Organizing a food distribution

Haiti, January 20, 2010

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I’m exhausted tonight – but triumphant! After running around all day between the general hospital and the UN compound, we’ve succeeded in organizing a distribution of food to the hospital’s patients and their families Wednesday morning.

Our role was to connect supply to demand, and under ordinary circumstances, arranging this would be relatively straightforward. Under conditions of limited transportation and unreliable cell phones, however, this was a daylong process. While my colleague staked out the UN compound to identify sources of food, I shadowed an employee of our partner organization Partners in Health, asking her about the needs of their clinics as she drove to their warehouse to pick up medical supplies and rushed into the hospital with boxes of alcohol and bandages.

We met with a doctor at the hospital to discuss logistics. How could we ensure that each patient received some food? How could we make sure some people didn’t collect rations twice, taking food meant for other people? Where could we distribute the food securely, without being mobbed or having it stolen by hungry people who have become aggressive with desperation? Late in the afternoon, we finally received confirmation that the UN’s World Food Program would be able to transport 2.5 metric tons of high energy biscuits to the general hospital tomorrow afternoon. We were ecstatic. Tomorrow we’ll distribute food to 5,000 people.

I found out that someone who went to my graduate school was killed in the earthquake. She graduated some 10 years before me, and I never knew her, but I knew of her. And I feel a kinship with her. She shared my love of travel, my intellectual interests, my desire to leave a mark of goodness on the world, my job. Knowing that she was killed breaks the illusion of “It can’t happen to me.”

Last night, I lay on the floor in my tent and thought about her, wondering what it would have been like to be her. I think about that every time I drive past a building that has collapsed like a house of cards, the walls blown out, the floors stacked right on top of each other like a layer cake. What would it have been like to be the person inside that house? What would it have been like to see my house crumble around me? I think about that when I drive past buildings that look like they have been cut in half, leaving half of the building still standing, pictures on the wall and chairs arranged around a table, while the other half lies crumbled on the ground. What would it have been like to watch half of the building falling away, people and furniture disappearing in a cloud of dust, the interior suddenly open to the sky?

What would it have been like? I can’t imagine it, but I can’t stop trying.