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HAITI: Search teams running out of time

Port-au-Prince, 19 January 2010 (IRIN) - Ninety people have been rescued by search teams since the 12 January earthquake struck Haiti, in an international effort involving some 1,700 specialists.

On 17 January, a 100-member rescue team from the UK and Iceland travelled with two search dogs, 3MT of equipment and five UN security trucks to Leogane, the epicentre of the quake, which left 80 percent of the city destroyed. An IRIN correspondent accompanied them:

A day in the life

6am: Adam Douglas with the UN On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) briefs team leaders Mike Thomas of the UK and Olafur Loftsson from Iceland on their joint mission to Leogane, 60km west of Port-au-Prince, and hands out satellite maps. Loftsson says his team in Iceland had also prepared maps, with schools, libraries, police stations and other potential sites to search for survivors marked - in Icelandic. The teams are instructed to leave Leogane by 3pm, or to stay overnight because the security escorts will not be able to travel any later. A UN Sri Lankan battalion has been alerted to provide logistical support, office space and sleeping areas for the team.

Thomas and Loftsson discuss bringing their own mobile satellite equipment to receive satellite images taken earlier in the day by another UK search team from a helicopter. "We can set up roadside, en route," says Thomas. "From aerial surveillance, a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination report, Icelandic satellite maps created from Google Earth, local intelligence and plain rumours, we choose spots where there are likely to be survivors. Once we are there, we will follow more tips, but these spots are our starting points."

7am: Water filtration system, mobile satellite system and printer, radio equipment, 24-hour ration packs, mobile waste kits known as Wag Bags (biodegradable double bag systems that are placed over a hole with a large ring, which can then be folded up to seal in waste), folding chairs and tables, shovels, two sniffer dogs (donated by the Canadian search and rescue team in exchange for lodging under UK tents, "It pays to carry tonnes of tents," says Thomas); medical supplies and other materials are loaded on to Iceland's red truck.

The UK team was turned back twice when they tried to enter Port-au-Prince airspace from the Dominican Republic. "Clogged airspace, 9MT of equipment and 50 men. We already had some men and equipment in Port-au-Prince. We were prepared to go in using only light equipment if needed if the others got stuck," Thomas tells IRIN.

When asked how the team managed to communicate with locals when none spoke either of the national languages - French and Kreyol - Thomas replies: "The language of rescue is universal. When people understand we are there to search [for] and save any survivors, there is always an outpouring of requests for help.”

8am: Thomas and Loftsson are worried about fuel supplies for the 120km trip. "We are struggling and need to look into what the US base can offer."

9am: With the arrival of the UN police, the two-bus, one supply-truck convoy starts snaking through the dense Port-au-Prince traffic.

11am: Thomas greets the commander of the UN security battalion at the entrance to Leogane. "When you are on someone else's [property], you just try to shake hands, share information and get out as quickly as possible to cut down the time spent on bureaucracy. But you do have to practise rescue worker diplomacy. It's a balance." When reviewing the map with the Sri Lankan commander, Thomas realizes there is another security base closer to the buildings to be searched. After 30 minutes, the buses continue to a football field Thomas hopes is secure enough to set up a temporary base.

The UK team grows restless. "This is not a typical mission. Normally we are in and out. We need to get on with the job," team member Vic Kopicki says.

12pm: Nine members of the UK chapter of the NGO Rescue and Preparedness in Disasters (RAPID), part of the UK rescue team, are sent to find a nursing college amid rumours that survivors are being kept alive on food shoved through gaps in the rubble. All volunteers, they took time off from their various jobs with the Ministry of Justice, software development and construction companies to make the trip.


Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
Debriefing of the rescue teams
En route, they record GPS coordinates of operating pharmacies in case survivors need immediate medical care. Despite the satellite map, they miss the school and ask locals for help. They are led, instead, to a house. Echo, the Canadian sniffer dog, is guided around the property. No sign of life. He is rewarded with a short game of catch before the group continues.

2pm: The RAPID search team are called to a dormitory across the street from the nursing school. Could the team remove bodies? Mick Dewer takes a student aside, "We are here to rescue lives. Our priority is to find the living. I hope you will understand."

2.20pm: The dean of the nursing school, Hilda Alcindor, dismisses the rumours, telling the team there are no missing students. “We are always chasing rumours like this,” UK rescue worker Sophie Hensley tells IRIN.

The rescue dogs walk and sniff indifferently at cracked concrete building blocks. “She [the dog] is not interested at all. There is no one in that home,” says Hensley, referring to the house that belonged to Daniel Raphael, 32. “That’s life,” says Raphael. He and his mother escaped the collapsing home, leaving behind his two cousins.

"So much of what we do is psychological," Hensley, the group's sole woman member and a Justice Ministry official, tells IRIN. "No search is in vain even if we don't come up with survivors. Sometimes confirmation of death is enough to help people move on."

2.49pm: Instead of pursuing leads to another school with apparently trapped survivors, the team heads back to the football base to be "re-tasked".

3.15pm: Debriefing. "We will work for the remaining daylight hours to declare this area free of survivors," Thomas tells the group. There were reports of malaria, dengue fever. A steady stream of patients has started filing on to the field - on a makeshift stretcher, limping, in someone’s arms - swollen limbs, late-term pregnancy complications, a fractured pelvis, a broken arm.

UK team doctor Nick Maskery tells IRIN he does not have the supplies to adequately treat the injured. "We are equipped to treat casualties we find and our own team members. We are not a field hospital. But people see hope in our rescue set-up. Rescue to them is different from our rescue mandate."

Thomas calls in a Blackhawk helicopter from the Americans to evacuate a 13-year-old girl and an eight-month pregnant woman. "There is no medical treatment in this town. We have no choice," says the UK team leader. The crowd of onlookers swells to hundreds.

4.30pm: The Blackhawk lands. UK rescue command support officer, Sean Moore, says the search may not be wasted. "All the search activity was centred on Port-au-Prince rather than outlying areas like this one in Leogane. But we can only do what we can with what we have got.”

6pm: The men load their equipment and head back to the Sri Lankan security base closest to the football field to stay the night. After nearly an hour, the commander on duty says he cannot accommodate the group so they request escorts to go back to Port-au-Prince. After waiting an hour to refuel, the group starts the trip back to their airport base.

pt/mw/oa/bp

Theme (s): Natural Disasters, Urban Risk,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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