On the ground in Haiti


American Refugee Committee worker Monte Achenbach has been in Haiti, preparing for a larger ARC contingent that arrives in Haiti today. Achenbach was a guest on MPR’s Midday broadcast.

Q: How was the aftershock?

It was my wake-up call this morning. It was quite a jolt, but no damage where we are. It mostly just scared people. People are already sleeping out in the streets all over the place because they’re so terrified.

Q: How did you get into Haiti?

We weren’t quite sure how we were going to get here. We got to the Dominican Republic on a Coast Guard flight. There are now six of us here. Four are arriving just in the next hour. We’ve already begun delivering relief supplies; we have medical supplies, plastic sheeting for shelter, water treatment, containers for the water. We’re getting to people right on the border. We’ve been organizing ourselves over the last few days and figuring out where we can add value.

Q: Is the issue lack of supplies or lack of ability to get the supplies to people?

Supplies are pouring in from all over the world. What you have here is a complete logistical nightmare. You have a port that’s completely down, an overland route that’s bumpy, an airport with one runway now under the control of the U.S. Air Force, that has lent some logistical support to the place. There’s no lack of generosity or things to bear to the situation but getting it to where it goes is tremendous. People are spread all over the city and country. If you find a soccer field, it’s now a tent city for displaced people.

Q: How dire is the situation?

What people are living through is without precedent. It’s a catastrophe. People still have immediate needs. You see signs throughout the city, “help needed here.” The main hospital has a waiting list of 1,200 patients waiting for surgery. Once they leave the hospital, there’s little capacity for followup. It will continue to be a very dire situation for some time. That’s not to say no help is getting to people, but there are these pockets throughout the city where people don’t want to go far from their homes. There are all these debates about whether you serve people where they are, or get them to places where there are better facilities.

Note: Reports say a Doctors Without Borders helicopter mission was turned away at the airport. (CBS)

Q: Who’s in charge in Haiti when it comes to distributing all of these supplies?

Good question. It appears to me no one group is in charge. The Haitian government has been decapitated. The U.S. military has its role, like the airport and its own relief efforts, but they’re not overall in charge. The U.N. has a force here; they’ve taken a large part of the leadership. The world is going to have to think twice about how we as a global society manage disasters.

(Gary cited this report on PBS last night)

Q: Do you get the sense Haitians feel efforts are being made to help them or do they feel forsaken?

There’s an element of people feeling forsaken. I traveled to several communities yesterday and when we arrived, they were very happy to see us. They said, “at last help is coming. Where is all the help? We see the helicopters. We see the planes.” It’s hard to organize all of this quickly, but people don’t necessarily see that. Every day is like a decade to them. Your heart cries out for them.

Q: Are they justified in thinking, ‘What the heck is going on here?’

Yes. A wealthy world has ability to move armies anywhere. On the other hand, we have to understand the complexity and unprecedented nature of this. An entire economic infrastructure is gone. There’s no banks. It’s very difficult to get around. Schools are gone, police departments demolished. The scale of the disaster is so unprecedented, there has to be an understanding that no matter what the resources, there’s only so much we can do.

Q: What kind of system is in place for orphans?

I’ve seen stories of many orphans that have been airlifted out of the country already. There are several NGOs that work with street kids and orphans and they’re working on some way of getting kids out. I can’t imagine that there aren’t lots of these kids still around the country, unable to go to safety. They may be taken care of by relatives, but I’m not sure where these kids should go. Your heart goes out for kids who’ve lost their parents and they’re lying there in the street.

Q: Are there efforts outside of Port au Prince?

The communities have largely been ignored. Some of the bigger towns have been getting some attention. Within Port au Prince there are so many places that aren’t getting supplies.

Q: Are roads generally open?

Inside the city, the main thoroughfares are open so it’s not too difficult to get around although traffic is horrendous. Yesterday I was in a neighborhood where a building had collapsed into the road. We had to just drive over the roof. There are areas of the city that are hard to get to. Outside the city, the main thoroughfares are open but the access to smaller towns and villages is unclear.

Q: What about security?

I’ve found most areas I’ve traveled to be completely peaceful. We’ve heard stories of abandoned homes being broken into, as you can imagine. Largely I’ve seen a fairly peaceful city.

Q: Is concern about security hampering supplies?

That is true. Because some of the aid has come relatively late in the game, people are desperate and they mob the tankers and trucks and there hasn’t been an effort to organize people to receive the aid. This is something we’re working on with the ARC. One of the problems with the mobs is it’s the survival of the fittest so it (the aid) doesn’t go to people who are sick, kids, and people who are older. So we’re working on showing them how to set up distributing supplies and organizing leadership.

Q: I hear there are tanks in Haiti, is this true?

I haven’t seen evidence of that. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is happening.

Q: Is there widespread concern that the U.S. military is there to occupy Haiti?

I don’t see widespread concern but you do hear some of that. There are major sensitivities here to American involvement. In the ’90s there was strong intervention here by the U.S. government and it wasn’t appreciated. Haitians feel somewhat out of control of their own country. On the other hand, there is a strong understanding of support that they know they desperately need. So this is a probably a moment where Haitians are a bit more understanding. With assurances there are no intentions from the American government, it would be welcome.

Q: Any parts of Haiti that were not affected?

I understand in the north there’s been very little damage. There’s some movement of goods to the port there.

Q: There’s a report the government was urging people to leave the city. Can the rural parts of Haiti accommodate that many people?

When I lived here, during the holidays people had their homes out in the country. It’s only in recent times that urbanization has picked up pace. So people identify with a home village or town and they go back there traditionally. So it makes sense that they go there now. People live off food that they grow and rely on water sources that weren’t damaged. The suggestion people do that might not be a bad one.

Q: Why wasn’t there damage in the Dominican Republic?

The epicenter was right near Port au Prince. It naturally would’ve been largely in Haiti. To be honest, the Dominican Republic is a wealthier country and has a much stronger system of building codes as well, though I think the geography of the earthquake has more to do with it than anything else.

Q: You keep saying there’s no work. Seems to me there’ll be plenty of work?

Yes, there will be a lot of work but if you’re someone who has been a secretary in a store or company and that was your life, and suddenly now your job is trying to construct things, psychologically that has an impact. Yes, there’ll be work to do but it’s a very different nature. Their lives are turned upside down. The whole prospect of rebuilding is something that will provide employment. It’s going to take some shifting of priorities and acceptance that people will be doing different things than they did before. It’s very hard for me to talk about opportunities when I’m in a city that’s been devastated and will be in ruins for quite some time.

Q: Is there any way to determine how long the aftershocks will continue?

When I was at the earthquake in Pakistan, we had aftershocks for two weeks.

Q: Is there some provisions for the babies who’ve been born?

Mothers continue to give birth and get pregnant. That’s one thing ARC has done effectively throughout the world is put attention on natal care. We’re not doing it right now; we’re just not operational enough. But this is something we’ll be doing. Access to hospitals is limited because they’re dealing with crushing injuries and multiple trauma, but relief organizations can play a critical role.

Q: How are you dealing with the loss of personal friends in Haiti?

I try not to think about it but the memories are there. When I came here, I didn’t know how many of my old staff survived and I’ve found that most of them did survive. A member of my old staff is now working for us. He’s a terrific guy with a wonderful skill set. Two international staff from my team in the ’90s didn’t survive. I just found out that another friend of mine, whose mother is from Minneapolis and his father from Camaroon, didn’t make it. They loved the country and adopted it as their own and wanted to serve. My legacy now is to pick up where their work left off.

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