Friday, February 19, 2010

So many trapped

January 19

Imagine if you would...

Eight years old, waking up to a terrifying darkness, dust and grit mingle in your mouth and crunch against your teeth. You feel around and find your body wedged into a small space surrounded on all dimensions by heavy concrete. Sounds around you start to distinguish themselves, far off screaming and crying, closer moans wafting up through the same prison. As the situation clears in your mind, you remember the terrifying shake where your solid safe home crashed down around you, unlike anything you've known or understood in your young years. You start to scream for help, but it just adds and mingles with the rest of the cacophony. Times stretches out in endless dark moments, not knowing how your story will end.

The thoughts of what this young boy must have gone through were running through my mind today as we started our search and rescue mission. We were able to find transportation from the airport this morning in a dump trunk from the UN and traveled immediately out to the Adventist hospital in Port-au-Prince. On arrival, the doctors were rushed off to begin medical help immediately and our group was rushed into preparing right away to go out in the city and search for people still alive under rubble. There were reports that they could hear people calling for help and making noises still.

So we gathered our gear and led by a lady from the hospital, walked out with a large group of Haitian men, eager to be our manpower if needed, and a small surgical team, prepared to do onsite amputations if needed to extricate people. We very quickly created a large mass walking down the concrete strewn streets as more and more people added to our group out of curiosity or hope perhaps at the site of our rescue gear.

The first building was a school with a restaurant underneath. There was a dead body sticking half out of the ground level right in front of us, like a beacon forcing us to look. Some men told us that the lady had been alive after the quake, but while trying to extricate her by tying a rope around her legs and pulling, she died. After looking for openings under the collapsed sections, interviewing neighbors, and taking the dog around, it became clear that we couldn't find any sign of life or possible area to even enter to search. With time ticking away, there was an urgency to go to places where we knew there was life. The lady from the hospital leading us, pleaded for us to go to her own home just down the road where she had talked to her nephew under the rubble just the night before.

As we strode down the road to her house, she began telling the sad tale that has stuck in my mind. After the earthquake, she rushed home to find the entire multistory building collapsed with multiple family members crushed inside. She eventually heard her only son, trapped under big concrete slabs on one side of the house. She kept talking with him until a UN team came to help with heavy machinery. They were lifting one of the concrete slabs off of him when it fell, crushing him instantly beneath it. She buried him and then was able to also hear her little nephew on the other side of the house trapped as well.

Just 8 years old, as the days went by, he told them that there was an injured woman near him also trapped, and a dead body that he could smell. He was kept alive from a broken pipe near him that was dripping water that he drank to keep hydrated. People digging to get to him found the injured woman and she was alive in the hospital being treated. However, they never could get to the boy. When we arrived at the huge rubble pile, there was a Colombian SAR team at work trying to dig in the area the boy was heard. The woman said that her nephew had quit making any noise the day before, but she thought maybe he was just too weak or unconscious.

We sent Janey with her dog, Zeus, around the building. Zeus is trained to distinguish live people from dead. There were some bodies in the back out in the open that animals had been feeding on which threw him off a bit, but soon he was picking his way back over the rubble. In the area with the boy, he kept circling around and then finally laid down which is his signal that there is a dead body. It was sad, but the woman told us that she was so thankful to know that he was no longer suffering down there. It helped give her closure.

We continued throughout the day to trudge around the city and each time the outcome was much the same. No one alive. We got kind of lost for a bit and wherever we went, people would see us with our gear and start calling and pleading for us to come check their buildings where they thought people to be. We walked through little alleys, tried to jump over nasty puddles of water, kicked trash off our shoes...

Finally returned to the hospital well spent as the sun started to set. I think about all the people that maybe are so deeply trapped that we can't hear them or know they're alive down there. It has to be terrifying to consciously know that you are just stuck and going to die there. How would you even know the passing of days? In some sense, I'm almost relieved to not have found anyone alive today. It would have been near impossible in most of those buildings to try and extricate someone without some heavy machinery. And that would be awful to hear someone and not be able to do anything about it, especially with so many people looking on, expecting and hoping.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Airport hanger in Miami with all our supplies

Zeus. The most amazing, trained search and rescue dog ever!

Our team from Union College working in conjunction with ACTS World Relief

In Haiti, sleeping on the airport tarmac, being blasted by hot jets every few minutes

One of the many military transport planes coming in and out of the country bringing supplies.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Arriving in Haiti

January 18

We are in Haiti! But we haven't traveled more than 500 ft. from the plane... The entire day has been filled with change after change, but we just keep going with the flow and whatever is the plan for the next 5 minutes. After changes in planes, changes in airports, and not being sure we would even be allowed into Haiti, it was finally back to the original plan. We flew out around 6:30pm after spending the entire day in a big airport hanger at the Opa Loca airport. A cool Jewish guy funded all the trips to Haiti in his private leer jet ($30,000 a trip) that held 13 passengers at a time. We got to be the second team going out, but on the flight over, we heard that the airport was going to be shut down again the next day, so no more of our teams were going to make it.

After circling for over an hour above Port-au-Prince, we were finally allowed to land. There were tons of planes that our pilots were constantly dodging around in the sky, all trying to get clearance to land at the airport overfilled with huge military transport planes.

