By J.O. Haselhoef
Pierre Oreus was riding on a bus along the main highway that runs through the center of Haiti, heading from Jacmel to his home in Duchity, a village 14 miles north of Les Cayes, last Saturday. He received a text from a staff member at Youthaiti’s Center for Sustainable Development in Duchity, where he has served as program director for nine years.
“I remember the 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince as a college student,” said Oreus. He attended morning classes and was at home when the earthquake hit his school, killing most of the afternoon students.
But on the bus, he and the other riders had felt nothing, as the vehicle apparently absorbed the earthquake’s vibrations.
As Oreus tried to make his way home, his understanding of the damage wrought by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake would soon change.
Impassable roads to remote areas add to hardships
The village of Duchity sits high in the mountains — on the road that travels north from Les Cayes, bisecting the country into west and east. Normally a 40-minute car ride, it’s a three-hour walk when the roads are blocked.
Oreus had no choice that morning when his bus arrived in Les Cayes. He walked purposefully to Duchity, catching rides on motorcycles when he could.
“I saw a man on the curb, dead,” said Oreus about that journey. To one side lay the man’s motorcycle. To the other, the falling rocks that killed him. Oreus later learned that landslides buried two men whom he knew.
The lush, green farmlands seemed pastoral throughout this area of 20,000 residents. But as Oreus headed farther north, he could already see the damage to the small, square homes with tin roofs. The earthquake’s surface waves, like ripples of water, pushed one side of a house and pulled the other, cracking each structure. The full destruction of some structures suggested the roughness and duration of the tremor that they had endured — as if someone had placed it in a Cuisinart and pushed the grind button.
By the time Oreus arrived in Duchity, his community was already engaged. His staff and neighbors helped rescuers move those injured to a tent set up in the soccer field as a temporary clinic.
“The three doctors and two nurses treated more than 200 people, including 85 children and three newborns,” Oreus said.
Those seriously injured with fractures and missing limbs were sent to the hospital in Jeremie, though they had no assurance they’d be treated. Later, Oreus heard that a few more were flown to Port-au-Prince.
The aftershocks continued throughout the day Saturday, causing fearful residents to wail or fall back into desperate crying.
By nightfall, Oreus brought the community’s leaders together to assess the damage. That’s when he learned that numerous residents had died — how many was unclear. Hundreds of homes were uninhabitable. All schools, churches and community buildings had cracks and needed professional assessment.
The possible collapse forced residents to sleep outside — acceptable on the first nights when the skies were clear, but difficult when it rained later.
The medical team voiced concern — the wounds they’d closed might become infected without proper attention. They needed antibiotics immediately, more bandages and wound-cleaning supplies.
Oreus’ list of needs included medical supplies, temporary shelters, food, clean water and hygiene kits. He added, “Then there’s COVID-19. No one can social distance under these circumstances, and there are only a few masks.”
Residents of numerous remote villages and towns have echoed a similar acute need for emergency supplies. Across the expanse of Haiti’s south, the small communes in urgent need of attention include L’Asile, Baradères, Changeux, Anse-à-Veau, Plaisance, Arnaud, Petit-Trou, Fond-des-Nègres and Petite-Rivière.
Many are being bypassed as responders and convoys fly directly to locations like Les Cayes. For those towns, their hope is with people who have roots in their area.
SOS sent out, aid response mixed
The communication pattern surrounding a natural disaster is similar to an earthquake’s wave motion — moving outward from the epicenter and impacting others miles away.
Oreus called White Salmon, Washington, where the Executive Director of Youthaiti, Gigi Pomerantz, lives. A retired family nurse practitioner, Pomerantz knew that to address Duchity’s needs, she would not travel to Haiti. She’d be more effective with a working internet, an ability to charge her cell phone, and not using the limited resources in Haiti.
She called everyone she could think of with Oreus’ list in hand. The roads would stay impassable for some days, so she searched for a helicopter to immediately, “Drop medical supplies — to save lives.”
By Monday at 10 a.m., Pomerantz had set up a way to raise $40,000 for Duchity and publicized its plight through three media interviews, email blasts and Facebook posts. She was happy at the response.
Her frustration grew because donors gave money to large national organizations. “These groups do great work in Les Cayes,” said Pomerantz, “but none will get to Duchity or other villages.”
“Until we have supplies, there’s little for Oreus and his staff to do.” Pomerantz said, wondering when Youthaiti could return to its environmental and ecological work.
“We’ve built numerous dry toilets throughout the community. I’ve yet to hear if they’re still standing.”
Pomerantz continued with her calls.
Meanwhile, in Seguin, Haiti, normally a six-hour drive from the earthquake’s damage, Jacky Joseph made his own effort to help Duchity. He recently graduated as a nurse from the L’Université Episcopale d’Haïti (UNEPH) and manages the newly formed health collective, Health in the Mountain.
Joseph contacted Oreus and recruited four fellow nurses to take action. The team was hoping to rent a van and head to Duchity, with plans to purchase over-the-counter medical supplies on the way. Joseph expects they will attend to both physical and mental issues and help relieve exhausted health care workers.
In Twinsburg, Ohio, the Executive Director of Haiti Health Network, Barbara Campbell, read Pomerantz’ email. Campbell’s organization spent the last two years gathering data on the 1,300 health care facilities in Haiti and provided equipment to hundreds of doctors and nurses and more than 50 clinics in the north. Campbell’s team just emptied the equipment stored in its Cap Haitien warehouse to distribute to the clinics needing it now in the south.
Campbell forwarded Oreus’ list of needs to her team and another nonprofit that had arrived in Les Cayes. “It’s my understanding they have supplies to support clinics,” she wrote to Pomerantz.
She promised to gather details about which other areas are not receiving enough help.
Duchity needs hope — and supplies
One of these connections, Oreus hopes, will come through for the community of Duchity.
Reflecting on what his neighbors and other Haitians have gone through, Oreus said, “We’ve suffered so much this year — politics, COVID, this natural disaster — a lot of people just feel powerless, with no capacity to respond.”
Should the antibiotics arrive in Duchity soon — it will be a first step in turning that feeling around.