports are a problem, too. A pilot told us this morning that the Port-au-Prince airport looks like an airshow … an array of planes of every type and kind from all over the globe, parked there on every available space, thus limiting traffic. And there are other challenges. This Black Hawk brings in supplies but has difficulty landing. As soon as it finds a suitable spot, a rush of Haitians desperate for food crowd the plane. The pilots are concerned for their safety … the blades of a Black Hawk tend to tilt at the front and the madding crowd, unawares, are at risk. So the pilots prefer drops to landings, which further complicates the effort. There are hopes, however, that the quake has left Haiti’s agricultural sector mostly unscathed. That would alleviate much of the food problem in the mid-term.

Shauli and Sam have just completed inflating one of a number of footballs [U.S. soccer balls] we have brought with us. The kids, who clamour for water, food, dollars, anything we can offer, are all excited by the prospect of a game … and off they go screaming and shouting in the air. For the time being, at least, all thirst, hunger, and deprivation are forgotten as a fresh new ball just in from the USA, delivered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee throws dust in the air that blends with the dust swept up by the helicopters. Till soon….

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