Sunday, June 7, 2015

Haiti on my Mind, by volunteer Winnie Romeril

A lot of people ask when am I headed out to the next crisis. The thing about responding to international emergencies is that no timeline exists. 

I recently returned from six months working on the Ebola response. Often in Sierra Leone, my mind turned to Haiti. Freetown reminded me of Port au Prince. Both are port cities with pastel-colored houses piled up mountainsides rising quickly from the sea. In both places, the people are mostly young--around 60 percent under 25 years old--figuring out how to get by in the face of unbelievably high unemployment. Both countries were getting back on track after emerging from a history filled with conflict, only to suffer tragedy on an epic scale.

The American Red Cross sent a team of us to Haiti immediately following the 2010 earthquake to
Winnie Romeril in Haiti
give help where it was needed most. We supported our permanent in-country staff who had worked for years with Haitian Red Cross volunteers in disaster preparedness, public first aid training and HIV/AIDS programs. They narrowly escaped when their Red Cross offices shook violently for less than a minute and blew out the wall where they exited with their lives.

Five and a half years later, Haiti continues to emerge from the dust and rubble of that day. In the Red Cross, we know that recovery from catastrophic disasters takes many years. We have only to look at communities on our own Gulf Coast still searching for normal 11 years on from Katrina. Yet we also have the privilege of accompanying survivors of disasters as they walk their individual roads to recovery. Every recovery is unique and we tailor our support based on lessons from previous experience.

One key change in our initial response to the Haiti earthquake was based on lessons from the Indian Ocean tsunami. We asked tsunami survivors how we could improve aid to people for the next disaster. One thing they said was, in essence, “Thank you for the help, but this doesn't feel like my home when it has your logo on it.” Since returning dignity to disaster victims is paramount, we took their concern to heart. In Haiti, the Red Cross imported and distributed over one-third of all tarps for temporary shelter, covering more than 800,000 survivors. The tarps were everywhere you looked and easy to spot, if you knew what to look for--plain light grey with a dark blue or grey stripe. Yet many a visiting politician and journalist complained they didn't see evidence of Red Cross aid other than the red crosses worn by our volunteers or painted on our trucks. While I did my best to explain our rationale and what to look for, sometimes the press didn't get it right.

Five and a half years on, the American Red Cross has helped build and operate eight hospitals and clinics, stem a deadly cholera outbreak, provide clean water and sanitation, and move more than 100,000 people out of make-shift tents into safe and improved housing. When land was not available for new homes, the Red Cross provided a range of housing solutions including rental subsidies, repairs and retrofitting of existing structures, fulfilling our promise to ensure tens of thousands of Haitians are back in homes. We also built and repaired schools, roadways and water distribution points vital to neighborhoods. 
It’s important to keep Haiti on our minds.
Winnie Romeril, International Response Team

American Red Cross