Haiti earthquake news blog - updates from our emergency response

Oxfam public health promoter Helen Hawkings was in Haiti when the earthquake struck. Helen shares these powerful diary entries with us.

January 30, 2010 - Day 19

 

For those forced to live in camp conditions following the earthquake in Haiti, a family kit provides a whole list of life’s little essentials. Photo: Dario Arthur/Oxfam
For those forced to live in camp conditions following the earthquake in Haiti, a family kit provides a whole list of life’s little essentials. Photo: Dario Arthur/Oxfam

 

At 5.10am one morning I woke to what was not someone kicking my bed, it just felt like it. I leapt up with a start. These strong aftershocks continue to get me jumping around.

Afterwards I lay outside watching the bright night stars fade into the daylight, I did not want to be inside the house.

By 6.45am the first members of the team are ready to drive down to the office. We currently have over 40 people who have come to work on the response, sleeping in our house and garden, so organizing transport for everyone is a huge task.

The public health team usually splits up into three groups, with two groups going out to the camps we work in to manage the water points, latrine digging and construction of bathing areas, while my team heads out to new sites to assess people’s needs and make recommendations for possible interventions.

Today we visited a site which appears to be filling up with people who have had enough of the noise and discomfort that accompanies sleeping in the middle of the road.

Other families said they had come down from the outlying hilly areas looking for help.

As we walk around the camp I explain that we can provide the materials to make emergency toilets, we can install a big water storage container that the water trucks can come and fill up every day so that there will be free access to water, and we can give them tools to help them keep the site clean.

Our next stop is a small, closely knit fishing community down the road. A robust young woman greets us and shows me around. Several people pull me into their houses to show me the cracks the earthquake has left in the walls.

They, like most Haitians who have stayed in Port-au-Prince are too afraid to sleep in their homes.

They show me the collapsed houses that killed their neighbours and the damaged buildings that they fear will fall on them. There are 105 families living here.

Thankfully there is a functioning well so we can provide them with the means and know how to treat water for the community to make it safe to drink. We can also give them plastic sheeting to protect them from the rain. It is such a relief that the earthquake did not hit Haiti during the hurricane season.

While I am particularly focused on water, sanitation and hygiene needs during our assessments, other Oxfam colleagues are investigating other areas including food security and personal safety.

While some camps report relative calm, in others we hear about domestic disputes and women being raped. I did not know that there is a belief that old women suck baby´s blood at night. A couple of older women had been out in areas where they were not known and were beaten to death.

When I return to the office I see that the materials I requested which have been flown over from the UK have arrived. Some of these Oxfam buckets will be used tomorrow to clean the latrines we have built while others will be distributed as part of hygiene kits along with soap, water purification tablets and sanitary wear for women.

I love hearing about miraculous situations. Yesterday a teenager was pulled from the rubble alive over two weeks after the earthquake. Amazing!

She had done what Rick our shelter advisor advised me to do in an earthquake. Go to the bathroom. If you get stuck at least you have access to water.

There is no electricity so I´m writing by moonlight listening to night sounds.

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January 23, 2010 - Day 12

Today is going to be a hard day. It is our colleague Amedee's funeral. It is 11 days since the office that he spent so much time in and was so dedicated to collapsed and ended his life. The day will be filled by so many memories for our team. We will get up really early drive four hours in a hired bus to save on fuel consumption to say our final farewell. I am taking a large box of tissues.

January 22, 2010 - Day 11

This morning's aftershock sent me diving under my desk like a seagull to a fish dinner. I was in a room of colleagues who have recently flown in and who appeared completely unconcerned by the movement. I need to be less jumpy.

Our team generally splits into three groups to get the most out of the day. Today we focused not on water but on two teams in separate camps working with wonderfully enthusiastic volunteers digging six trenches for pit latrines. Tomorrow we will have our first pit latrines up and ready for use. Meanwhile the third group was monitoring the water points to find out how much water is being delivered to the camps everyday.

We passed the camp where we were not able to get through the gate yesterday. It's based in a religious complex. The third nun we spoke to got quite excited about putting in latrines and lead us to a great spot where we can organise digging.

Our final stop was at a smaller site in an area with few homes still standing. That sickly-sweet smell of death caught in my throat. Once again we find a high concentration of people crammed into a small open space. This neighbourhood was poor before the earthquake struck, now the women who engage in petit commerce tell me that people have no money to buy their wares.

