Haiti 'Needs are Beyond Belief'

CRS raised its funding commitment fivefold to $25 million and is pouring supplies into Haiti's capital of Port au Prince in the aftermath of a 7.0 earthquake.

Author: Michael Hill

Lifesaving supplies from Catholic Relief Services are reaching desperate survivors in quake-shattered Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

CRS staff in Haiti report that trucks carrying 30,000 liters of water and enough ready-to-eat meals for 2,500, as well as plastic sheeting for temporary housing, are being sent to eleven distribution points in the Haitian capital.

CRS is also unloading 124 containers of mixed food-grains, vegetable oil and other items-from USAID at the Haitian port of Les Cayes. That will soon be on its way to Port-au-Prince where the quake was centered.

CRS emergency personnel have gone to the hospital of St. Francois de Sales which is a partner with AIDSRelief, the consortium that includes CRS and that is fighting HIV and AIDS in Haiti. They report that the hospital was heavily damaged in the earthquake and is low on supplies. They are working to get it up and running.

As donations to CRS topped the $10 million mark-including $1 million from the Gates Foundation and $225,000 from the New York Yankees-CRS increased its original $5 million funding commitment and is planning an emergency response with an expectation of raising $25 million from its generous supporters for its relief effort.

"Our teams on the ground say the needs are beyond belief," says Ken Hackett, president of CRS. "This money will help us go even further to reach people who are suffering."

Within 24 hours of the earthquake, CRS staff was handing out food and water from existing emergency supplies stored in Haiti mainly in anticipation of hurricanes.

"We are fortunate to have had water in our warehouse," says Karel Zelenka, country representative for CRS Haiti. "We also trucked in family food kits from Les Cayes." CRS will also distribute hygiene kits, cookware and plastic sheeting that were stored in Port-au-Prince.

CRS has a permanent staff of 313 on the ground and additional staff are arriving daily. CRS' Haiti headquarters building was damaged but did not collapse. Until its structural integrity is assured, Zelenka said newly arriving personnel will join the CRS staff in sleeping outside in tents or cars as aftershocks continue to be felt in the city.

"Our main office building shows many cracks and people just sort of run in, pick up things that they need, and we do everything outside," Zelenka said. "We have a table set up outside, we pulled out electric cables, we bring computers there and so cannot ask our staff to go in."

Zelenka called the earthquake "something I've never experienced and hope that I never see it again." "It is so stressful. I can hardly sleep and when I get to the building, our office, a little noise makes me immediately jump," he said. "You drive up and down the streets and you see all these bodies that are just laying down there because there they have no common grave and they cannot do a proper funeral. The worst part are the children-these little bodies.

"I mean, can I tell you, in general earthquakes are the worst, worst disaster that can happen," Zelenka said. In the neighboring Dominican Republic, CRS is preparing packages to feed 50,000 people. Five-gallon buckets are being loaded with juice, sardines, sausage, peanut butter, nuts, granola bars, canned fruit, black beans and saltine crackers. Water storage containers, water purification tablets, mosquito nets, and hygiene kits are also en route to Haiti.

Donal Reilly, CRS' emergency response team leader, said that these shipments will begin to fulfill the most pressing needs of Haitians whose recovery is hampered by their poverty.

"Haitians live on a day-to-day basis, in which things like food and charcoal are bought daily. Many people's houses were damaged and markets aren't even selling, so we'll need to get food in immediately," Reilly said. "Water infrastructure is bad even on a good day, so this is essential."

Four CRS staff members travelled by bus from the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince as CRS began to increase its presence in Haiti to respond to this unprecedented disaster. They will be joined by CRS experts in water and sanitation, shelter and health.

Bill Canny, CRS' director of emergency operations, has arrived in Haiti where he was CRS country representative until last year. He oversaw the response to massive hurricanes in 2008.

"We're moving additional emergency staff in as quickly as possible," Canny said. "We know it's chaos in Port-au-Prince and help is needed immediately."

CRS has been working in Haiti for 55 years, often responding to disasters such as the hurricanes that hit the country in 2008. The agency had relief supplies ready, which allowed a quick response.

"There's been an outpouring of support from Catholics and others of good will in the United States," says CRS Executive Vice President Michael Wiest. "We're so grateful for the generosity of our donors, especially because the massive destruction caused by the quake will require a long-term recovery process." CRS has been working in Haiti for 55 years, often responding to disasters such as the hurricanes that hit the country in 2008. The agency has an extensive network of aid partners in the country, including Catholic schools, hospitals and health centers.

"We will work with our Church partners to reach the most vulnerable survivors, including orphans and the elderly," says Hackett. "We are acting swiftly to help people who have suffered so greatly."

Michael Hill is CRS' communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa. He is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.