CARE, used to the bad, says this by far the worst

Part of the problem: Staffers in Haiti were themselves hit hard

PÉTION-VILLE, Haiti — Even the veterans are stunned.

As a global humanitarian group whose main mission is tackling systemic poverty and providing relief in the aftermath of disaster, Atlanta-based CARE is used to crises.

But the earthquake that rocked Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince is a challenge like no other, even for personnel who have survived devastating hurricanes, flooding and political strife.

Already, they’ve declared this disaster the worst that CARE has ever faced in almost six decades in Haiti.

“Every time a natural disaster hits Haiti, we think it’s the worst that can happen, and then every time we see another worst case,” said Sophie Perez, who heads CARE Haiti’s 133-person staff. “The difference this time is the scale.”

Eighty percent of those who make up CARE Haiti’s local staff lost their homes in Tuesday’s earthquake.

While CARE’s compound here withstood the quake, telecommunication is spotty at best, with the staff mostly relying on text messages and e-mails to communicate with each other. Immediately after the quake, texting was the only means of communication to the outside world.

Workers have survived on mostly protein bars and water, sleeping on the floor at the compound, bathing with baby wipes.

Mireille Sylvain, a technical assistant for CARE Haiti’s health program, lost her house but was back at work to help coordinate the needs of Carrefour, the hardest hit region.

Gary Philoctéte, CARE Haiti’s assistant director of programs for the country, lost a cousin and found out another cousin’s children were killed in the earthquake.

“It’s always difficult,” Philoctéte, a 20-year veteran, said. But, he added, relief work is made all the harder because of the magnitude of the personal tragedies the staff has suffered.

On Saturday, the fourth day since the devastating earthquake, aid poured into Haiti, but distribution continued to be hindered by the shattered infrastructure.

Security concerns also continued to mount. Thousands are living on the streets, and there were isolated reports of violent gangs roaming about, especially near aid distribution centers.

All of that has hampered relief efforts, not only for CARE but other groups such as the World Food Programme, which began distributing food in two locations in Port-au-Prince but quickly suspended it after desperate crowds became uncontrollable.

A half-dozen CARE workers from overseas, including David Gazashvili, the Atlanta-based acting director of emergency response, met to draw up the relief plan late Friday into the morning.

So far, CARE workers have provided relief mainly by giving out water purification packets and providing tents for temporary shelter. The crippled agency is still evaluating how it can be most effective in the longterm, as it deals with its own recovery.

A cadre of CARE workers crisscrossed the capital Saturday, assessing needs and planning for today’s distribution of water purification packets.

“Long-term reconstruction will take some time,” said Gazashvili.

“I think the immediate priorities right now is to manage the corpses that are laying on the streets,” he said.

Estimates on the number of dead varied greatly. Already, the government has reported recovering 20,000 bodies, and the country’s prime minister speculated that the count might reach 100,000 when all the rubble is cleared.

In many sections of the city, people took to wearing hospital masks or rubbing mint-scented paste under their nostrils to mask the smell of the dead. For the survivors, even the most fundamental tasks were daunting.

With most of the restaurants throughout the capital and surrounding towns closed or destroyed, any open markets had people forming lines that spilled onto the street and around the block.

At a BP gasoline station, scores of motorists jammed the tiny lot, blocking traffic, while lines of people holding plastic jugs snaked among the cars, waiting hours to fill up.

At l’Hôpital Universitaire de la Paix in neighboring Delmas, one of the locations that CARE would distribute its first shipment of water purification packets, throngs of people waited outside its metal doors while armed soldiers from Canada stood guard.

The medical relief teams stood outside, giving preliminary assessments and allowing passage to only the sickest and those with obvious injuries such as broken bones.

Behind the hospital gates, the front lawn had been transformed into a landscape of white tents, with doctors nurses and medics attending to internal injuries and other traumas.

They were depressing scenes even for Haiti, a country that seems to perpetually face one crisis after another.

“You have to tell yourself, let’s keep going,” said Philoctéte. “Don’t look at these as setbacks. Look at them as problems we can learn from and problems we can solve.”

For now, he said each step taken needs to be with a long-term reconstruction in mind.

Ironically, in the last year, the CARE office here has updated its earthquake disaster plan, but the new plan wasn’t done with a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in mind.

It also wasn’t done with the expectation that government ministries that normally would be of assistance would be in ruin themselves.

Most of the government agencies, whose offices were based mainly in the capital, are totally or partially destroyed.

“All of the infrastructure and the local capacities is affected,” Perez said.

But, even under such dire circumstances, there were some moments of hope.

Radio Signal, a popular FM station here, was reading texts it received from people still trapped underneath rubble. One texter wrote that he and a woman were trapped in a supermarket but still alive.

How we got the story

AJC reporter Péralte Paul and photographer Elissa Eubanks traveled to Haiti with CARE, the humanitarian organization based in Atlanta. They flew into the Dominican Republic and traveled by bus to Port-au-Prince, stopping at night because of safety concerns.

In text messages, they have reported being overwhelmed by the devastation and logistical difficulty. Communication is spotty, with telephone service frequently not working. Much of the city is without electricity.

They are staying at the CARE compound. They have subsisted on water, energy bars and Doritos, Pringles and Fig Newtons.

Saturday morning, the two staffers and CARE workers had to sprint from the building where they were working because of aftershocks, of 4.5 magnitude.

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