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Haiti: When the earthquake struck…

Even before the earthquake Haiti was very poor with limited infrastructure with nearly 80% of the population living on less than US$2 per day

So when the earthquake struck on Tuesday, it hit an already very vulnerable country.  Sitting at my desk in the Save the Children’s compound I was suddenly aware of a slight shake.  Then it became stronger and stronger.  My heart started racing.  I felt fear.  My colleagues and I ran for shelter in a doorway – the strongest part of the office until the shaking stopped.

My first thought was this was a big earthquake that had struck close to our office.  I knew immediately that this would have a devastating effect on Port-au-Prince, but I had no way of knowing how awful it was going to be.

During the shaking there was the sound of destruction – breaking glass and falling masonry. After the quake came the wailing and cries from all across the city.  I could feel that tingling sensation you get when the hairs on the back of your neck and arms stand up. For hours after the quake we could hear buildings groaning and collapsing from the violent shaking.

We evacuated all the staff from the office so they could go home and check on their loved ones. We then checked on as many of the staff as we could get hold of.  We now know that at least one member of our staff is confirmed dead.  His name was Similien Mackendy a 24-year-old accountant.  He had worked for Save the Children in Haiti since 2004, and as you can imagine we’re all devastated for him and his family and all those in Haiti who have lost ones in this tragedy.  Another 7 members of staff remaining missing.

Behind our offices every house on the hillside has been damaged. You pass by huge buildings that have been reduced to rubble. People were standing on the streets in a state of utter shock and bewilderment.  The next day you could hear even more wailing of people mourning. Then every so often you would here a huge cheer as someone was pulled alive from the rubble. It was a surreal contrast.

Now, nearly a week since the disaster, people are sheltering in makeshift camps with whatever belongings they have been able to salvage. Everyone seems to be wearing face masks in the hope of preventing them getting sick. Some media reports have said there has been looting and anger, but it’s important the outside world know the Haitian people are extremely resilient and to date we are seeing extraordinary patience, courage and generosity as they try to cope with this disaster.

Even now people are still being rescued – on Saturday near our compound a 2-year-old girl – Winnie – was plucked out of the rubble, dusty and scared but unscathed by a translator working for an Australian TV crew. Our medical team treated her and fed her and reunited her with her uncle. It was truly remarkable to see such a young girl who had been buried for so long begin to recover whilst we gave her food and water.

But there’s so much more to be done, and the scale of the task is daunting.  During these first days we must get relief supplies out as quickly as possible.  What’s needed now is basic items such as food, water and medicine as well as hygiene kits that contain items such as soap and toothbrushes.  We know from our experience in other disasters the faster we can reach people the more lives we can save.

Save the Children has mobilized staff and resources from all over the world. Currently staff and supplies are coming in through the Dominican Republic due to the damage and congestion at Port-au-Prince’s international airport. We are buying food, water and hygiene supplies and trucking them across the border to allow us to reach the children and their families with help when they need it the most.

We have been working in Haiti for over 20 years and make no mistake we will be here for the long term.  If there can be a silver lining when so many people have lost their homes and loved ones it’s that the international community has an opportunity to build back better to ensure the people of this small impoverished country are able to withstand natural hazards such as earthquakes in the future.

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