On Aug. 14 at 8:29 a.m., a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the small island nation of Haiti.
The quake was centered in a rural mountainous region about 93 miles west of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. At least 2,207 people have been confirmed killed as of Aug. 22 and more than 12,000 injured. At least 136,800 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
Two days after the earthquake struck, I packed my gear and was on a jet bound for Port-au-Prince to meet up with a mobile medical team from the Kansas-based non-governmental organization Heart to Heart International.
My job with HHI is to be the eyes on the ground for disaster and recovery managers outside of the zone. I also provide images for donors to see how their much-needed donations are being used to help people in need.
I’m a former News-Review photographer and freelance photojournalist based near Elkton. My work is regularly published in magazines and websites worldwide.
A few years ago I started working with the international humanitarian organization HHI as a photographer documenting their disaster response. Heart to Heart International is a global nonprofit that works to improve health and responds to the needs of disaster victims worldwide.
In 2019 I was deployed with an advance team from HHI to the hard-hit areas of the Bahamas after hurricane Dorian devastated one of its islands.
Since 2010, HHI has had a significant presence in Haiti. Currently, about 70 Haitians are employed by HHI working in healthcare, community resilience, and economic development. When the earthquake struck, the organization quickly pivoted to providing mobile medical aid to communities in the remote regions rocked by the tumbler.
The level of care provided by HHI is comparable to what you or I would receive at a typical walk-in medical clinic in the United States. Advanced emergency cases in the field are typically triaged and transported to local hospitals.
HHI already had a trained and primed medical team on the ground in Haiti. There was no need to bring in outside doctors and nurses from the United States. The organization was able to respond almost immediately to the hard-hit areas with repurposed teams of all-Haitian doctors and nurses from their community health clinics.
When I arrived in Port-au-Prince, myself, Wes Comfort, HHI’s Caribbean response and recovery manager, and our driver Toto headed west with our 4-wheel-drive Isuzu Trooper. We met up with one of the HHI mobile medical teams in the hard-hit town of Maniche near the city of Les Cayes.
Throughout our 10 days in the earthquake zone, minor aftershocks could be felt daily. In Maniche, aftershocks rattled the tin roof of the building next to our campsite all night. Like most of the population in the quake area, we slept outside. The already quake-stressed buildings could not be trusted to survive a strong aftershock. Wes slept in a small one-person tent, I slept on the roof of the trusty Isuzu Trooper, and the medical team slept in the beds of their Toyota pickup trucks.
In Maniche we met up with Dr. Laila Bien-Aime and her team of dedicated nurses and support professionals. Each day the team would drive to an even smaller isolated village and treat patients who had not received any medical care since the quake struck. On a typical clinic day, the team saw lacerations, broken bones, contusions, and infections. Many patients were also treated for chronic health issues like high blood pressure. Chronic issues were becoming acute due to a lack of care.
After several days near Minache, Bien-Aime and I headed north to Baraderes in the Nippes Department to meet up with another of HHI’s mobile medical teams. The epicenter of the earthquake was very close now, and the destruction was even more evident. From Baraderes we journeyed into the mountains to the village of Mita. We hiked the last mile because high water made a river crossing in the vehicles impossible.
It was now a week after the earthquake had struck, but in the village we found several individuals suffering extreme injuries from building collapses. A woman with a possible fractured pelvis and a toddler with a possible spinal injury needed immediate hospital care.
With overland transport to Port au Prince out of the question, we decided to call in air evacuation. After locating a suitable landing zone on the village soccer field we contacted HERO, Haitian Emergency Response Operations, which dispatched a U.S. Army Blackhawk and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to our remote location. The HHI medical team facilitated the transport of six critically injured patients to hospitals in Port-au-Prince.
Haiti is an extremely poor nation.
At 10,714 square miles it is only about twice the size of Douglas County, but with an estimated population of 11.4 million. The population is well over twice the population of the entire state of Oregon. Three-quarters of the people live on less than $2 per day.
Bien-Aime spoke about how she feels being a young Haitian doctor treating her fellow Haitians in a time of such extreme need.
“I really love Haiti, so I want to do everything for the people of Haiti,” she said.
The doctor says she lost some members of my family in the earthquake.
“I want to be there for all the people,” she said. “It gives me the strength to do my work. It’s the feeling of being Haitian.”
The recovery from the August earthquake in Haiti will be long and difficult, but the people are strong and resilient.
Heart to Heart International is on the ground now and will stay for the long term. My time in Haiti came to an end after two weeks.
One day I hope to meet up with my new Haitian friends under better circumstances.