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Paris, USA - Haiti First Responder Report

Having just returned from Haiti, I would like thank you for all the kind words and messages I have received. I am very grateful for them and for your support and friendship.

My adventure in Haiti was an arduous one but very interesting and worthwhile. I went as a first responder and Scientology Volunteer Minister, along with about 100 other VMs and approx 160 medical personnel on aircraft (737’s) chartered by the IAS (International Association of Scientologists).

Later there were also a couple of small charters out of Miami and of course, John Travolta (along with wife, Kelly Preston) flew his 707 down there with about 20 medical people, some VMs and about 6 tons of supplies and medicine. Additionally, many other Scientologists made their own way to Port au Prince, from faraway places, like Thailand, Scotland, France, Western USA, etc.

One girl spent about ten days getting there from LA, spending time in Miami trying to catch a flight and finally flying to Santo Domingo and taking the difficult overland route to Port au Prince from the Dominican Republic.

I drove my car to Miami with three other VMs. There I picked up the communications gear that I was to install upon arrival. Originally, there was to be a technical guy coming along to set it up, but he never arrived. We spent a few hours at the home of the VMs Mercedes and Bo, who were a tremendous help and very kind to us. We unpacked and briefly tested our satellite phones and satellite data uplinks. Then we drove to the Miami airport and boarded a Vision Airlines charter to Port au Prince.

We arrived late at night on 21Jan10 and were met by some VMs and some trucks. After unloading the baggage and supplies by hand out of the plane’s cargo holds and we got trucked to our base, about half a mile away, along the main (and only) runway of the airport. We pitched tents in the dark, crawled into our sleeping bags and went to sleep. The doctors and nurses we had brought with us were taken to some houses in the city that had been donated by a local Scientologist. A small team of VMs was based at this place - soon to be called “the compound” - to care for them while they were in-country. Our base consisted of a big yellow VM tent that served as our headquarters, kitchen, communication center and supplies storage. Behind it, stretching toward the runway, we had a series of six-man tents for our housing. In the early days, military cargo jets (C17s, etc.) were landing and taking off every few minutes, day and night. The noise level was almost painful and made communication impossible when they passed us.

The Canadian Forces contingent was approx 150 yards from us. There was probably a battalion of troops and an air squadron that included 10 bright yellow helicopters with small Canadian Air Force logos on the side. These took off every few minutes all day long, either on search and rescue/medevac flights or carrying a pallet of supplies hanging underneath the chopper. One of our local translators/drivers told me that (since the Canadian logo could not be seen from more than about 150 yards) the local Haitians identified the yellow choppers with our yellow Volunteer Minister shirts and that we were getting the credit for the Canadian food drops. I went over to introduce myself to the senior officer at the Canadian airbase. He was a Colonel who had attended the same Military College that I had. There is a tradition that if you find an officer with the same last two digits in their college number, they have to pay for your drinks in the officer’s mess. I asked him for his number – he looked at me dumbfounded! It was an unexpected question from a yellow-shirted VM from the USA! We didn’t get a match, but when I told him my number, his response was: “Christ, you’re old!”

I told him that I had heard we were getting the credit for at least some of their flights. With typical Canadian selflessness and modesty, he told me that it wasn’t about the credit, they were just there to help.

There was a series of camps all along the runway. On one side we had British troops for awhile, but they moved out and were replaced by French soldiers. On the other side, we had a unit of Dutch Marines who were normally based in Aruba (my kind of military posting!). They were very friendly and helped us out a lot with supplies and equipment they could spare. All they wanted from us was a couple of VM shirts to take home. VM shirts and jackets were in very high demand among the doctors, nursing staff and all the military units we ran into. Some very helpful soldiers from the 82nd Airborne that we made friends with came by to say that they would be coming by around 7pm that night on the way back from their supply depot. They said it was “highly likely” that two pallets of water and three pallets of MRE’s would be available for our work and that we should be on the lookout for them. Two VM shirts secured the deal and the next morning we had hundreds of MRE’s and thousands of bottles of water to take out with us to the refugee camps and orphanages we visited on a daily basis.

