Craig Williams, Strategic Partners Manager and Emergency Response Coordinator for Water Mission, traveled to Haiti to help lead the post-Hurricane Matthew disaster response action plan. During his 2.5 weeks working in the devastated region, he took note of the most memorable, heart-wrenching, and triumphant moments that took place on his trip.
When I arrived in Haiti, the information was like rapid fire — there was more unfolding than we could keep track of in our heads. Information about assessments and pleas for help dotted all across the Hurricane Matthew disaster zone in more than 30 locations. We were flooded with reports coming from various sources, and it was time to map our way out of the chaos. The conference room was our “war room” to visualize where our partners and communities were requesting support. The wall became our emergency overview from where we could pull all information regarding who, what, where and when so team deployment could be scheduled. The overview also allowed us to chart the equipment supply chain and staff rotation in and out of the disaster zone. Based on the visual mapping sessions, we planned and launched large-scale deployments of safe water treatment systems and supplemental equipment into the field. The plan for Haiti was set in motion.
Then, the tough work began.
The grueling week started when we coordinated and delivered two separate shipments into devastated regions including Jérémie in the north and Anse-d’Hainault in the far west. Systems, equipment and teams were transported using two helicopters and a ground convoy of two trucks and three vans. Simultaneously, we had a team moving between Les Cayes on the southern shore heading west up to Les Anglais. The northern area had many back-breaking treacherous roads that made the drive fatiguing and dangerous at the same time. With 15 to 20-hour work days and no real certainty of where we would sleep that night, exhaustion was very real. But the spirit of the team never faltered.
We stopped in Jérémie and spent the night at a humble guest house where six of us slept in a single room. We arose at 5 A.M., dropped the systems off in Jérémie, and headed west to Dame-Marie with a brief stop in Marfranc to discuss a future project with local contacts. Unfortunately, our 10-ton truck got stuck in the mud outside Dame-Marie on a dirt track where we were heading to drop systems off. With extraordinary effort and some community engagement, our team manually offloaded approximately four tons of equipment, dug and pushed the truck out multiple times, and carried the equipment down the road. Once we were on secure ground, we reloaded it and got back on the road following six hours of unexpected labor. Obviously our minds and bodies were fatigued. We finally got into town around 8:30 P.M. only to find there was no accommodation available.
With ravaged homes in Dame-Marie, we considered sleeping in and on our vehicles when our contact with the Haitian government’s Ministry of Public Works offered to find a place for us to sleep. He returned about an hour later with a solution. The small blue house with a plastic sheet serving as a make-shift roof was good enough for us to rest. It had no electricity or running water, and the weary owners did not speak English. The matron kindly cooked some spaghetti for us, and they both gave up their beds for the night. We were keenly aware that the contaminated water that they fetched for cooking and our showers was from the same open source where we would be placing our treatment systems the next day. The bacterial count (too numerous to count) was on all of our minds. But their genuine hospitality was such that you could not step away.
“At the end of yet another 20-hour day, these people who had nothing reached out and gave us what they had to give as their way of saying thank you. It will stay with me forever. Sadly, I may never know their names or be able to return to smile and say merci.”
Craig Williams, emergency response coordinator at Water Mission
The next morning started at 5:30 a.m. when we staged the remaining equipment in Dame-Marie. Learning that the seaside road was largely washed away, once again we offloaded the large truck to place systems on our smaller truck in order to get it to Bariadel and Anse-d’Hainault, a few hours south of Dame-Marie. In Anse-d’Hainault, we finally caught up with the team that flew by helicopter to the region. Their schedule perfectly aligned with our arrival with the remaining equipment needed for the two installations. After lending a hand for a few hours, our team headed back to Dame-Marie to stage the last of the two systems there. Before the sweat had time to dry, a few of us departed for Jérémie while the installation teams stayed behind to finish their work. Our treacherous drive over the mountain pass was done at night so we moved slowly and carefully. Thankfully, this trip was trouble-free, and the cold shower and hotel mattress were welcomed blessings.
On Friday morning, we started at 6:00 a.m. We looked at two sites designated for installation in Jérémie while the original team had almost completed our first installation over the past two days. With all equipment now staged and ready for installation, it was time for me to leave the field and head back to Port-au-Prince. The large truck was needed to prepare for the next shipment of systems to be sent to the south, so I said goodbye to the team and rode back with my colleague, Moliere.
By the end of the week through strong logistics, good coordination, and an enormous amount of back-breaking sweat, we had nine systems newly installed in the Hurricane Matthew disaster zone. This great achievement is due to the incredibly capable and professional team we have in the Haiti country program and the donors and partners who step up to support us every time, allowing us to make an incredible difference. The team’s endurance and stamina to do the heavy work day in and day out never faulted. They always had the time and patience to answer questions and engage the people who were needed to make sure our response would still be there well into the future.
