Haiti: A street-level view of the situation

John Smith, a friend of mine, member of my Vistage group, and owner of Indiana-based Package Right, recently went back to Haiti to continue working on a clean water project. He was there a few months ago and, following the earthquake, felt the time was right for him to return.

I received an email from him the other day in which he poses and answers some burning questions about his decision to return, what it’s like on the ground, and what the rest of us can do to help. I thought it was worth repeating here. This is the email from John in its entirety:

I’ve put together some Q and A because I know that people are asking about the situation on the ground in Haiti.

Why did I decide to come to Haiti after the earthquake?
As soon as the quake hit I knew that there would be a use for me here. Having worked on this water project here in Haiti about 5 months ago, I already knew the players and saw where I could fit in.

After Hurricane Katrina there were a long couple of weeks before the large aid organizations got some good traction on the ground. I figured that with the size of the disaster in Haiti, the remoteness, and the pre-quake lack of infrastructure, it could take a month before the large groups could make headway. These first few weeks are key to make sure we can keep diseases like cholera and typhoid at bay.

Where am I in Haiti?
I am in Leogane. It is Southwest of Port au Prince. Leogane is where the epicenter of the large earthquake was located. This city is 90 percent destroyed.

How long will I stay?
Hopefully not for long. I have a few goals to hit on this trip. Once I knock them out I will head home, regroup, and maybe plan another trip. We need to pace ourselves because this is going to take years to fix. I only had a couple of days to pull this trip together, so I wasn’t able to wrap things up at work before I left.

What can people do to help me?
Pray for me and all of these poor people, as well as the other volunteers and the soldiers on the ground here.
Give money to groups like www.deepspringsinternational.com.
Give more money.
Make sure that 6 months from now Haiti is not forgotten.
As my kids are now saying, “Give ’til it hurts, Peeps!”

Do I  ever feel like I am in danger?
I am always very aware of the situation around me. There is a refugee camp 150 feet away from where I am sleeping. Today there was a pretty heated exchange about a stockpile of supplies and the UN troops had to come running in. The US Marines came today to look over our security situation also. The Marines are concerned about us being overrun if things get out of control. The problem is that the people have nothing. They are hungry, injured, homeless – and very susceptible to rumors. If any of us back in the US had to deal with these conditions we would be up in arms. The Haitians know we are here to help so they go out of their way to look out for us. They might take all of our supplies but they wouldn’t purposely hurt any of us.

Nothing can prepare someone for this situation, but I’ve had many life experiences that help me to get through it.

Most of my friends know that I was in the Army, I’ve traveled the world, and I run a large manufacturing company. This translates into “I can take care of myself and I know how to get things done.” These are the skills that are needed here on the ground during this crucial few weeks before the large aid groups arrive. That’s why I am here. I am uniquely qualified to continue working on this project in these conditions.

We had some more aftershocks today. Everyone who was here for the earthquake pays attention to aftershocks, so it is impossible not to get concerned when one happens. I am aware of the structural damage to most buildings and I make sure I am in and out quickly!

My biggest fears are water, sewage, and aftershocks. I was joking with some people on the plane and I said, “When the water guy is nervous about his own drinking water then you’d better be nervous too!”

Is the devastation as bad as it looks on TV?
Sadly, it is so much worse than what you see on TV. The pictures can’t really show just how complete the devastation is. I went through a main street today on which every building had collapsed. This is what I have to call total destruction. I was speaking to a Haitian guy who said, “One minute everything was fine. 30 seconds later my whole country was destroyed.”

The suffering is so sad. On top of what I see, I realize that almost everyone has lost someone: a parent, a brother or sister, a child, or friends.

People continue to get hurt by falling debris and due to their living conditions. A relatively small injury to us back home is life-threatening to them here. I will go so far as to say that for some people here, a minor injury will almost certainly result in amputation and possibly death.

There are still tens of thousands of injured people here. That means that I constantly see people that I naturally want to help. I have to force myself to stay focused on the water project because with it, we can help tens of thousands of people. That makes me feel kind of heartless at times – but it is using my head AND my heart that will have a bigger impact.

Do I feel like I am getting anything accomplished?
Absolutely! It can never get done quickly enough, and like I said before, we’ve got to pace ourselves. I will find the positive in everything we do. This was a good day today because we had some big problems dumped on us and we came through OK. I went to pick up our supplies. The building next to our chlorine generator had collapsed and was being torn down the rest of the way. Our electrode (the big white tube) was missing. There were people everywhere. As the backhoe tore through the collapsed building the scavengers ran in and out of the bucket’s path. It sounds crazy, but they really were right up next to the huge scoop as it was ripping through the remains of the building. Anyway, the electrode is our bread and butter. It is of no use to anyone else and I was afraid it had ended up in somebody’s wheelbarrow to be used as a plant stand. None of the people around spoke English so I was trying to explain to the guy who seemed like he was in charge what I was looking for. Of course, since everyone was impacted by the quake, he was in charge of the scavenging too! Finally I found an American guy – a guy who was trapped in that very building for 4 hours when it collapsed. He had locked up the electrode for us. We wandered around gathering parts and finally got the job done. Small victories…

Next, we distributed enough chlorine to healthcare workers to purify over 50,000 gallons of water. Big victories!

I’m a homerun hitter. It WILL happen, babies!

Do I see any soldiers?
Yes. in the area where I am there are mainly UN troops from Sri Lanka.

A US doctor and I rode in a US Marine convoy to get here from Port au Prince. The US troops are so great to have here. They bring stability to the situation AND, because they are Americans, they truly care about the suffering and want to help.

What do I eat?
Today I ate two power bars. I know I need to keep myself fueled up, so I pay close attention to my food situation. With that said though, it is easier to work with hungry people if I am hungry too. It helps to push the urgency of the situation in my mind.

I drink a lot of water. Thankfully, I am working for Michael Ritter, a microbiologist and one of the top water guys in Haiti. Water to drink is one of my employee benefits.

How do I have time to write so much?
Since we are making chlorine we have to have a power supply. That allows me to have my phone charged sometimes.

Miraculously, I have a great cell signal most of the time. I don’t know how this is possible. Maybe the Marines being located a mile from here has something to do with it.

The answer to the question though: It is so incredibly hot and muggy that I can’t sleep! I am laying here in a pool of sweat… I am lucky I don’t get electrocuted from my Blackberry!

Please pass this on to people you know so that we can continue to focus on Haiti. These guys need us so much more than what anyone back home can understand. They will need our expertise, support, money, and prayers for many, many years. There are many awesome organizations working here. If you want to help with our supplies donate to http://www.deepspringsinternational.com. I don’t care which organization you support. Please donate to some good organization that is working in Haiti.

If you’ve already donated then donate again. “Give ’til it hurts, Peeps!”

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