Get ready for the return, over the next days and weeks, of volunteers who dropped everything to help in the aftermath of last month's earthquake in Haiti. They will come back armed with snapshots and unforgettable images of death and destruction.
But Cassandra Nelson, Portland-based Mercy Corps' director of multimedia projects, came back this week after 16 days on the devastated island with even more: a vision of improving conditions.
Nelson, a 37-year-old native of Beaverton, has an international reputation as a veteran of disasters from Afghanistan to Indonesia. She was among the initial wave of Mercy Corps responders after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and to quakes in Iran and Pakistan, in 2003 and 2005. But the Jan. 12 earthquake centered in Haiti's capital opened a window on unprecedented levels of ruin.
"When I reached Port-au-Prince, it was by far the worst devastation that I've ever seen," Nelson said Tuesday in Portland. "Literally everything is destroyed."
She arrived in one of the first Black Hawk helicopters to land in Port-au-Prince after the 7.0 quake. Phones and power lines were out, mothers wailed for trapped children, neighbors climbed past the bodies of the dead searching for survivors. And already-limited resources were quickly exhausted.
At makeshift open-air hospitals, doctors put children in traction without painkillers and treated wounds without basic medical supplies -- sights Nelson said she won't soon forget.
"The only thing I can compare it to is that scene in 'Gone With the Wind' at the end of the Civil War: people on stretchers as far as the eye can see," she said. "If you were a millionaire, you still didn't have anything to eat."
Along with food, fuel and water were the immediate, frustrating priorities after the quake, which collapsed the United Nation's peacekeeping mission headquarters and killed staff members in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. OCHA's primary duty: to coordinate international aid response to disasters.
"It was definitely chaos at the beginning," she said. "The first few days, the coordination was not there. They were literally digging their staff out of their compound," Nelson said.
But over the course of two weeks, Nelson said she saw "incremental improvements."
"And this week has been, I would say, a massive leap forward."
Aid efforts have shifted from immediate emergency reaction to longer-term goals, including preparing secure tent cities for the coming rainy season and helping residents of the overcrowded capital return to ancestral villages.
Though the exodus relieves some of the strain on Port-au-Prince, Nelson explained, it carries with it the problems of too little resources.
"No food there, and no jobs."
But help continues to pour in. For example, as of Tuesday, Mercy Corps has collected $9.8 million for its Haiti Fund, about 30 percent from the Portland area, said spokeswoman Caitlin Carlson.
The money has helped target key five projects:
- Sending engineers into shantytowns and villages to help build latrines and decontaminate water.
- Helping aid workers evaluate 500 spontaneously created camps to identify which are suitable for longer-term use.
- Establishing trauma support for children affected by the quake, aftershocks and the aftermath.
- Launching a cash-for-work program to employ 7,000 people at clearing debris from fallen buildings and clearing street drains before the rainy season begins. Workers would make between $3 and $5 per day, a good wage in a country where the average annual income amounts to little more than $1 per day.
- Supplying 15 tons of rice, chickpeas and oil for the Haitian hospital system, to feed patients and their families.
Nelson, meanwhile, admits she is still shaken by what she saw -- and about the need that remains.
It is, she allowed, "emotionally taxing work."
"Frankly, I didn't cry a tear while I was out there, but when I got home, I cried my eyes out."