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Local volunteer battles ‘emotional challenge’ after Haiti devastation

Haiti, February 4, 2010

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Kevin Harden

The Beaverton Valley Times
February, 2010

Cassandra Nelson helped provide aid in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince

Cassandra Nelson moved through devastated Port-au-Prince for nearly three weeks with a steely resolve to bring food, water and medical aid to people whose lives were shattered by the massive Jan. 12 earthquake.

It wasn’t until she returned to her parents’ Progress-area home Monday that the emotional wave washed over her. The devastated city was the worst she had seen, and the 37-year-old Mercy Corps first responder has seen a lot of destruction in the past decade, including war-torn Afghanistan, bombed-damaged Iraq and tsunami-ravaged Sumatra.

“Quite frankly, I didn’t cry a tear when I was there,” Nelson said Tuesday at Mercy Corps’ Portland headquarters. “But I cried my eyes out all day yesterday.

“All of a sudden, you start to remember everything. It’s afterwards when it becomes much more emotionally challenging.”

Nelson was one of Mercy Corps’ staff who landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, three days after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced thousands more. All that remained of the city of nearly 3 million was pile upon pile of rubble and people trying to survive without shelter, food, water or medical help.

“Literally everything is destroyed,” Nelson said. “Displacement of the people is so apparent. Everywhere you look, in every nook and cranny, every pile of rubble, there seemed to be people trying to survive. If there was an open patch of grass, people were seeking refuge, because they had nowhere to go. That’s just something I hadn’t seen.”

Chaos at the beginning

Nelson arrived in Port-au-Prince Jan. 15 and worked with Mercy Corps’ Richard Jacquot, who led the Portland aid group’s emergency response team, and Bill Holbrook, Mercy Corps’ country director. She was among two dozen Mercy Corps staff who spent most of their time in Port-au-Prince and traveling around the countryside working with the United Nations non-governmental organizations to distribute aid and help set up camps for people whose homes were destroyed in the earthquake.

The first few days after the disaster were chaotic, Nelson said, but in the past week better planning and organization helped aid groups ease much of the nation’s suffering.

“Just arriving on the scene and getting ourselves organized to deliver aid was the hardest challenge that we’ve seen as an organization,” Nelson said. “You always felt like you were behind those first few days, no matter what you did.”

Mercy Corps focused on providing water and food to Port-au-Prince’s main hospital, Nelson said, where families were caring for injured people without basic necessities. In fact, the hospital’s parking lot was filled with injured people — “stretcher after stretcher after stretcher, and there were doctors who were treating patients out in the middle of the lot,” she said.

Since then, the food distribution has improved, providing help to just about every corner of the city, Nelson said.

A long-term vision

In the past week, Mercy Corps turned its attention from direct aid to helping Haitian businesses and employees get back on their feet by putting a little cash in their pockets, she said.

The organization has gathered about $9.8 million in donations for Haiti — about 30 percent of the money coming from the Portland area — and is focusing much of its new efforts and money on helping to create jobs and boost small businesses.

“Mercy Corps is really trying to work to transition people away from handouts as quickly as possible,” she said. “Certainly we are aware that most of the people are going to continue to need food assistance and other assistance, but in a lot of the cases we believe that if we can get money into people’s pockets, it’s going to be a much better situation.”

About 7,000 people will earn between $3 and $5 a day through Mercy Corps’ program for work such as cleaning debris, clearing storm drains in time for the rainy season (which is right around the corner) and helping maintain long-term camps for the thousands of people displaced by the quake.

Mercy Corps staff and volunteers are also heading into the Haitian countryside to help villages damaged by the quake that have seen an influx of returning residents who fled ravaged Port-au-Prince slums. In the past three weeks, some villages have seen their populations surge by 10 percent overnight when an estimated 250,000 people streamed out of the city for their home villages, straining resources in areas that had not yet been receiving much help.

“We’re looking at populations that are already barely surviving,” Nelson said. In some areas, grocery stores and outposts were stripped bare of their food and goods, “the stores have just been cleaned out,” she added.

With the new effort, Mercy Corps is one of the first aid groups to venture into Haiti’s countryside, Nelson said. The group hopes to provide long-term job training and other help to keep people from returning to the Port-au-Prince shantytowns, she said.

That program has just started, but it could eventually lead to work with local vocational schools and similar programs to provide “sustainable solutions” for people instead of relying on long-term international aid, Nelson said.

“It’s a longer-term vision with a real eye to how we can help transform Haiti and build it back in a much more stable way,” she said.