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January 21, 2010 - Day 10

 

Hencia Josena uses the clean water to do laundry in a yard behind the hospital. "It's the culture in Haiti to wash by hand," she explains. Photo: Liz Lucas/Oxfam America
Hencia Josena uses the clean water to do laundry in a yard behind the hospital. "It's the culture in Haiti to wash by hand," she explains. Photo: Liz Lucas/Oxfam America

I spent this morning in the sun strolling around the golf course with the owner. It was not as glamorous as it sounds.

 

We walked around the perimeter of the vast tented camp that had sprung up on the greens, looking for possible sites to build latrines.

The areas that we passed through were already "informal latrines" - we were practically wading through it.

There is a huge need for toilets here. The population on the golf course has grown over the last few days, with people drawn in by the food distributions. There is more rubbish, more chaos and more noise. Large sound systems are blaring out loud music. I was pleased to see people taking water from our water point as we passed - on Sunday we had set that up, with many hours of joy and despair.

Someone had given me the name of a site that has asked for help. Despite the fuel shortage, the traffic congestion in Port au Prince is still terrible so it took a while to get there. Fallen walls and buildings narrowing the streets worsen the jams. When we arrived at the shelter the guard at the door would not let us in.

While I was out doing assessments, my colleague Karine was working all out to get a water bladder to the hospital that she had visited the other day. Now they can do laundry and wash patients. She seems satisfied with her day.

I asked a member of our team how long he was planning on sleeping in the street. He said he would be there for several months. Haiti is prone to flooding, not earthquakes, so people are unaccustomed to coping with the aftermath of this disaster and have no real idea about how long aftershocks will continue.

Back home I feel like I'm on a boat, the ground is moving so much. Another six people arrived at our place this evening. This brings the total to about 30 with no taps or flushing toilets in the house. I don't think we would even qualify for a one star hotel rating!

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January 20, 2010 - Day nine

 

A cell phone charging business at the Petionville Club. Photo: Kenny Rae/Oxfam America
A cell phone charging business at the Petionville Club. Photo: Kenny Rae/Oxfam America

My mother was could never get me out of bed as quickly as I leapt up this morning - in a panic, fumbling with the door knob. I sprinted across the living room and out on to the balcony while others, barely awake, looked around slightly dazed. It was a strong aftershock which set my heart racing. Haiti is not a quiet country but every time I hear loud rumbling sound I'm on edge, anticipating a shaking.

 

Today the national team installed a bladder at Place Jeremy, in the baking heat. The nights may be cold but the heat of the day converts many fresh-faced aid workers into glowing lobsters.

At Camp Grand, life is going back to normal: the "petit commercants", mainly women selling small packets of food and drinks, charging phones and other electrical appliaces for a small fee; and a small barber's tent.

Around the streets we see signs, all written in English. "We need food, we need water, we need help," they say.

Last night we had internet at home for a good five minutes. I hear that many people have been donating money to help Haiti. Thank you for your help.

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January 19, 2010 - Day eight

 

Outside the hospital morgue, a dusty hearse recalls a time before the earthquake, when burying the dead was far more dignified. Photo: Liz Lucas/Oxfam America
Outside the hospital morgue, a dusty hearse recalls a time before the earthquake, when burying the dead was far more dignified. Photo: Liz Lucas/Oxfam America

 

This time last week, we were having an average day in the office: conference calls, report writing, fighting off the mosquitoes that plague us here.

My clock showed it was just 10 minutes until it was time to leave for the day, when without any warning the ground began to move. As the earth shook harder than I have ever felt before, I ran to the door but could not get out.

I hid under my desk, my hand pressed up against the surface protecting my head, hoping it would hold up to the pressure of two storeys falling on it. If I were buried under a ton of debris, would I ever get rescued? Was this the end for me?

As quickly as the earthquake started, everything became still again. Covered in dust, I scrambled shaking over the rubble by the office and made it out to the street outside. People were emerging stunned, some crying, some injured, some silent. A count of heads showed one member of the team was missing, stuck under the rubble. Companions brought him out and carried him unconscious to the nearest hospital, where he later died.

Several of the hospitals had already collapsed. Home, schools, offices - the buildings we spend our lives in had become our greatest danger.

Today, a week later, the number of dead bodies on the road is down. I haven't seen a corpse for a few days now, but the rubbish is piling up and bodies have been dumped at the municipal rubbish site.

We pass the local school on the way to the office. It smells bad. The first couple of days people were searching for survivors here, but now I cannot imagine that anyone still trapped will be rescued alive - too much time has passed.