My first days there were spent organizing communications. We had a handful of local Haitian cell phones that normally didn’t work, but made good paper weights when the wind blew into the tent. We also had about six phones from the Dominican Republic that could only call each other or receive calls. I also brought in some satellite phones and they worked pretty well most of the time. They even came with solar panels to charge them with. That came in handy early on, because we didn’t yet have a generator and thus, no electricity. Neighboring military units or charities would lend us a surplus generator to use, but then would take it back when they moved out or needed it. Even when we had a generator to use, there was often no fuel to run it, so electricity was spotty. Gas was $5/gal when you could get it. I worked on getting the satellite data links going so we could have internet communications.

The first few days, conditions at the camp were extremely primitive. We only intermittently had power. There were no toilet facilities in the camp. I have no idea what the girls did. Don’t ask. Our “kitchen” was a counter made of stacked boxes. On it, the “cook” would lay out an array of cold snacks like Trail Mix bars, a jar of mixed nuts, and so on. At the evening meal, we would get an MRE (Meal Refused by Ethiopians). The next charter flight brought some sanitation people in and they set out to improve our lot. They arranged for a latrine to be dug and a “shower” to be built. The latrine had separate sections for poo & pee, but this proved to be too high-tech for us, and we ended up with the traditional hole in the ground, with a wooden pallet for a floor. My compass fell into the hole and well, it’s still there! Our construction team also built a male urinal – basically a shallow ditch behind a piece of tarp.

The shower was a U-shaped set of pallets, with the open end covered by a piece of tarp that would blow up in the wind, exposing one’s butt to whoever was nearby. You were restricted to a one-third full pail of water that you brought into the shower, along with a cup made out of the bottom half of a pint bottle of water. The idea was that you would pour a cup or two of water on your head, soap up and then rinse off with more cups of water. Then you would dry off with a towel that had been hanging out in the dust from all the nearby helicopters. Essentially, you would end up smearing mud all over your “clean” body.

After a few days, power became more reliable and we acquired several hot plates, two of which could be turned on at any given time. Frank, our cook, produced some great meals of rice, beans and bits of Spam or salami that were a welcome alternative to MRE’s. Two or three times, our local Haitian contacts brought us our evening meal. Beans, rice and chicken or blackened goat. I went for the goat. It was great. One morning, out of sixteen, we even had scrambled eggs for breakfast. Another day, Frank and Joe whipped up French toast as a treat for us, but I never got any.

Occasionally, someone would get their hands on some local fruit and it was very welcome. I got to try mangos, mandarins, sugar cane, the local bananas, coconuts, etc. The coconuts had a very sweet tasting milk and soft easily-edible pulp on the inside of the shell, almost like yogurt. Quite unlike the ones you buy in the supermarkets in the US.

It gets dark very early in Haiti. Sunset was between five thirty and six. The mosquitoes were out in force at dusk and at dawn, but not really a problem the rest of the time.

The first few days, I was working 18 to 20 hours a day, but that was not sustainable. I became ill and got back cramps and abdominal pains. I actually went to the hospital for treatment, but was so embarrassed at my lack of visible symptoms compared to the carnage all around me, that I left kind of sheepishly. I would probably have gone to Emergency had I had that condition at home, but I couldn’t bring myself to get treatment when I saw the other people in the line with open wounds, crushed or missing limbs, etc. A doctor did speak to me for a minute, but I left hurriedly, trying not to be noticed. It got better pretty fast.

I hope the above gives you a feel for our living conditions and the general environment. Now I will tell you about Haiti and the work we did there. We didn’t just help some people feel better, the VMs literally saved many, many lives. And the doctors and nurses and EMTs we brought there were kept busy in the hospitals from dawn to dusk.

