'It was like a huge bomb fell'

One of the first disaster responders to land in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake, Richard Jacquot of Ashland found that his most powerful tool was his Blackberry, which he used to organize help from neighboring nations.

With 230,000 dead and chaos all around him, Jacquot slept in the airport parking lot the first night and, with dawn, leaped into his job as disaster team administrator, setting up water sanitation, building 800 latrines, distributing life's necessities and launching a cash-for-work program.

"The emergency response was so difficult. It was like a huge bomb fell," recalled Jacquot, who has responded to disasters many times before but never in a place where all services — water, power, electricity, police, government, food markets — were gone.

"We went to the general hospital and distributed emergency food, high-energy biscuits, moving soon to wet feeding, which is regular food," said Jacquot, a contract worker for Mercy Corps in Portland. "The hospital's kitchen was not working.

"The people were just traumatized. The sanitary conditions were absolutely apocalyptic. It was very hot and humid. The rains were starting," said Jacquot, noting that his team visited a nursing school that once served 70 students and staff and no piece of the building bigger than a fist was left. Only 10 survivors were pulled out.

After a week, women from outlying areas began bringing in their food crops, selling them at booths along roads. Residents who helped in the disaster recovery effort through Mercy Corps' cash-for-work program were able to buy the food with the money they made, about $5 a day.

In his four weeks there, Jacquot administered a Comfort for Kids program, which helps children overcome post traumatic stress disorder by retelling their tough times and drawing pictures of it. The program also trains parents to recognize the symptoms of psycho-social problems.

The children "need to download their story and they do," he said. "In the end they have fewer problems with it than the adults."

Working with Mercy Corps, Jacquot responded after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the China quake and other disasters.

But because some measure of social services and government were left intact, they were considerably easier, he said.

"The (Haitian) government didn't exist," he said. "It had no rescue teams, no ambulances, no heavy equipment to move rubble."

His task force didn't deal with medical or search-and-rescue issues, he said, noting that after 72 hours, about when he arrived, the chances of finding someone alive "go down very drastically" because of dehydration and kidney failure.

After the quake, people refused to sleep inside buildings. They slept in parks, driveways and streets, leaving narrow corridors for vehicles, said Jacquot, recalling a six-foot-square plot of parkland on which a family of 12 tried to live.

Port-au-Prince, epicenter of the 7.0-magnitude quake, was a collection of problems waiting to get a lot worse before disaster struck, Jacquot said. Tens of thousands of people relocated over the years in the periphery of the capital city, looking for work and erecting slum housing, he said. Most structures, even the multi-story downtown buildings, were put up with little regard for building codes.

Many were sited on hillsides and they all came down "like dominoes," he said.

"There's no economic or social opportunity, except in Port-au-Prince. There is no middle class — they all leave Haiti. There's only the pick-and-shovel people and those who run things. They have building codes but no one to enforce them. Those who oppose government regulation should see what it's like in practice."

Mercy Corps' long-term goal, he said, is to promote agriculture (Haiti imports 40 percent of its food, although it has much arable land) and clear drainage canals for the coming rainy season.

The upside of the killer quake is that Haitians, with the help of Mercy Corps and other groups and nations, can focus on a new Haiti, he said.

"It often takes a disaster to make changes for the better, same as in our own lives," he said.

The devastation to Haiti will take a decade to repair, he said.

"If the international community sees this as an opportunity to guide and help the government, it may get rebuilt so it isn't just sitting there, waiting for the next (disaster)."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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