We want to start constructing latrines as there are no toilets in the camps. Some people are able to go back their homes to wash and go to the toilet but as I walk through the camps I see nearly naked women, children and adolescents washing themselves. They are very vulnerable. We will set up screened-off areas to allow people a little dignity when they are washing.

The fuel issue for the water trucks has been resolved, at least for today. I received a message late last night telling me that the trucks would be starting at 6am and we needed to be ready to organise the distributions early. Seventeen trucks went to the biggest camp we are working in to distribute water to thousands of people this morning.

The needs of the people still completely outweigh the nascent aid efforts, but every day we are reaching more people.

It´s raining tonight. An unthinkable number of families are going to get very wet.

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January 18, 2010 - Day seven

 

For nine days after the January 12 earthquake, the Hôpital Universitaire de l'État d'Haïti (pictured) had no water for laundry or cleaning. Photo: Liz Lucas/Oxfam America
For nine days after the January 12 earthquake, the Hôpital Universitaire de l'État d'Haïti (pictured) had no water for laundry or cleaning. Photo: Liz Lucas/Oxfam America

 

Before we implement a programme, we first need to carry out a needs assessment to find out more about the people who have been affected.

Everywhere we go people tell us about their basic needs of food, drinking water, tents, toilets, medicine and sanitary towels for women (many women have to wash themselves in public and then keep their wet underwear on as they only have one pair). Today I have sent off a large order for sanitary towels and knickers.

In a couple of the camps we visit we meet women who have given birth since the earthquake. I know of at least one maternity hospital that was hit.

Generally hospitals have either been destroyed or are full. Many people with serious injuries like fractures who urgently need medical attention have still not been seen. They are either unable to reach the hospitals, or the health centres they do reach don't have the capacity to care for them.

I hear about dehydrated children at the hospital who are getting treatment but, because of a shortage of drip stands, have friends and family members taking turns to hold up their drips.

One team member visits a hospital with 1,500 patients and no water. The medical teams make plaster casts with water from a tap that is far away. They ask us for empty water bottles to clean patients wounds, as they have just one bucket full of water.

There are no toilets for patients or staff. A woman sits on a cooler of amputated body parts that she does not know what to do with.

Oxfam will be providing this hospital with water and sanitation. Talking to the people I get a real feeling of solidarity. They share their food rations, which they have brought from their homes, even though they do not have very much.

No one is sure how long we need to sleep outside for following an earthquake. Usually the aftershocks are never as strong as the original quake but people here are afraid. I haven't slept for more than four hours in over a week and I need a good night's sleep to function effectively. Tonight I opt to sleep indoors in my own bed! I wear a vest top and a light skirt in case I have make a dash for the door in the middle of night.

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January 17, 2010 - Day six

 

Oxfam water distribution Delmas. Photo: Oxfam
Oxfam have set up a water bladder that can hold 10,000 litres of water.

 

Something that you can be sure about here is that your day will not go as you expect it to. After all the complications that we were dealing with yesterday, today we had planned a problem free day. It was an important day for us. We wanted to have the two bladders that we installed yesterday and the three that the teams prepared today full of water so that we could distribute 100, 000 litres of drinking water to people who really need it.

I arrived at the golf course at midday. The truck containing 5, 000 litres of water was filling the water storage container that we had constructed. After a quick final leak fix things were looking good, and we were ready to go.

Our first recipient was a young boy looking slightly overwhelmed clutching a small white water container, which he quickly filled. Soon the people who had waited patiently in the queue were receiving fresh drinking water. It feels great when we can see our work is making an impact. I had ordered 10 more lorry loads of water to go to the sites we were working in.

Our national WASH team had set up committees to manage each water point. We waited and waited for the trucks to come with the water. No one came.

Drinking water is not the only scarce liquid in high demand. There is also an acute shortage of petrol.

The water company was unable to come and distribute the water, of which they had plenty, because their lorries did not have enough petrol. I had to relay this hugely disappointing information to the committees and to the people waiting to receive water who took the news well considering the situation.

The number of people staying with us has risen from just the four of us on Tuesday night, to a respectable 21. Today Oxfam staff arrived from the Dominican Republic, England and Mexico. Together we will be able to achieve great things. In the meantime we have to cope with not having a functioning flushing toilet, no cooking facilities and a limited water supply. This makes entertaining at home a more creative challenge.

Tomorrow is a new day that I hope will be problem free and full of 100, 000 litres of fresh drinking water.

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January 16, 2010 - Day five

 

Oxfam water distribution Delmas. Photo: Oxfam
Oxfam set up sites where water can be distributed.