The General Hospital of Port au Prince is the main hospital in all of Haiti. It survived the earthquake, but most of the staff of the hospital did not return to work after the quake. They either died, or had their houses collapse or lost family members and they were mainly trying to locate and preserve their families in the aftermath of the quake. Then, just before I arrived there was a big aftershock and many of the remaining staff refused to enter the building, fearing its collapse. When our VMs arrived, they found about a thousand patients outside on the lawns, parking lots, etc. There was no provision for after care; once you got your surgery, had your leg amputated, etc., you were placed on a cot out in the courtyard and left there. Patients who had survived the quake and then their surgeries, were now dying of thirst and starvation. VMs immediately set out to hydrate the patients, going from person to person with water. Other VMs, realizing no one was feeding these people, worked to organize the procurement of food and some way to cook it and then took on the task of distributing it to a thousand people once each day. Prior to that, they simply were not being fed. Beans and rice kept these people alive.

More VMs arrived to assist in the Critical Care unit of the hospital. The over-worked medical staff gratefully accepted their assistance. Conditions were terrible and three patients were lost in the first twenty minutes the VMs were there. Not a single additional patient died in the next five days. I lost touch with them after that so I don’t know what else happened there.

A one month old baby was found abandoned in a field. It was brought to the hospital and the doctors worked feverishly on saving it, but it was too far gone. Finally, they gave up and called for a body bag. There were lots of adult bags available nearby as many people were dying, but there wasn’t an available baby-sized bag so a nurse was sent to the supply tent to fetch one. A doctor turned to one of the VMs and said, “You know that Scientology stuff you guys do? Well, now would be a good time.” The VM started an assist on the baby and within several minutes had revived it. When the nurse returned with the body bag, the baby was nursing from a bottle. As far as I know, it made it.

A VM entered an area of the hospital where a man lay screaming. He asked the medical staff what was wrong with him and was told he had been screaming for 48 hours and would not stop. After a few minutes of an assist, the man stopped screaming and calmed down. After about twenty minutes, he cheered up and began singing praises in Creole. A translator told the VM that he didn’t want her to go and he was very grief-stricken. She told him that she had to go as it was night time but that she would return in the morning. He promised to stay alive till then, and he did.

One day, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division came to us and requested our help. They had been out, patrolling their area and had located different groups that needed assistance. They had vehicles and soldiers but no supplies to disburse. They had gone to the big US AID supply dump, but some bureaucrat there told them to get lost. He was busy protecting “his” stuff and wasn’t about to give it to the Army to hand out. They told us if we could provide the food, they would provide the transport and the security team for us. We had received several thousand MRE’s – I don’t know if they were the ones brought in by John Travolta, so we loaded several hundred in some Hummers and headed out. We drove through the ravaged city to a particularly ruined area. There, we parked and carried the food boxes about a hundred and fifty yards through narrow alleyways choked with rubble and displaced people. We found our destination, a small orphanage with about fifty or so children. We brought in the MRE’s and spent some time with the children, talking with them in French or taking pictures with them, etc. We brought more food than there were orphans, so we asked the director of the orphanage if we could distribute some of it to the hungry people in the alley. There is a right way to do this and a wrong way and we messed up by just going out into the crowd with boxes of MRE’s and handing them out. We almost caused a food riot. Fortunately, the soldiers were there to maintain order. Then we learned that the proper way to distribute food is to have it in a secure area and to have the recipients form a line. Only women, as the kids and men are impossible to control. That works. What we did was chaos, especially when the food ran out. You learn.

On our way back to our camp, we came across a motorcyclist that had been hit by a truck. The truck had kept going and so had the traffic. The young man on the ground was in the middle of the intersection but no one had stopped. We did. The troops set up a perimeter around the body and directed traffic. They kept the cameras away when the news vultures descended. Several police cars and ambulances drove by without stopping. No one seemed to care. Life in Haiti is cheap these days. I was very, very proud of our soldiers. One of them had already been to Iraq and Afghanistan five times and when they finish up in Haiti, they’ll get a short break in the States before heading back to Afghanistan. These are dedicated, professional soldiers who really know what they are doing. They took responsibility for the accident scene and eventually their own medical team arrived to take care of the body. An assist was out of the question – the boy’s brains were spattered all around his head in an arc.

