U.S. Residents Mount Humanitarian Aid Efforts in Haiti

A group of Haitian American leaders, state and local officials met late Tuesday night to map out humanitarian relief efforts as the extent of the damage from a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti became clearer.


The group will put a couple of people on the ground as early as Wednesday for a quick assessment. The goal is to get about 300 people, mostly health care professionals and engineers to support the government's efforts.

A command center will be set up and then the volunteers will arrive after logistics are set up. The group is hoping to have things in place by this weekend.

"Our goal is to do humanitarian work, and not first aid," said Brooklyn physician Jean Claude Compas during the conference of scores of people.

"The Cuban government, the American government, the Venezuelan government and the Dominican government are all doing rescue work."

The group is calling on people or government to donate water and food supplies. The capital's infrastructure, already precarious is in shambles. The most telling sign is the near collapse of the gleaming white palace, once a symbol of grandeur in a sea of poverty.

Communications were widely disrupted, making it impossible to get a full picture of damage as powerful aftershocks shook a desperately poor country where many buildings are flimsy.

Electricity was out in some places.

The earthquake was the strongest to rock Haiti in more than 200 years, collapsing a hospital where people screamed for help and heavily damaging the National Palace, U.N. peacekeeper headquarters and other buildings. U.S. officials reported bodies in the streets and an aid official described "total disaster and chaos".

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Karel Zelenka, a Catholic Relief Services representative in Port-au-Prince, told U.S. colleagues before phone service failed that "there must be thousands of people dead", according to a spokeswoman for the aid group, Sara Fajardo.

"He reported that it was just total disaster and chaos, that there were clouds of dust surrounding Port-au-Prince," Fajardo said from the group's offices in Maryland.

In addition to the group's effort, many people have started Facebook pages to help in the relief efforts. The entertainment community is planning several fundraising activities at night clubs throughout New York, Florida and the Boston area.

Haiti's ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph, said from his Washington office that he spoke to President Rene Preval's chief of staff, Fritz Longchamp, just after the quake hit. He said Longchamp told him that "buildings were crumbling right and left" near the National Palace. The envoy said he had not been able to get back in contact with officials.

With phones down, some of the only communication came from social media such as Twitter. Richard Morse, a well-known musician who manages the famed Olafson Hotel, kept up a stream of dispatches on the aftershocks and damage reports.

The news, based mostly on second-hand reports and photos, was disturbing, with people screaming in fear and roads blocked with debris. Belair, a slum even in the best of times, was said to be "a broken mess".

The earthquake had a preliminary magnitude of 7.0 and was centered about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of five miles, the U.S. Geological Survey said. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called it the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti. In 1946, a magnitude-8.1 quake struck the Dominican Republic and also shook Haiti, producing a tsunami that killed 1,790 people.

The temblor appeared to have occurred along a strike-slip fault, where one side of a vertical fault slips horizontally past the other, said earthquake expert Tom Jordan at the University of Southern California.

The quake's size and proximity to populated Port-au-Prince likely caused widespread casualties and structural damage, he said.

"It's going to be a real killer," he said. "Whenever something like this happens, you just hope for the best."

Most of Haiti's 9 million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards.

In November 2008, following the collapse of a school in Petionville, the mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated about 60 percent of the buildings were shoddily built and unsafe in normal circumstances.

Tuesday's quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, and some panicked residents in the capital of Santo Domingo fled from their shaking homes. But no major damage was reported there.

In eastern Cuba, houses shook but there were also no reports of significant damage.

*Special to IPS from The Haitian Times.

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