Baltimore groups await word, prepare to help Haiti

As Haiti begins the process of rescue and recovery from Tuesday's devastating earthquake, Baltimore residents and relief agencies await word from loved ones and colleagues — and are starting to mobilize aid.

The quake has left officials of IMA World Health, a Carroll County-based coalition of relief groups, praying for the safety of three senior staff members who were visiting Haiti.

IMA, which has maintained an office in the Port au Prince area since 2000, has not heard from newly installed president Richard Santos and two other senior staffers — Ann Varghese, program officer, of Baltimore, and Dr. Sarla Chand of New Jersey — who were in Haiti for meetings with hospital and education officials. They had just finished at meeting at the Hotel Montana minutes before the quake, said Douglas Bright, IMA's vice president for institutional advancement.

"We are all worried about our colleagues and know that they are in the midst of a truly traumatic situation," Bright said. "We are not releasing any information on their families here. In fact, we are acting as a barrier and giving them all the support we can given the uncertainty. They are as stressed as we are and have been unable to reach their loved ones through numerous channels."

Bright said that he had received information about 4 a.m. from a third party, a person who had been at the same meeting as the IMA staffers, that all those in the meeting had gotten out of the hotel. But, he said he has heard nothing since and is now unsure of the accuracy of that message.

IMA was preparing hundreds of its signature medicine boxes for shipment to Haiti. Each contains about 70 pounds of first-aid supplies, vitamins and prescription medicines, including pain relievers and antibiotic creams and bandages.

IMA, made up of a dozen faith-based relief and development organizations, is headquartered in New Windsor.

Catholics reach out

Meanwhile, Catholic Relief Services was dispatching personnel from around the world to Haiti and committing an initial $5 million for emergency relief.

"That number will go up," spokesman John Rivera said Wednesday morning. Also in its initial response, the Baltimore-based organization was planning to distribute emergency supplies for 1,000 families warehoused in Haiti and import supplies for 500 more families from the Dominican Republic.

CRS maintains a staff of about 300 in Haiti, including 120 in Port-au-Prince. Rivera said the CRS office there survived the earthquake, but a building across the street collapsed. He said staff at the Port-au-Prince office remained there through the night, but slept outside for fear of damage from aftershocks.

Rivera said Wednesday morning that all international staff had been located. CRS officials were still trying to account for all of the organization's Haitian employees, who form the majority of its workforce.

In a message to CRS headquarters Wednesday morning, country director Karel Zelenka described the damage as "incredible."

"People have been screaming and praying all over the place throughout the night," Zelenka wrote. "It is a disaster of the century, we should be prepared for thousands and thousands of dead and injured."

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, spiritual leader of the area's half million Catholics, is asking parishes to take up a special collection this weekend for Haiti. In a letter Wednesday, O'Brien also asked for prayers for the suffering and the dead, including Archbishop Serge Milot of Port-au-Prince.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore helps to fund schools and feed children in its sister diocese of Gonaïves, 75 miles north of Port-au-Prince. Dr. Rodrigue Mortel, who manages the Haiti Outreach Project for the archdiocese, spoke with his sister in the port town of Saint-Marc, midway between Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves, shortly after the earthquake.

"I could hear people screaming," said Mortel, director of the archdiocese's missions office. "Everybody was in the street. There was panic."

Mortel said the students at the three schools the archdiocese supports in Gonaïves and Saint-Marc were safe. A surgeon, he was planning to join a Catholic Relief Services team headed to the island.

"Haiti is not equipped to handle any disaster," Mortel said. "It is extremely poor economically. There is no organized disaster relief in the country."

Difficult recovery ahead

Dr. Christina Catlett knows first-hand the hardships people in Haiti face on a daily basis, having co-led three medical missions to the impoverished nation. When asked to sum up what Haiti must be enduring following Tuesday's devastating earthquake, the Johns Hopkins emergency physician struggled to fight back tears.

"Every time I come out from a mission in Haiti I cry for a week," she said. "It is a country with such significant economic issues and health issues that it doesn't seem fair to have this superimposed disaster on top of it."

Catlett is the founder and director of the Johns Hopkins Go Team, a group of Hopkins medical experts who can respond quickly to major catastrophes throughout the United States. She has also helped lead teams of doctors and other medical experts on the ground in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ivan.

In Haiti, Catlett co-led missions in the central plateau for Project Medishare, which helps the country develop and improve public health services. She worked in regions devoid of hospitals with roads that often are not passable during the rainy season.

She said she worries that the relief and support from outside sources may not last as long as needed, which she says could be years.

"It's going to take an immense amount of support from the U.S. to get through the huge disaster phase and then it will take long-term disaster recovery," she said.

She said that the most immediate needs are those items for many Haitians present day-to-day challenges to acquire — water and food. "Even the places that did have running water probably don't now because the country doesn't have the pipes and sewage system that would withstand a 7.0 earthquake," she said.

Then there are medical needs. "You'll get crush injuries from the quake itself and a lot of wounds," she said. "Medical supplies are extremely scarce, so you're not going to have wounds closed in a timely fashion and broken bones not set properly, head trauma.

"Not to mention the psychological trauma," Catlett added. "This is something that's going to be devastating from months to years."

USNS Comfort

The hospital ship USNS Comfort has been activated for possible humanitarian support operations in Haiti, U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command spokeswoman Laura Seal said.

"Comfort is preparing to get underway," Seal said, "and the ship is kept in reduced operation status, which means it could be ready to get underway in five days."

National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians, Inc.

Dr. Joseph Baptiste was scheduled to travel to his homeland in Haiti on Monday but had to cancel the humanitarian trip at the last minute for personal reasons.

"All I can say is lucky me," said the 57-year-old Fulton resident and dentist, who still plans to head home, but this time with about 300 volunteers — including doctors, construction workers and engineers — to help the country rebound.

Baptiste is chairman of the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians, Inc. He founded the non-profit, social-policy organization in 1991 in response to the refugee crisis resulting from political unrest in Haiti.

"We are working in collaboration with other professional organizations that are here ... and we already have a team in Haiti that is waiting for us to come in and organize on the ground," said Baptiste, who has lived in the United States for 25 years.

He said that the group hasn't finalized plans for going, adding, "The airport had been closed but I understand it has just opened as we speak."

Baptiste, who is from Port Au Prince, said he is receiving continuous e-mails and phone messages about the situation. A friend said his father passed away under the rubble. Someone else contacted him to say that the casualties could reach 100,000.

"I know a lot of personal friends who have died from this," said Baptiste.

"My big problem is that I cannot reach my brother. I know that he's called our mother here to say he was OK. But I did not call to him personally and I need to reach him so we can organize the disaster preparedness in Haiti. It hits home really close."

Baptiste said that NOAH has sent a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley requesting a team from Shock Trauma there. They are making appeals for EMT and firefighters from Montgomery County to send teams as well. The organization is coordinating relief efforts in Florida, New York, Chicago and Boston.

He said the contingent of those headed down includes engineers skilled in re-enforcing concrete and steel buildings as well as pediatric surgeons.

"All of them are Haitians, and all of them know what to do when they get there," said Baptiste.

Hopkins students OK

Four Johns Hopkins public health students studying in Haiti called school officials to say that they were fine and in areas unaffected by the earthquake.

Tim Parsons, director of public affairs for the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that the students are in Haiti for a three-week stint getting field experience for their master's degrees in public health. He said two of the students called Tuesday night from Anse Rouge and two called Wednesday from Ponte Sond. Both venues are north of Port Au Prince, where the earthquake struck.