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Date of Issue: March 24, 2010

Aftershock: Death and life in Haiti

Connelly

A child's handmade toy car — an example of how someone can make something of value out of so few resources. Islander Photos: Holly Connelly

Delmas 7. These people were fortunate — they only slept in their tents at night and their houses were still standing.

Food distribution in Peitonville.

Pictures cannot describe how many tents such as this there were in Haiti. They seemed endless.

Water distribution in Carrefour.

Editor’s note: Holly Connelly, 29, of Bradenton, is the office administrator at the Key Royale Club in Holmes Beach. She went to Haiti in mid-February to help with the relief effort following the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12. The Haitian government has reported that more than 200,000 people have died, more than 300,000 were injured and a million were left homeless.

I awoke Jan. 12 to learn that a devastating earthquake had struck the country of Haiti.

I had never been there nor did I know anyone from Haiti, but I had a strong sense I needed to do something.

I am a Girl Scouts leader for one of our Anna Maria Island troops. I started to think of ways in which we could help. I decided to set up collection sites at various locations on the Island. People started donating right away. I had set up contacts with several aid organizations in which we would give our collections to.

Somehow, it did not seem like I was doing enough. I could not escape the urge to go to Haiti. I tried to go with some local groups, but was unable to because I had no medical background.

So, I searched on the Internet and found the mission group GCOM International, applied and was accepted to go to Haiti.

Then the whirlwind of getting ready began. I had to rearrange my schedule, not only with my five jobs, but also for my children and volunteer responsibilities.

I also tried to mentally prepare, but figured there was no way I could possibly prepare for what I was about to encounter. GCOM assured me of my safety — I would be traveling with a group of 100 people with hired drivers and security personnel. Nothing to be nervous about anyway. Or so I thought.

***

Day 1

I kissed my family good bye, headed out on a plane to Miami and caught a connecting flight to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

So far, so good.

I arrived in Santo Domingo and collected my luggage. I called my contact, Charlene, in the Dominican Republic as I was instructed to do. When she answered her phone, she sounded surprised. I explained who I was, that I had my luggage and was heading to a hotel to meet up with my group, but I needed instructions on catching the bus to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

That’s when I learned that a group had left more than a week earlier. I started to panic. Surely there was some mistake.

I was told it wasn’t safe to go to the hotel and that I should catch a cab to Charlene’s house. After a call home, I hopped in a cab — with no clue where I was going. The cab driver asked if I spoke Spanish. I told him “very little” and then called Charlene to put her on the phone with the driver.

Back on the phone with Charlene, she said the drive to her home would take 30 minutes. So 45 minutes later, I started to get nervous. Charlene called because of the delay and asked to speak to the cab driver, who hung up on her. He told me, “Not safe for you. I could kidnap you.” And he continued to drive around the city.

I had a million things running through my head. My husband kept calling, and I continued to assure him everything was fine.

After about 90 minutes and repeated conversations between Charlene and the cab driver, I arrived at her house. The cab driver charged me my originally quoted price of $30 and drove off. I figured in the end he was just trying to scare me. It worked.

Charlene said she was furious and the head of GCOM was not returning her calls. Haiti, she said, was too dangerous for me to travel to alone.

Finally, around 2 a.m., she spoke with someone at GCOM who told her a group would pick me up from a designated bus stop.

***

Day 2

Around 6 a.m., I caught a cab to the bus station and then rode into Port-au-Prince, where I waited for what seemed like forever for my group’s arrival.

But I was so relieved when others did arrive — with a lot of questions, but mostly variations of  “What the heck are you doing traveling by yourself?”

We drove through the city. There were so many people on the streets. And the devastation is something that I cannot express in words or with photographs.

I was informed that we were heading to an orphanage, but they were done working for the day.

We drove in a truck called a “tap tap” and it was the most unbearable ride ever. The roads were horrible. I kept thinking, how am I going to ride in this truck for a week?

After about 90 minutes, we arrived at the orphanage, where the children had already prepared dinner — okra, artichoke, carrot and hot dog stew with rice. I opted for just rice.

After dinner, we sat down for a meeting and prayer.

Suddenly there was a roar. The children looked terrified, shouted, “Earthquake,” and ran outside. It was an aftershock.

***

Day 3

When we woke, we surveyed the damage. The aftershock had toppled the roof of the schoolhouse.

We ate a quick breakfast and then drove for nearly three hours to Carrefour.