 

Today we were back at the golf course, previously an exclusive area for the rich of Port au Prince, it is now home to an estimated 10 – 15, 000 people during the day and 50, 000 at night.

Our mission for the day is to start distributing water.

People staying in the camps have organised committees to manage the site. There seem to be more committees than are absolutely necessary and they do not always agree on how things should be done. Unfortunately when the water distribution started there was a disagreement regarding which committee was in charge and the situation became rather heated.

Every day many people approach me asking me what can I give, what am I doing here, why am I only working in this camp when there are so many people still staying in the communities near their homes who need help? I am not God, I tell them that today we are starting with providing water here. There is a colossal amount of aid pouring into the country.

I tell them that we are starting in areas with the biggest concentrations of people so that we can reach lots of people in a short space of time but that we have not forgotten them and that we are doing as much as we can.

This evening the team of Oxfam staff that we have been working with in Cap Haitien in the north of Haiti arrived at our door. We have been training them and working closely with them in emergency preparedness so that when disaster strikes they are ready to immediately respond. This was a wonderful end to the day.

While I would like to believe that the loud bangs that rang out near our house just before midnight last night were fireworks, I think that would be slightly naïve of me. Reports of pillaging are rife. This afternoon we passed 2 bodies on the road, which were left there uncared for. We were told that locals killed them as they were looting and stealing. An unofficial curfew of 10pm has been proposed.

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January 15, 2010 - Day four

 

Delmas golf course. Photo: Oxfam
Delmas Golf Course, currently home to 10,000 people displaced by the earthquake.

 

Today was spent preparing to distribute water. I visited a golf course, currently home to about 10, 000 people. There are a lot of sick and injured people sleeping out here. I was looking for an appropriate place to mount a portable water storage container (a bladder).

I am really curious about why people are walking around with thick white cream smeared under their noses. I imagine it must be something sweet smelling to counter the bad smells here. In fact it is toothpaste put there supposedly to stop them getting ill!

We are still sleeping outside and will continue to do so for a few days to come.

I am not sure what I miss more, sleeping in my bed or eating cooked meals! Tomorrow we have a long but hopefully really productive day ahead of us. We will start installing the water points and distributing drinking water.

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January 14, 2010 - Day three

 

Children peer out from a hole of a makeshift shelter after the major earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince 12 January, 2010. Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva, courtesy of alertnet.org
Children peer out from a hole of a makeshift shelter after the major earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince 12 January, 2010.

 

Haiti is not known for having a good security record. We hear that all the inmates from the huge local penitentiary who were not killed by the earthquake have escaped.

Today we do a rapid appraisal of the communes where we have recently trained teams in emergency WASH (Water, sanitation and Hygiene) response.

Visiting the open areas where displaced people are sleeping, the main needs we are told, not surprisingly are drinking water, food, medicines and latrines.

The WASH coordination meeting does not go as planned but in a good way. Several private water companies are offering their services to provide water to key locations in the city, which is wonderful news. These organisations will provide 80 trucks full of water. The international organisations including Oxfam need to organise storage and management of the water, which is an enormous task.

Unfortunately we also find out that our emergency stock, (the materials that we keep stored so that we came respond quickly when there´s an emergency) have become inaccessible following the quake. This is a huge setback as tomorrow we want to start distributing water. People are hungry and people are thirsty.

The most disturbing sights of today were not the piles of debris that just 2 days ago were homes and local schools. The sights that made me draw breath were the bodies. A neat row of 16 bodies carefully wrapped in sheets, the group of 20 at the Canape Vert roundabout some identified with ripped cardboard name tags, a pile with no sheet covering them, just thrown one on top of the other and the two bodies on the corner of a street, an adult motionless under a small dead child.

Today lots of people are covering their faces with scarves and face masks, they believe this will protect them from diseases spread by dead bodies.

Red scarves are particularly popular. Red is believed to be the strongest colour and helps ward off disease. . It is true that dead bodies from cholera victims can spread disease, but just walking past the bodies of the ordinary healthy people that the quake has taken does not. But it is a link that people often make probably because of how traumatic it is to see the bodies.

We are told that a plane is sending emergency materials for us and it should arrive tomorrow! This is great news.

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January 13, 2010 - Day two

 

Injured people are seen at a makeshift field hospital on 13 January, 2010 in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Injured people are seen at a makeshift field hospital.