Walking off the plane, my skin felt sticky immediately although the temperature wasn't all that bad. After unloading the plane with all our supplies and gear, we found a spot just a ways down on the tarmac to set up camp. The recent news was that all the roads were closed due to curfew that was just started tonight. So we can't leave the airport till tomorrow morning. Even then, we have no transportation to take us to the hospital or anything.

Since the airport structure is declared unsafe (I can see huge cracks up the walls and broken ceiling at some levels) we are just sleeping right outside, next to all the planes that are rolling in and out. It is quite the experience! The military has some amazing huge planes that just about shatter my eardrums.

My voice is already going hoarse from yelling constantly over the plane engines...and now we are attempting some sleep with pieces of toilet paper stuffed in our ears.

Heading out to the latrines at the edge of the runways, we saw a huge line of mostly Haitians, waiting to leave the country. It looks chaotic to have everyone and everything out on the tarmac, but I still feel like it's at least controlled chaos.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring. There is a SAR firefighting team from California next to us and they said they found a live person today. So there are still people hanging on under the rubble. We have an amazing search and rescue trained dog with us, and I'm excited to see him at work.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Traveling Thoughts

January 17, 2010

Haiti. My first time back overseas since I returned from Africa two years ago. Before leaving for Tchad, I had many months to prepare myself. Granted that was for a whole year and this is just for a week, but one day is just not enough time to be ready for what I can only imagine awaits us. And I don't mean being ready in the sense of having my bags all packed and saying quick goodbyes. I mean being ready emotionally for ugly devastation and very possibly entering the biggest disaster I will ever respond to in my life-time.

I know what poverty looks like, I know what horrific medical conditions look like, and I know what death looks like. My time in Africa included daily doses of it all. But all of that was cushioned by the people accepting and living with their lives that way. They knew how to enjoy their days despite the extreme hardships they faced, and taught me to do the same.

In Haiti, however, the people won't have that peace of mind to pass on. They've just had their meager belongings and homes ripped from their hands. They've seen their dear friends and family crushed under poorly constructed bricks. And they are alone in the grips of survival since everyone around them is grappling to deal with the same disaster. If Haiti is anything like Africa and how I've seen many 3rd-world countries to be, community is everything. Everyone's lives are interconnected and I can't imagine how that has been affected. Surely a disaster in the U.S. is devastating, but how much worse it would be if we actually knew every one of our neighbors personally and to then lose half of them instantly.

As these thoughts all whirl around in my head, we are in the air, flying towards Miami. During the quick half hour we speed-walked through the Houston airport, we received a call from the ACTS world relief director we will be working with. Before we left, the plan was that we would be working with some orphanages and hospital, so it was a surprise when he asked if we had packed any rescue equipment. Apparently the new plan is that we will be heading out in search and rescue among the debris.

I am not surprised that what we thought we would be doing has changed. As I was telling the reporter last night and TV crew this morning, if there is anything that I have learned from my trips overseas, it is that flexibility is a must. And that I almost never have actually done what my initial job description said.

It might even change again by the time we land in Port-au-Prince. When I think about search and rescue, it brings mixed feelings. Initially I'm excited about being out in the front of things, finding and rescuing people. It is what many of us heroically dream of doing. But honestly, when I think about it, how many live people are there going to be to rescue after 6 days. This more likely will be a task of locating and extricating bodies from the rubble. Even if we did find someone holding on, are there even trauma centers or good medical facilities to just whisk them off to? So it will certainly be a grim task. I also doubt more my skills in search and rescue. I haven't even done the SAR training in Colorado yet for my degree. There are so many other IRR students wanting to come who are so much more qualified than I am. I am very comfortable with the medical side of things, but setting up pulleys and systems to extricate people is different. At least I have some rope knowledge from rock-climbing...and despite my doubts and misgivings, I know God is sending me for a purpose, if none other than to remind me that it isn't by my power that people will be saved, but by His.

Well, we are landing in Florida now and must immediately head out to buy supplies that the commercial flight wouldn't allow us to carry. And it will be necessary to pick up as much rescue equipment as possible for our new job. The plan has been to fly out on a chartered jet sometime tomorrow morning to Haiti and I have heard that our team will be one of the first to be ferried over to get search and rescue in action immediately.

Haiti Blogs

I just returned from a week down in Haiti helping with relief efforts after the January 7.0 earthquake that devastated the country. In many ways, I felt like I was going home, being the first time I've been back overseas in a third-world country since my year in Africa. Every night as I crashed on my pad for sleep, I did some journaling. There was so much to write about, although my exhaustion kept me from documenting all of it.

However, I now plan on typing up my journaling one day or so at a time to share our experiences. For those that don't know, a group of 4 students and a faculty member from my college were given the chance to travel down to Haiti for 5 days and start relief work with plans of more students to come later on. It was a great chance to use our skills that we have learned in the myriad of classes we've gone through for our degree in International Rescue and Relief. The college was amazing in so quickly approving our trip, excusing us from classes, and providing the financial means until we can raise the money to cover it. I found out last Friday evening I was part of the group leaving, and we were on the plane by Sunday morning! Bit of a hectic rush getting packed for the unknown, trying to get typhoid shots in the middle of a holiday weekend, and answering all the reporters' questions.

Anyway, the trip started with a day of traveling to Miami, and busy evening of gathering needed supplies...