When he woke up Saturday to news of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake hitting Haiti, Edwin Raymond immediately knew he wanted to help the relief effort— as he had done in the past. Raymond, a Brooklyn-based NYPD lieutenant, led a team of first responders to Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, a 2016 storm that killed more than 900 people.
“The most important thing is to get people from underneath the rubble,” said Raymond, who hopes to assemble more than a dozen responders for a relief trip. “I’m hoping we get a good team together and we can get there as soon as possible.”
As day turned to dusk Saturday, assessments of the damage and human toll from government officials trickled in at a pace much slower than images of the dead, which flooded social media channels. Haitian Americans like Raymond watched, reached out to relatives or began to plan relief efforts within their circles. Numerous emergency community action meetings took place, mostly virtually through Zoom, as leaders tried to mobilize an organized response.
So far, these efforts have been fragmented. Haitians in the diaspora, which number an estimated 1.1 million, have quickly made plans to help their counterparts in Haiti. Some plan to physically travel to Haiti, while others have endeavored to ship supplies to aid first responders.
On an Aug. 15 Zoom call organized by the Haitian American Alliance (HAA), leaders planned to compile a list of vetted organizations that handle donations, by the following day.
With various approaches and timetables proposed, diaspora leaders over the weekend also stressed the need for unity in response to the natural disaster, which has occurred at a time of political confusion and widespread gang violence.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry announced that police and army will escort rescue vehicles traveling from Port-au-Prince through regions, like the Martissant neighborhood, that have been controlled by gangs.
To avoid traveling by road, Raymond said he was working to procure a small aircraft to fly straight into the south. He anticipates people would need pain medicine, tourniquets and water. He planned to organize a GoFundMe page to raise money.
“There’s no government right now, there’s very little response so everything we can provide is crucial,” Raymond said.
Time may not be on the side of rescue teams traveling to Haiti. After 72 hours, it is “extremely rare for someone to be pulled out alive,” anthropologist Timothy Schwartz wrote in his 2017 book “The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle,” citing scientific analyses of previous earthquake relief efforts throughout the world.
Among the organizations calling for unity was the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network (NHAEON), which offered to coordinate response efforts between the U.S. and Haitian governments.
“NHAEON stands ready to assess, assist and unify relief efforts around the nation to help Haiti overcome this tragedy,” the group said in an Aug. 14 statement.
NHAEON representatives have met with the Haitian ambassador to the U.S. Bocchit Edmond as well as officials with USAID.
The group is encouraging people to contribute money via NHAEON’s website. These funds will support partners on the ground in Haiti, said Joseph Thelusca, a New Jersey-based pastor and advisor to NHAEON Chair Alix Desulme.
“In the past, we have had a non-coordinated effort,” said Thelusca. “We don’t want a repeat of 2010, where international organizations collected billions of dollars, and we didn’t see the results.”
Medical supplies, basic necessities needed
Others in the diaspora plan to support relief efforts through monetary donations and supplies, although these efforts do not appear to be centrally organized.
For the past year, a Haitian-led group of U.S. military veterans called the Military and Law Enforcement Veterans Association (MILEVA) has supported a 20-person medical team and clinic in Jeremie, training them in first response.
Since the earthquake struck, the situation in Jeremie has been “very difficult,” with the team working in a makeshift structure, said MILEVA chair Guerlinz Affriany.
“They’re helping others medically but the clinic [and] the pharmacy is destroyed,” said Affriany, who is based in Long Island.
On Aug. 15, leaders of MILEVA said they were setting up the process of collecting donations to fund triage tents and medical equipment. Other diaspora-led efforts to coordinate shipments of supplies and money were also underway.
Citing conversations with government officials, Queens-based retired physician Dr. Jean-Claude Compas said supplies, not manpower, are the biggest need. He stressed the urgency of the situation on the ground.
“Let’s get those surgical supplies right now,” Compas said on the Aug. 15 call organized by the HAA.
Dr. Henri Ford, dean of the University of Miami School of Medicine who spoke with Haiti’s health ministry about on-the-ground needs, also participated in the Aug. 15 call. He offered the university’s resources to help coordinate donations of supplies. The university has also created a webpage to receive monetary donations for medical supplies.
The relief effort is still in the rescue phase, Ford said, and people need basic necessities and shelter. In addition, he said, overwhelmed hospitals in cities like Les Cayes need surgical and orthopedic supplies to treat broken bones.
“They need food, fuel, water — so that’s one aspect and it’s immediate and it’s pressing,” said Ford, who is coordinating relief efforts with Haiti’s Ministry of Health. “They need tents, they need places to sleep.”
Multiple locations in Brooklyn are available to drop off supplies, including the Flatbush offices of Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn and city Council Member Farah Louis. Leaders on the call agreed to create a complete list of drop-off locations and coordinate shipment through the University of Miami.
Call for coordinated diaspora response
Thelusca said he is aware of the university’s efforts to collect supplies. But NHAEON is not coordinating directly with University of Miami, he said.
“We want every institution, public or private, to collaborate with NHAEON,” said Thelusca, in a phone interview. “We want a strong, well-coordinated effort.”
The lack of coordination that plagued the relief effort in 2010 was something that diaspora leaders resolved to avoid during the HAA conference call.
“One of the many disappointing thighs I saw [in 2010] is white people and people outside of Haiti calling the shots and telling us how to do things, and a tremendous lack of coordination that didn’t help anyone,” said Ernest Barthelemy, a New York-based neurosurgeon.
Since Saturday, social media feeds have been abuzz with posts from Haitians and their allies, suggesting that donors avoid international NGOs like the Red Cross.
Working in coordination with HAA, psychologist Judite Blanc is spearheading the effort to create a list of trusted organizations with grassroots connections in Haiti. Blanc also called for unity in the earthquake relief effort.
“What people need right now is solidarity,” Blanc said in an interview with The Haitian Times. “We want leaders who lead with compassion, we want activists who are fighting not only with anger, but with love.”