Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Local Red Crossers in Haiti focus of News Story

Published February 26, 2011
‘From Relief to Disaster Recovery’
Valley News staff writer

Port-Au-Prince — George Sykes was alert, poised to cross the street as a turbulence of tap-taps and mopeds swept past.

“I’m just really cautious,” Sykes said.

Suddenly, he plunged into the traffic, ignoring the honks, then hustled down a side street toward the American Red Cross annex in Petionville, a suburb of the capital. He passed a collapsed concrete building where children stood outside begging and tossing pebbles at passersby.

It’s been a bit of an adjustment for the former Lebanon city councilor. Sykes and two others with Upper Valley ties — Meg DiCarlo, of Woodstock, and Cristina Hammond, of Hanover — are working for the Red Cross in the capital long after many workers from non-government organizations have closed up shop.

They’re helping to implement and expand Red Cross programs aimed at assisting the displaced Haitians dwelling in makeshift encampments. Progress is creeping along, they say.

“It’s hard for someone who hasn’t been here a while to see, but we’re moving from relief to disaster recovery,” Sykes said.

After the earthquake struck a year ago, the former career firefighter said he watched the television coverage of the disaster with his wife, Jayne, who was in tears over the scale of the suffering. Jobless at the time, he was inspired to take action.

“Honestly, there’s a little bit of selfishness,” said Sykes, 59, who claims to be the oldest American Red Cross delegate in Haiti. “I feel really good about me here.”

A short-term commitment has become, now, open-ended. Sykes took on a one-month volunteer stint in April. He’s since renewed his commitment three times and will be in Port-au-Prince until at least May 31, managing the American Red Cross facilities in the Port-au-Prince area.

After that, he may renew again. In the best case, Sykes and the others say, they work themselves out of a job.

“The hope is, they don’t need you anymore and you go home,” he said.

That outcome at present seems distant. About 800,000 people still reside in encampments, according to Red Cross numbers. Still, that’s half of the 1.5 million people in camps after the quake. And the camps are a bit improved from the early days when sticks and bed sheets were called tents. Many are living in sturdier canvas tents now or metal shanties covered in tarps. NGOs supply the camps with potable water, latrines, vaccinations and other forms of health support. The Red Cross alone says it provides daily drinking water for about 317,000 recipients.

The Haitian government asked organizations to stop providing food last April, saying it was slowing the recovery of farming and commerce, said Julie Sell, American Red Cross spokeswoman in Port-au-Prince.

Other signs of progress are more mundane. Sykes recalled having to drive around a gaping hole in the road for months. Recently, he noticed a new grill over the sewer opening.

“It’s a small example but that’s progress here. You have to remember how it was here before the earthquake, too,” Sykes said.

‘A Certain Style’

Jonas Sainta, 40, was a plumber before the earthquake and made a decent living.

“Before the earthquake, there was a certain style of life. We had the power to buy things. When the earthquake happened, we lost the fight we had before,” Sainta said, speaking through translator Julien Rodolphe Fils Debrosse.

“Now, there’s a new style of life. ... Out of job,” Sainta said.

On a dry, rocky hillside, in the camp known as Acra III, Sainta volunteers in a Red Cross cholera prevention center. The domed tent is nestled amongst tarp-covered shanties that are home to more than 2,000 Haitians. The camp is on a bony knob that overlooks the Gulf of Gonave, the sprawl of Port-au-Prince, and in the distant haze, the Central Plateau to the north. Sainta was one of three volunteers staffing the tent, ready to provide oral rehydration solution, information on correct hand-washing or information about nearby cholera treatment centers. The volunteers typically see anywhere from five to 10 people a day seeking help or information, Sainta said.

One day in late December, shortly after the cholera outbreak, 78 people visited the tent fearful for themselves and their families, Sainta said. He credited Red Cross preventive measures for there being no more than seven confirmed cases in the entire camp.

“This was a disease that scared many people here, especially in the camps. They didn’t understand it, didn’t know where it came from, and it’s a disease that can kill you in the matter of hours,” said Hammond, the Hanover resident and health delegate who oversees the cholera program in Port-au-Prince.

Here in the capital, where disasters seem to stack up on top of one another, cholera actually falls in the success category for Red Cross officials, including Hammond and DiCarlo, who have played pivotal roles in minimizing its impact. After the outbreak, the Red Cross set up cholera tents in more than 50 camps and doubled its number of “promoters,” typically young Haitians, trained to go into the camps to educate people about cholera and other diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis.There are now 200 promoters venturing out with backpacks of supplies and information each day, said DiCarlo, who oversees all of American Red Cross health programs in Haiti.

“We were able to scale up very quickly,” she said.

Hammond and Debrosse, cholera program manager, visited Acra III Thursday to leave a stretcher at the cholera tent. Previously, sick people were carried by hand down a steep embankment.

Life in the camp is squalid and discouraging, Sainta said. More than anything, people need jobs. But Sainta said his new volunteer role gives him solid footing.

“It’s not easy but I try to help people and begin a new life. It’s a new style of life but I am hopeful,” he said.

‘Place of Paradoxes’

“If the toilets are working, that’s one less thing people have to worry about,” Sykes said.

It’s not the most glamorous job in disaster response, but Sykes said it’s important. He manages two office buildings, a warehouse and five apartment buildings. Basically, his duties are making sure everything works, including the toilets, and improving cost and energy efficiencies where possible.

He manages a staff of about 10 janitors and maintenance workers, “some of the least appreciated staff here,” he said. Sykes said he would consider another extension if it’s offered.

“This is a place of paradoxes. A place where wonderful things can happen,” he said. “There are warm-hearted generous people here. … It will get better.”

For Hammond, who has a background in biostatistics and epidemiology, volunteering in Haiti presented a unique opportunity to practice the international health programming she had long studied. And the work fit her criteria for happiness: making a difference, learning new things and having fun.

“I love the work that I do. I feel incredibly humbled to be doing it,” said Hammond, whose husband is Bill Hammond, a Hanover High teacher.

Having spent seven years in Tanzania, DiCarlo is the Red Cross veteran of the group.

“These things are a little addictive,” she said.

Woodstock is her hometown but DiCarlo gave no indication she was moving back home any time soon. There’s still much work to be done in Haiti.

“Progress is never as fast as we want it to be. It frustrates me. I want things to be faster,” DiCarlo said. “But we are seeing progress here. ... And being in the trenches, it’s very fulfilling.”

Gregory Trotter can be reached at, or 603-727-3210.