On another day, several of us went out to assess a large refugee camp that we had heard of. It was located on the grounds of the American Club, possibly the world’s worst golf course. Very hilly – if you dropped a ball, it would roll 50 yards. Not a blade of grass on it. But home to about 15,000 desperate souls. Four sticks stuck into the ground, covered by a piece of tarp six feet square and you’ve got the typical home for a family. I didn’t see a single official, policeman or soldier, yet the camp was peaceful and secure. No sign of any source of water or any latrines or port-a-potties, yet the children seemed clean and there was no smell. I don’t know how to explain that. As I entered the camp, I was rushed by children and shortly, I was dragging a wake of eight children behind me, one on each finger! It was a wonderful feeling – the children have so much affection to give! They are much happier than they have any right to be – the people here are just very resilient and used to great hardship.

Each evening, after our meal, we would muster together to account for everyone and then share our wins and successes before going over announcements and plans for the next day. The Dutch Marines were very curious and amused with all our clapping and cheering and wanted to know what was going on. Then they would gather on the other side of the tape marking their camp boundary and they would cheer to mimic us. All in good fun.

At one of our meetings, a VM tearfully told us about a beautiful fifteen year old girl whose foot had become infected from some small cut or injury. In the States, it probably wouldn’t have required even a visit to the doctor. Some antiseptic or even some soap and clean water would have handled it. But there is no Neosporin available and no clean water either. This poor girl couldn’t keep the wound clean and needlessly had her foot amputated because we didn’t get to her in time. I saw so many people with missing limbs and bloody stumps – it is very common.

One of our VMs met a missionary that used to run three orphanages with a total of about two hundred childrens. All three structures had collapsed and about half the children were presumed dead. The rest had scattered into the streets of the city. The VM, a local Scientologist from Clearwater, was very moved by the missionary’s story and the plight of these children. She told him that if he could patrol the streets and collect these children, she would take care of them. Within hours, she had secured the donation of a large plot of land. Unfortunately, it was a scrap yard covered with rusty buses, trucks, etc. She somehow got hold of a piece of heavy equipment to move the scrap vehicles to one end of the lot – note that it is impossible to get heavy equipment in Haiti, especially following the quake). A team of men with machetes cleared away the waist high weeds and grass. A charity called ShelterBox donated tents. A well was dug and a cistern built. A large tent was erected as the mess hall and medical center. Within forty-eight hours, we had a functioning orphanage with fifty recovered children. Within seventy-two hours, eighty-five children were safely in hand, had received medical attention and were being fed and sheltered.

In the next few days, the number reached one hundred. They all received tetanus shots from VMs and a few days later a truck arrived from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic carrying school supplies and even school uniforms for the kids. The children are extremely affectionate and I was warned to be prepared for it when I visited. Still, I was stunned at the reception I got. Before I could get out of the car, I had two small children in my lap, hugging me. After several minutes, I was able to get out and walk towards the tent, but with new children constantly jumping up into my arms and hugging me. I helped put up several more tents while another VM, Ericka, gave the kids some group processing. They were all laughing and jumping up and down within a few minutes. It was great fun.

On my second to last day, I went out with a couple of Haitians to check out a local distributor of solar powered equipment. The forty-five minute trip took three and a half hours. We ran into two demonstrations. One was very peaceful, just women marching with placards. The other one had just been disrupted by the police and military and I saw people going by holding their hands to their bloody faces. Then, on the way back, we got into a massive traffic jam. Traffic on the main road was at a standstill for about an hour. Later, we found out that some well-intended idiot had decided to distribute some food close to the highway and it caused the jam-up and almost a food riot. Well, we weren’t the only ones with a learning curve!

