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Aid organizations with ties to Haiti step up their efforts

Haiti, January 20, 2010

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Jamie Smith Hopkins

The Baltimore Sun
January, 2010

Previous work on the island means Marylanders, the groups they're part of aren't starting from scratch.

As soon as the earthquake rocked Haiti, Bill Holbrook's telephone started ringing off the hook. He has friends there. In-laws there. And - with a resume that includes more than five years years working in the country - a background that made humanitarian organizations interested in securing his services there.

The Burtonsville resident, who just a week ago was consulting from Washington on efforts in the Middle East, is now the newly hired Haiti director for relief organization Mercy Corps. He's deep into the frenetic work of coordinating the response from a staff that is in Haiti, en route and all over the world. On Monday, he was also making last-minute preparations - such as getting two rounds of immunizations - so he could return to the ravaged country where he has so many ties.

But getting there is no simple matter.

Jhpiego, a Baltimore-based health organization affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University, intended to send three people to the neighboring Dominican Republic on Monday until it became clear that they would have to wait there for several days before they could fly on to Haiti. People from all over the world are headed for Port-au-Prince, and with just one small runway at its airport, they can't get in all at once, said Melody McCoy, a spokeswoman for Jhpiego.

"It's a very fluid situation," she said. "They're constantly reprioritizing what they can get in at any minute, so we've just been moved back to later in the week."

So instead of people, the group put medical supplies and other necessities on a Monday-morning flight from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The supplies can be used immediately: Jhpiego, which focuses on the health of women and children, has had staff in the country for years.

Volunteers who flew in earlier have been put right to work. A Greater Baltimore Medical Center physician and her dentist husband left Friday with a group of medical personnel and more than 50 boxes of supplies; the next day, they were caring for patients.

Despite spotty communications, Carol and Tom Ritter are managing to blog about the experience. At carolandtominhaiti.com, they've shared reports of people dying while waiting in line for medical assistance, of amputations required, of the need for anesthesia and antibiotics. But it's not entirely grim: Carol Ritter, an obstetrician, delivered a healthy baby over the weekend.

"They named her Carol!" she wrote Sunday. "Life is bittersweet."

Holbrook, the Mercy Corps staffer, is hoping he'll be on his way to the country this afternoon or Wednesday morning. By mid-afternoon Monday, he was still trying to figure out whether he could best get in by commercial flight or by hitching a ride with an airlift.

He's anxious to be on site to oversee relief efforts, including hiring Haitians so people can be put back to work clearing debris and repairing infrastructure. For him, the mission is deeply personal. His wife, Dominique, is Haitian, and they're still trying to account for everyone in the family. He knows that some friends have died.

"It adds a sense of urgency," Holbrook said. "I want to get back as soon as I possibly can."