 

Last night we walked home in the dark, slept, or tried to sleep in the space in the garden least likely to have a wall or building fall on it should the aftershocks cause more damage. I lay feeling the aftershocks through the night under a beautiful sky heavy with stars, kept awake by the loud singing, clapping and shouting at what must be a local church and by our local confused cockerel who spent the night letting us know he was still alive!

Today we walk back to the office in the stark light of day. We pass the collapsed hospital at the end of our street. We pass a man carrying his dead child, repeating out loud that he has his beloved dead child in his arms, not knowing where to go.

We pass people being carried on all kind of makeshift stretchers, doors, blankets or whatever they can get their hands on to carry their loved ones to medical facilities for help.

We went up and down the main road 6 times today, each time more corpses appeared, some covered in sheets some just lying contorted and stiff and coated in the dust that covers the city. I wonder if their families know where they are? It is impossible to make even a wild estimate at the number of people who have died, are missing or affected by this earthquake, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale.

In Canape Vert Park, hundreds of people are sitting on the street, in the small open space. The smell of urine and excreta is strong. As the days pass the corpses and waste will become increasingly pungent.

Supermarkets have either collapsed, been looted or are closed for fear of trapping people in collapses from the aftershocks. The only food we find for sale is some unappetising fruit that a group of women are selling on the side of the road. The cost of water has already gone up. Food and drinking water are scarce. I wonder how long we can last on the food we have at home, maybe two or three days. People are currently searching for family members or are in shock.

I am concerned about the possibility of unrest related to the lack of food available in the coming days. Haiti is not exactly the breadbasket of the region.

We attend an Oxfam staff meeting, we are a small organisation yet 7 people had their homes destroyed and several other homes were damaged. Haitians are heeding the advice that it is dangerous to sleep in their beds because of the aftershocks. Most people are sleeping on the street.

Teams are organised to go to different coordination meetings and collect information about the situation here in Haiti. We suggest that those members who are not coming into work this week help dig out people still alive trapped in the rubble.

We go to the WASH cluster meeting with a group of organisations who work in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene to coordinate the WASH response. In an emergency many organisations come to help so we need to work together and organise who does what and where.

Streams of people with suitcases are leaving the city to stay with friends and family in other parts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The earth moves almost constantly this evening. I feel queasy. This evening is colder. Not like England in January cold, but chilly. Just before midnight a large noisy trail of people pass our house, they are worried by the rumour that a Tsunami is coming and are seeking refuge higher up in the hills. It´s raining a little. Tonight Port au Prince is spending its second night sleeping under the stars.

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January 12, 2010 - Day one

 

People wander the streets in front of the remains of a boarding school in the downtown area of Port-au-Prince. Photo: Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images
People wander the streets in front of the remains of a boarding school in the downtown area of Port-au-Prince. Photo: Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images

 

It had been an average day in the office, conference calls, report writing, fighting off the mosquitoes that plague us here. My clock showed just 10 minutes until it was time to leave for the day, when without any warning the ground made slight movements, which rapidly became violent.

The earth shook harder than I have ever felt before.

I ran to the door but could not get out. I hid under my desk, my hand pressed up against the surface protecting my head, hoping it would hold up to the pressure of 2 storeys falling on it. If I were buried under a tonne of debris, would I ever get rescued? Was this the end for me?

As quickly as the earthquake started, the violent tremor stopped, everything became still again. Covered in dust, I scrambled shaking over the rubble by the office and made it out to the safety of the street outside. People were coming out stunned, some crying, some injured, some silent. A count of heads to check everyone was present showed one member of the team was missing, stuck under the rubble. Companions brought him out and they carried him unconscious on a piece of the gate on their shoulders to the nearest hospital where he later died.

Several of the hospitals had already collapsed. Home, schools, offices - the buildings we spend our lives in become our greatest danger.

Cars were left abandoned in the street, roads were impassable covered by collapsed walls, buildings, telegraph poles and crushed vehicles. We walked the long way home not saying much, amongst people praying, crying, hysterical. It was surreal. We made a large detour around the petrol station that had exploded but was still making uncomfortable noises. A couple of people were wailing outside a collapsed building, the broken sign on the wall showed it had been a university.

Communication in emergency situations is often not easy. The phone networks were either down or overloaded so it is impossible to find out if our friends were ok. I had no way of letting my family know that I had survived and just hoped that they wouldn’t hear about the earthquake until tomorrow. We have no idea where was worst hit or how the rest of the country is doing.

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  • Caroline Gluck, who works as a field-based press officer for Oxfam's humanitarian team, is also blogging from Haiti. You can read her posts here.

 

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