Haiti Relief Begins Amid Crisis

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CRS staff are sleeping outdoors and in tents while marshaling relief supplies to deliver to Haitians trying to survive massive earthquake.

January 14, 2010-Even as Catholic Relief Services personnel in Haiti struggle to ensure that CRS' 300 staff members are safe and accounted for, they are beginning the work of bringing relief supplies to the millions affected by this week's earthquake.

In the Dominican Republic, the country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, CRS is preparing 10,000 packages, each containing food and water for a family of five. The first 500 are scheduled to be delivered to Port-au-Prince on Friday.

Donal Reilly, CRS' regional technical advisor for emergencies, said that this shipment would 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."

Today four CRS staff members are traveling by bus from the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince as CRS begins to increase our presence in Haiti to respond to this unprecedented disaster. CRS has made an initial commitment of $5 million for Haiti's recovery.

Bill Canny, CRS' emergency response team leader, is on his way, as are experts in water and sanitation, shelter, and medical needs. Karel Zelenka, CRS' country representative in Haiti, said that staff arriving will join the CRS staff there in sleeping outside, in tents or cars, as aftershocks continue to be felt in the city, which was devastated by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake. CRS Haiti's headquarters building was damaged but did not collapse.

CRS has been working in Haiti for 55 years, often responding to disasters such as the hurricanes that hit the country in 2008. This led the agency to pre-position relief supplies, which is allowing this quick response.

Speaking on CNN last night, CRS President Ken Hackett said that the fact that Haiti is a predominantly Catholic country affects CRS' work there.

"It gives us a network of effective partners in the Catholic Church in their schools and their mission and their hospitals and their health centers, so that network in Port-au-Prince is what will be activated first," Hackett said. "Of course, there have been some deaths among the leadership of the Catholic Church in Haiti. That's troubling and that will be traumatizing."

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