7 days have passed since a major earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and the aftershocks continue to make search and rescue missions even more complicated. This morning about 06:00 (local time) a powerful aftershock measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale (a whole earthquake by itself) struck Haiti’s capitol and the nearby cities.
This new quake made the Haitians feel even more terrified, as several buildings which have not already collapsed have been left hazardously unstable.
On the other hand, aid agencies and rescue teams face frustration as supplies and equipment haven’t been delivered. According to reports from The Guardian some doctors have to buy their own saws to carry out amputations. An aid agency estimates 20,000 people are dying every day who could be saved by surgery.
One leading aid agency went public with its frustration at the organisation of the relief operation. Médecins sans Frontières said a cargo plane carrying 12 tonnes of vital supplies had been turned away from landing in Port-au-Prince three times since Sunday.
Say what you like about failings in security or co-ordination, as well as delays in the provision of aid. You would be right. For those of us in the field, these things drive us crazy, too. I am luckier than most, as the organisation for which I’m working, Merlin, is widely known and has been dealing with disasters for more years than many can remember.
However, despite any failings of an aid effort such as this, everywhere I begin to see tiny signs of recovery. Slowly the rubble is beginning to clear, slowly the frightened many are returning to work, and slowly new alliances are being forged. The resilience of mankind is remarkable.
We, Merlin that is, are helping where we can. This morning, as well as running the clinic, we employed 40 local people to help reinforce the fragmented walls around the tennis court where I now work. I had to restrain a chuckle as I listened to our magnificent logistician, Andrew, bargain hard but diplomatically with a group of labourers. They spoke Creole, he spoke French, but somehow they reached a point where everyone was happy. There was much laughing, shoulder slapping and gentle punches, and the group then set to work.
Amid the chaos and alleged reports of violence and unrest, stories of heroism emerge from the rubble with each person rescued alive. One of them is Ena Zizi (69) who spent one week under the ruins of a Roman-Catholic church before she was rescued by the Mexican disaster team “Topos” last Tuesday.
By the way, according to La Jornada, such team is acting against the directives from Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry which limited hugely the work of the rescue teams and has even ordered some teams to leave the country in the midst of the fear of violence.
Jorge Guzmán (“Topos” team member) said “dead bodies and people alive are the same to us”. His team focuses on recovering corpses too. Jose recently took part in the recovery of three dead toddlers from a day-care centre; their mothers were just waiting outside the ruins and received the bodies of the children to take them in a wheelbarrow. For this humanitarian labour (Jorge said with a bright smile) we need no protection from the marines.
So, this is what “day quake+8” looks like, so far the help has not been flowing as smoothly as needed. People from around the world have joined this cause and have donated tonnes of food and supplies, others have made generous cash donations in their local currencies, but such help does not seem to get to the disaster zone. People are dying from infections and untreated injuries. Time is running out for those underneath the rubble and the heavy equipment is stuck in the airport or hasn’t been able to arrive to the devastated country.
The Haitian government is just absent. United Nations (UN) seem to be powerless to assume actual leadership and act in a diligent manner. Although UN security council has approved an additional force of 3500 soldiers for Haiti, armed forces is not what Haitians need right now.
January 20th, 2010.
 Richard Villar, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at The Wellington Hospital, London, leads the emergency surgical team in Haiti for Merlin, the British medical aid agency and a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee. Richard has extensive experience in disaster zones, having worked on Merlin’s response to the Kashmir and Jakarta earthquakes.