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Haitian Americans Discover The Power And Pitfalls Of Emergency Relief

Rowan Moore Gerety
Nurse Nadine Barreau speaks with children in Camp Perrin during a medical mission the week after Hurricane Matthew

“How long have you been in pain?” asks Nurse Marsha Eloi, sitting in a makeshift health clinic in Camp Perrin, one of dozens of towns visited by the wreckage of Hurricane Matthew earlier this month.

“It seems like your pressure is high,” she tells the grandmother in a blue headscarf sitting across from her as she takes off her blood-pressure cuff. “When’s the last time you went to the doctor?” The woman, hunched and toothless, looks back, perplexed. “I don’t have any money!” she says. Down the hall, Eliette Silver calls out to a fellow nurse in a primary school classroom that’s been scrubbed clean and re-purposed as a pharmacy: “Nancy—we have Protonix right here! Good for the stomach.”

Leftover medication donated by organizations in South Florida has been meticulously alphabetized and sorted by dose in large ziploc bags. “This one, I’m not sure,” Silver says.

This is the outcome of a coalition called the Haitian American Hurricane Matthew Relief Effort, cobbled together some 600 miles away in Miami, in the days before Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Southern Haiti.

Credit Rowan Moore Gerety
Nurse Chély Paul, center, staffs a makeshift pharmacy with a group from the Haitian American Nurses Association, at a school in Camp Perrin.

Some 300,000 Haitians and Haitian Americans live in South Florida. The Haitian American Nurses Association and the South-Florida based Man Dodo Foundation were originally scheduled to make a joint trip to Haiti on a medical mission in December. But after the storm, they worked around the clock with a coalition of other local groups to make that trip happen within a week.

Doing this work, it's very important to me that everyone leaves the situation with their dignity intact. —Sandy Dorsainvil

The new timeline began with a late night Facebook post as Hurricane Matthew forecasts shifted east from Jamaica towards Haiti. “I was basically laying in bed and I thought to myself, we are so not going to have a repeat of the earthquake,” said Sandy Dorsainvil, who oversaw logistics for the trip. Haitian-Americans in South Florida were determined not to be sidelined as many felt they were after Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake in 2010.

Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN
A view of Northwest Haiti, seen from the plane on the trip down.

“We didn’t feel our power, I think, at that time,” Dorsainvil said, recalling her own efforts after the earthquake. “We felt like we needed to make room for those with bigger pockets, and bigger efforts, you know, to solve the problem.” For the medical part of the mission, the Haitian American Nurses Association could build on a record of more than 15 years doing similar work in Haiti. But trying to plan a trip during an emergency brings its own complications.

Logistical snafus began in the wee hours at the baggage counter at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. Food, clothes, and medical equipment had been painstakingly packed into more than 60 large suitcases, but an airline worker said there was not enough room to bring everything along. During the bus-ride from Port-au-prince to Haiti’s hard-hit southwestern peninsula, Elizabeth Paul flipped through videos of her uncle’s house in Port Salut—one of the only houses left standing in the area. “We were just there two months ago and it was beyond beautiful,” she said, as the camera panned across a block of wrecked houses.”

As volunteers danced in their seats to Haitian Kompa and traded observations about the scenes outside, you could tell how important the trip was to this group with roots in both countries. “You look at the country now and they’re just constantly saying the poorest country in the world, like everything you hear about us is negative,” lamented nurse Chély Paul, who grew up visiting Haiti. “I used to love coming here back then."

But there were also points of frustration: the next day, the group got a late start and made a couple stops where people stepped off the bus to take pictures. Onboard, there were murmurs of ‘exploitation’ from volunteers who felt the group’s priorities had gotten scrambled. “Think about if you were living here, and you walked outside with people with TVs and cameras,” people complained. “It’s exploitation! I don’t care what anybody says.”

Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN
Members of the Haitian American Hurricane Matthew Relief Effort arrived at the Fort Lauderdale Airport shortly after 3 AM.

Once the medical clinic got going, things moved with precision. Outside, volunteers prayed and sang with the people who had come for a checkup, and served up home-cooked rice and beans. “It was important to us that there was just some sense of normalcy in that day for them, and the hot meal was part of that,” Dorsainvil said. Still, coordination was a challenge: By mid-afternoon, fewer than 200 people who had been given numbered tickets for medical checkups—out of a total of 600—had been seen.

“What I want to know is, are they going to have time for everyone with a ticket?” asked a woman with number 523, as she sat on the wall of a Baptist church without a roof.

In the end, the most the group could do was to make sure everyone left with some food or clothing, and vow to do better. “We realize that we need to do things better each day,” said HANA’s Dr. Marie Ettiene. That first night, Ettiene led the group in an unflinching hour-long SWOT Analysis— for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

One thing that came up was the coalition’s partnership with a network of Haitian churches hosting the relief effort, which bequeathed the coalition all its strengths and a few of its blind spots. “So many of the pastor’s friends and family, came in without tickets,” said volunteer James Pierre. “And then, people waiting for hours, you have five or six people coming in and sitting right in front. And then people saying, ‘Hey, what about me, what about me?’” One Catholic man who showed up that day said he thought the mission couldn’t help him because it had been organized by Baptist churches.

Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN
Checking bags, checking people at the airport in Port-au-Prince

There were also disagreements about two armed security guards on the mission. Some volunteers, watching the movements of a hopeful crowd in dire circumstances, said the guards’ long rifles had come far too close to children. For others, the crowd’s resistance to order was a ‘cultural’ issue among people who “needed to see authority.” “If they were not there with the guns, that crowd that you saw today would have been more out of control!” one volunteer protested. That debate got batted around in heart-felt terms for more than a few minutes.

It was Sandy Dorsainvil who spoke up with something that sounded like a unifying principle for the group. “Doing this type of work, it’s very important to me that people leave the situation with their dignity,” she said, and everyone murmured in agreement. On the second and third day of the mission, members of the Haitian American Hurricane Matthew Relief Effort made changes to get things running more smoothly: The medical clinic was disentangled from the business of distributing food, clothes and toiletries, and a group of volunteers created a special area for the kids. Another mission is scheduled for next month in and around Jérémie.