When I got out of bed this morning, I hadn’t expected to make the evening news.
It was pure chance that I chose to put on a t-shirt with our organization’s logo on it- one of a slowly growing portfolio of branded clothing I’m slowly accumulating after a series of trips to disaster responses in the field. T-shirts, caps, utility-vests… the staple uniform of good aid-workers the world over.
The text went off in my pocket around 9am. We knew it was going to be bad almost instantly. I think I probably swore when I read it. My phone is hooked up to a global disaster monitoring service which provides near-real-time alerts of earthquakes and tsunamis around the world. This one warned of a 7.0+ magnitude quake just outside Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. I’ve been to Port-au-Prince, seen how the shanties cling like brittle limpets to the fragile hillsides around the harbour. The shallow depth- just ten kms down- meant that the shaking was going to be severe, the damage extensive.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I’ve been lucky enough that up till now, I haven’t lost any personal friends to the trauma factory that is aid-work. None the less, the more I work in disasters, the more friends I make in risk-prone areas, and the more diverse locations I visit, the more that disaster events like today’s devastating earthquake in Haiti strike home.
Just as the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami struck a chord with television viewers throughout the western hemisphere (not for the decimated population of Aceh, but for views of familiar Thai beaches being washed away), so too when a disaster hits a place I’m familiar with, it makes it feel that much closer to my heart. I’ve referred to my time in Haiti in just the last few days on this website, as a place that’s left a special mark on my memory. Port-au-Prince is a place in my head I can relate to. I know what rush-hour feels like there. I’m familiar with the children in their school uniforms, blue skirts and shorts and white shirts, the girls with little blue bobbins in their wiry hair. I remember the sight of UN peacekeepers patrolling the roadways in the back of open pickup trucks, the dreadful pockmarked roads, and the flimsy shanties that crawl like acne up the sheer mountainsides that hem the city in.
Three friends of mine, two Canadian and an Australian from my office here in Melbourne, flew into Haiti this weekend to carry out a workshop with our organization. It took us several hours this morning before we could confirm they were alive and unhurt, thankfully based out of the north-eastern town of Hinche some hours from the epicentre. They are now giving us regular updates of their experience as they try and support our local office in Port-au-Prince with scale-up and emergency operations.
Colleagues I met and whose company I enjoyed during my visit are tonight searching among the debris for loved ones. While I’m relieved that the initial reports indicate none of our staff have lost their lives, I pray for them as many of them still struggle to discover the fate of their family members. These are men and women I know by name.
It’s been a busy day, one of emotional ups and downs. Concern at the initial news of the earthquake. Uncertainty at the fate of people I care about. Relief at discovering their safety. Sadness at the details of the earthquake that continue to pour in. Grief on behalf of colleagues many thousands of miles away. I’ve done a couple of stressful interviews for radio and TV, and enjoyed the support and comradery of my proficient and professional team-mates as we’ve gathered the information and made the decisions necessary to do our jobs in support of the field operations.
On the one hand, I thrive professionally off engaging with disaster response work. It’s the raison d’etre for my profession. On the other, when events like the Haiti Earthquake affect people you know and care about, it ceases to be a distant operation, a detatched reality, or some sad event that takes place on televisions and computer screens.
Tomorrow we’ll learn more of what’s happened out in Haiti. I begin my day early enough to prep for a 6am radio interview, and from there I’ll be in the office feeding off the time-window that overlaps with our team in Port-au-Prince so that we can begin pulling together resources and providing support which will help them do their job in assisting people affected by the disaster. For many of our team on the ground, they themselves will be disaster-affected, adding an additional complexity to their ability to respond. And however personally I may take an event like this, I know it’s nothing compared to what it is like when your own city, your own home and your own family are struck.
Thoughts and prayers tonight rest with the tens of thousands of people whose lives have been violently and dramatically altered today at the whim of our fragile planet.
All photos taken April 2007 on Ile de la Gonave off the coast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.