From the field: How we're reaching hard-hit families after Hurricane Matthew

Haiti, October 12, 2016

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  • Our team is on the ground rushing emergency shelter supplies to families in the hard-hit southern peninsula of Haiti. All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

A message popped up on my phone. “Going by foot from here” it said, and attached was a photo in which a bridge had been broken apart and washed away by the swollen river, next to an overturned car.

The text was from Jasmine Avgerakis, a humanitarian response manager traveling with Mercy Corps’ emergency response team to do assessments in the southern peninsula of Haiti. The south was particularly hard hit, and getting to severely impacted parts of the country is difficult due to flooding, washed out roads and impassable bridges like this one.

When a disaster strikes, you can never get help to people fast enough. Here in Haiti just after Hurricane Matthew, I’m feeling particularly impatient. The United Nations now estimates that the hurricane impacted 2.1 million people in Haiti, including 750,000 people who are in “severe need” of humanitarian assistance.

Many places in the hard-hit south are still inaccessible, with flooded and washed out roads preventing trucks from getting through.

Mercy Corps team members are going as far as they can in 4-wheel drive vehicles, then crossing river beds and climbing hills on foot until they can get a ride on the other side. People are working to clear the roads, but there are still so many people we can’t reach.

On Saturday Mercy Corps did its first distribution after Matthew hit, in a town called Fond-des-Negres. We waited for the delivery truck most of the day, and when it arrived we unloaded the supplies and re-loaded them into our truck to take to the distribution site.

Our team had worked with local officials to establish an accurate list of the most affected people, and to ensure they knew the time and location of the distribution — a school, out for the week due to the hurricane.

When we pulled up to the school, there was already a crowd waiting.

We called names and brought small groups into the school one at a time, one person per family. In these distributions, we take down contact information and ask some questions of each person: How many people are in your family? Are there children under 5? Are any women pregnant or nursing children?

We enter people’s information on specially-equipped tablets so it can all be uploaded to Mercy Corps’ databases. This will help us determine where and what kind of additional aid is most needed. Then we pass out the kits.

The kits are simple but very needed: tarps, sheets, blankets, mosquito nets and solar panels with a lantern and phone charger.

I spoke to one woman, Clermy, who had lost her home and everything she owned in the hurricane. Instinctively, she had grabbed her family’s essential documents and fled her home before it was swept away.

“All I have left is my birth certificate,” she told me. Some people didn’t even have that.

The afternoon quickly gave way to evening, and as the sun was setting there was still a line. The team conferred — we didn’t want to send people away, but the school had no electricity. In the end, we finished the distribution by flashlight and the glow of mobile phone screens.

We went back to the field office tired, but happy, and ready to start it all over again the next day.

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