When John Travolta’s plane arrived, we went out to the terminal to help unload it. We invited the 82nd Airborne to come along and meet John and they were only too happy to help us unload the plane and provide trucks for all the medical supplies and equipment John had brought with him. I could brag that I spent an hour on his plane, but I guess I should admit that it was spent in the cargo hold, passing out cargo. John and Kelly were just great. They personally worked for over two hours unloading the plane and passing the boxes to a line of VMs and soldiers that were loading the trucks. The paratroopers took turns unloading boxes, not because they were tired but because they want to share the honor of unloading Travolta’s plane with their buddies. John and Kelly spent a lot of time posing for pictures with the soldiers and this was very appreciated by them. The Canadian soldiers griped to me later that they had not been invited and one told me he would gladly have unloaded the plane himself.

One of our people made contact with a guy who flew down in his own private plane to see what assistance he could bring. We used him to fly VMs and medical supplies to remote villages that had yet to receive medical attention. Then another wildcat pilot came up and asked if he too could fly missions for us. That was the beginning of the VM Air Force.

One of our VMs is a young girl who told us that she had been too afraid of needles to get the recommended shots before she came to Haiti. However, when she was assisting a medical team the other day, a nurse showed her how to give a shot and then put a box of syringes in her hands and pushed her towards a line of people waiting for shots. She gave 350 tetanus shots that day.

Other VMs, without any prior training, have been dressing wounds, suturing open amputations, doing all kinds of gross stuff that they never anticipated having to do. The need is so great, you just do what you have to do. I have heard stories of people being given Advil prior to receiving an amputation – there was no other anesthetic! The patients at the General Hospital had no toilet facilities at all till the people we brought with us arranged it. But this took days and even then, the badly injured could not get up to get to a toilet even had there been one. So many of the patients had been lying in their own filth, with the original bloody bandages from their surgery, for several days before we got there. It was the VMs that cleaned them up and changed their bandages, after giving them water and some love and attention. Dirty, dangerous and thankless work, but it had to be done because there was no one else to do it. At night, the hospital would be deserted by all doctors and staff and the patients were on their own till dawn. One of our VMs is an EMT (emergency medical technician) and he went on the night shift, single-handedly keeping the patients alive till dawn.

A team of doctors from the University of Miami established a hospital on the airport grounds not far from our camp. Our VMs played an essential role in running this hospital. We had several VMs assisting in the surgery, prepping the surgical equipment and maintaining a sterile environment in a tent. You can see them on you-tube (NBC Today Show, Haiti and Scientology). They are doing a fantastic job.

In another area, a huge tent was filled six or seven feet high with medical supplies just stacked randomly. No one could find anything and nurses would come rushing from surgery seeking some device or medicine without any chance of finding it. A team of VMs organized this mess into rows of categorized items and now when someone comes in and needs a number of items, they just quickly go 1, 2, 3 and that’s that. The medical staff were very appreciative. Other VMs assisted as stretcher-bearers, carrying victims in to surgery from the helicopters as they were found by search & rescue teams.

One of our VMs flew in from Thailand. He had been very instrumental in the identification of victims during the tsunami and he was brought in as an expert on handling bodies in a disaster scenario. This scene was much different though, as identification was not an issue here. In Haiti, they just emptied truckloads of bodies into mass graves and no attempt was made to catalog or identify them. Life is cheap here.

A car load of VMs was driving down the main road outside the airport and noticed a group of people looking down into the concrete open sewer along the side of the road. They stopped to investigate and found a woman lying hurt in the bottom of the sewer. No one had attempted to help her. The VMs jumped down into the sewer, got her out and into their car and took her to hospital. If they hadn’t helped her, she might have died there. As I said, life is cheap here.