There was absolute devastation all around, much worse than in Port-au-Prince. The city had virtually vanished. There were very few recognizable structures. The buildings were not reduced to rubble; they were reduced to pebbles.

I saw miles of tents made of sticks and sheets.

The smell was horrible. There was a lot of death and disease in the area. We wore respirators as a precaution.

We set up across from Doctors Without Borders to distribute food. The children were so hungry they were fighting for sandwiches. We quickly ran out of food.

There were about 18 of us in the group. No group of 100. No security. Just a driver and an interpreter.

We next set up to do medical relief. People were calmer and more orderly for medical relief than food distribution.

A semi-truck arrived with what seemed like thousands of boxes containing water — each box holding four gallons. Part of our group helped unload the truck, unpack boxes and distribute the water. We tired easily and had to alternate jobs. My arms had never been so sore. I ended the day physically exhausted.

***

Day 4

The next day we went to Peitonville, where we passed out 300 sandwiches, but mostly helped with medical aid. There were lots of bad wounds. I arrived three weeks after the quake. All I could think was, how are these people still alive? I learned, in no time, about the strength and resiliency of Haitians.

A baby died that day. The parents pleaded for us to help their little girl, but it was just too late. For three weeks that poor baby had struggled for life.

I ended the day mentally exhausted. I started to question whether I should have come: Maybe I can’t handle this.

***

Day 5

We went to a neighborhood in Delmas, where, for the most part, buildings were intact. But there were tents in the middle of the street.

People were sleeping in tents at night for fear of their houses collapsing during an aftershock. The most memorable patient there was a boy who was having trouble breathing and had Down syndrome. The doctors tried explaining his condition to his parents through a translator. The parents took their son and left. I wonder if they left because they were offended by what the doctor was telling them.

***

Day 6

We headed to one of many tent cities — the United Nations city named “Las Vegas” — to set up a mobile clinic. The UN names the tent cities and keeps track of the populations — Las Vegas had 4,012 residents.

The most memorable patient had to be a 6-year-old boy named Davidson, brought to our tent with a fever of 103 degrees, machete cuts on his feet and a jaundice color.

He told us his parents were dead and he lived with his aunt. We treated him for malaria, pneumonia and the cuts and rehydrated him. We gave a tent to one of the men and told him to keep Davidson there that night, to see he got his medications and that we would come back in the morning.

***

Day 7

We returned to Las Vegas.

I was anxious to see how Davidson was doing. It took most of the day to locate him because some men had taken him with the hope of extracting money from us.

A doctor told the men that we would be back with UN officials if Davidson wasn’t returned by 2 p.m.

We eventually found the boy, talked to an older brother who confirmed Davidson lived with an aunt in a cardboard tent with 10 other children. We were able to find the place where he lived – it made the other tent cities look upper-middle class. There were thousands of box and sheet tents packed in next to each other. It was crowded, noisy and demoralizing.

Davidson’s aunt introduced us to his siblings and his cousins and she told us his parents had died of tuberculosis when he was 2 years old.

We told her we respected her, told Davidson not to run off and left some supplies, which probably got distributed among all neighbors.

We offered to take Davidson to an orphanage, but the boy and his aunt declined that offer. I will wonder for a long time how he is doing.

***

Day 8

Time was running out for me in Haiti.

I tried to figure out how to extend my trip, but I also had to get back to work. I missed my family, but couldn’t help but feel I was deserting these people.

We distributed food in a downtown tent city in City Solei, a notorious slum area where 5-year-old children carry guns for protection. It was a harsher environment.

We fed 800 people.

And when we were done, when we had nothing left to give, 2,000 people remained in line. People were getting restless and our group was becoming nervous. We asked the driver to start the truck and everyone piled inside. One of the nurses was trying to treat a boy’s wound. We told her she had to get in the truck. There were 2,000 hungry people who would quickly learn we were out of food. The nurse tossed the boy some Band-Aids.

A mob scene ensued. The poor boy was trampled over Band-Aids. People did not know she was throwing Band-Aids rather than food.

***

I am back home now in Bradenton and back at work at the Key Royale Club, but a piece of my heart remains in Haiti.

I wish I could have stayed longer, but I had to return to my family and my responsibilities.

What I learned about Haitians is they are resilient, tough, hard working, intelligent, creative and beautiful. The have great hearts and tremendous potential.

And my hope is that out of this disaster a Haiti can arise that allows the Haitian people to develop their abilities, to govern themselves, to make a place that is safe, welcoming, prosperous and full of opportunity for all.

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