Moliere and I left Jérémie to drive back to Port-au-Prince in the 10-ton freight liner, a drive that should have taken about eight hours. Bouncing along the rough and rocky mountain roads, we passed one devastated village after the next.
At one point this week, I was asked what was different about this emergency from the others I have been to. I did not know how to answer it and that bothered me. It was different, but how exactly?
Tired, I sat there in a bit of daze and started to map this question in my head (as I do with most things). I went to Haiti as one of many for the Hurricane Matthew response – mass destruction of the ugliest kind. But, it has an ugly twist because this disaster is compounded by the cholera epidemic which has been gripping this country since after the 2010 earthquake. These are two emergencies coupled together in this small country, where hungry people are too scared to take food that could possibly be contaminated, yet everything they own has been taken from them.
For example, in Jérémie, we had to fight to get into line to refuel our vehicles. While we waited, a very skinny boy who appeared to be around 12 years old came to the car window asking for food. We did not have any substantial food but found a few travel snacks including a mega pack of Oreos. We grabbed a handful and offered them to him, but he refused to take or eat them. He said, “No, they are dirty and will have cholera!” We talked to him a bit more and realized that because it did not come out of a sealed bag, he could not be certain. So as hungry as he was, he refused them and couldn’t be persuaded to trust us. It was such a powerful signal of the tragic depths of fear that cholera had over this boy, his family, community, and country.
A few hours into our drive, we started winding down the mountains into Les Cayes. We saw the storm drains filling fast and rivers forming alongside the roads even though it was only lightly raining. When we got just outside of Les Cayes, we saw the flooded river had completely hidden the road from view and any of the landscape for several kilometers. It was early afternoon and people were struggling to get home, wading through waist-deep water. After assessing the situation, we thought we were clear, but there were more dangerous flooding conditions like it. The entire coastal stretch between Les Cayes and Boint Mederud had swollen rivers and flooded flat lands. Dirt roads connecting to the main road became rivers sweeping in front of us. Small and large vehicles were getting stuck if they took a bad line across the current or ran into rubble that was washed across the road. One location stood out more than others, because it was particularly complicated and needed careful navigation. With three cars stuck in the middle, it was evident that if we did not clear the path we would not get through. So like the other flood areas before, we got out of the truck and navigated the rushing water by foot. Knee deep in flood water, we pushed and guided six cars through to the other side so we could make a clear pathway for the truck to get through.
An hour later, we were back on the road that was only visible because of the waterfall cascading off its edges. Looking left and right out the windows, the extent of the flooding became apparent. The road was raised and everything alongside was under water. You could see families standing knee deep in their houses, schools and churches with water halfway up the door frames, and most of these same buildings had already lost their roofs from Matthew.
What we saw in front of us for those five treacherous hours was a third emergency unfolding: destroyed farm lands and food supply, the spread of cholera and other diseases, lost homes and livelihoods, extended school closures. These conditions bring desperation and with desperation comes intolerance and indifference — a difficult mindset from which to rebuild any sense of normalcy. It was this perspective that made me realize how this emergency was different.
These poor people have been beaten down too many times, and the bit they had recovered since the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Sandy is now gone. They need help now more than ever.
Our water solution is not a total fix, but it is one key element. It reduces disease, brings kids back to school. It gives a little piece of hope; from this destruction a silver lining emerges that Water Mission has the ability to build it back better than before. Please support, help us be a vehicle of change and bring some hope.
When I returned to the Port-au-Prince office, I was so impressed with the country program team, under the leadership of Julio Paula (Haiti Country Program Director), Elsa Paula (Haiti Finance and Administration Director), and David Inman (Latin America and Caribbean Programs Director). They masterfully created some graphic overviews on our conference room wall that represented the coordinated efforts with Haiti’s national water ministry, DINEPA, and UNICEF. The planning work positioned Water Mission as a valuable partner to the Haitian government and as an integral problem solver in the overall national disaster response. As I took a step back, it was impressive to see all of those communities we had engaged, assessed, and helped to move from their original “high alert” orange Post-It note position to the completed zone, followed by the flow of new orange notes that represented communities still in desperate need of safe water. What an incredible logistical and project management flow of support to those most in need.
With God at the forefront of all that they do, Water Mission Haiti is a well-oiled machine that operates like a team should. Through great leadership, every single person does what is needed when it is needed. This is not something you see often. It is a true privilege to be a part of this meaningful work.
You can be a part of the impactful work of Water Mission Haiti. Learn more about our Hurricane Matthew response and give today. GIVE TO HURRICANE MATTHEW