Haiti is full of contradictions that I can’t explain. People are starving, yet chickens and goats are roaming around the city unscathed. They belong to someone and they are left alone. At the same time, corruption is a way of life and even though the dust has hardly settled from the quake, the fix is in. Recently, the Univ of Miami doctors were given a lot of trouble when they tried to clear a shipment of donated medical supplies at the airport. It seems the local officials wanted to impose a tax on the incoming supplies before they would approve their import. Americans donated the supplies to help save Haitian lives and the corrupt folks at the airport wanted a piece of the action before they would let them in. At the same time, they wanted to impose a “Departure Tax” on the volunteer doctors who came down here on their own time to help the local people and were now wanting to return home to their families and practices.

The doctors raised a stink with the media and the next morning the President and First Lady were at the hospital seeking to smooth over the ruffled feathers. I took pictures of them shaking hands with some of my friends. It was all “just a misunderstanding”, apparently.

I came to the conclusion that there are three basic groups of locals. The vast bulk of the people are stoically persisting in basic survival, trying to keep their families together and alive. Then there are the opportunists, with their hands out, seeking to gain an advantage or to con you out of something. These are a minority, but they get a lot of notoriety. The third group is small but extremely valuable. These are the people who, in spite of their own desperate circumstances, are doing what they can to help their people. It brings tears to my eyes to remember Joe and Elie and Patrick and Wibens. These were some of our Haitian translators and drivers. Elie saw me pathetically attempting to do my laundry one night. He moved me out of the way, saying he was going to show me how to do it. Forty minutes later, he was still showing me, on my last piece of laundry. He never asked for a thing. I later found out that he was there helping us all day, in spite of the fact that his house had been destroyed and his family was living on the streets of Port au Prince. I loaded some fresh batteries into a lantern I had brought with me and I found him as he was leaving on a relief mission. I told him to give it to his wife, so that she could see at night. The next day, he brought me pictures of his wife and children. I almost cried. He said his wife was very grateful.

Yves, another Haitian who drove me around town a couple of times, told me his story. His wife had survived the big quake and on the 21st, she went into a pharmacy to buy medicine for her 4-month old baby. Then the second big aftershock came and the pharmacy building collapsed. Yves found his baby in the arms of some UN soldiers later, but his wife was never found. He spends part of his day helping us and then tours all the hospitals desperately hoping to find his wife.

There is plenty of tragedy to go around. The worst is yet to come. The rainy season will soon begin. The lack of sanitation and the lack of clean drinking water will likely result in a massive death toll from typhus, cholera and other diseases that result from the crowding of people in unsanitary conditions. More Haitians could die in the next month than died in the earthquakes.

Since returning, I have noticed that Haiti has dropped off the news cycle. Yet the real story is just now unfolding. Your help is needed. Give what you can. Go to Haiti if you can. But be careful who you donate to. Make sure it is getting into the hands of the actual people. When we do food drops, we don’t just drop off a pallet of food that can be resold on the black market. We get a request, then we go and check out the camp or orphanage or whatever and then we physically go and place an individual meal in each person’s hands.

Those of you who have supported the International Association of Scientologists can feel very good about the work we have performed with your financial assistance. The VMs have worked tirelessly and selflessly in difficult circumstances and you can be very proud of them. I am especially proud of the young people who are doing the bulk of the work in the field and in the hospitals. You can see pictures of them and the work they are doing at

I could go on and on with more stories, but you get the idea. I don’t recommend sending money to Haiti or the Haitian government as it will likely be ripped off. The professional charities are a mixed bag. Be wary of those with large paid staffs. The bureaucracy consumes a large part of your donation just with their overhead.

There are many, many small groups that are doing excellent work in Haiti. Get involved. Find out what your church or charity is doing and how they are going about it and help the group that seems to be doing it the way you’d like it to be done. There is an opportunity to create a new Haiti from the ashes of the old one. Be a part of it. You’ll feel good about yourself. I do.

Clearwater, Florida