Rich Pickett is SDSU’s CIO and a licensed pilot for 32 years. This chronicles his second volunteer trip to Haiti, flying relief flights to earthquake ravaged Haiti. View more photos of his Haiti relief efforts here and here.
Our son, Rick, and I departed Fort Lauderdale with the medical supplies and food for Les Cayes. After maneuvering around thunderstorms, and three hours of flying we arrived. Haiti now seems like my second home. Yvald, a local Haitian, who helps manage an orphanage with 15 young girls and helps others in Les Cayes arrived with his truck to take the supplies and us into town. This is a busier city than Jacmel and while it did not experience the direct impacts of the earthquake, it was severely affected by the refuges who arrived in the thousands from Port-au-Prince.
We visited Dr. Robert Leger, and his wife Rosa, at their office and then proceeded to the first of two hospitals where he works and the recipients of the medical supplies we brought . After the earthquake, Robert was the only surgeon in Les Cayes for three days and was inundated with severe injury cases. As a Rotarian, he also called upon fellow Rotarians in the US for help. He described the devastating chest and internal injuries, as well as the crushed bones and amputations that were required in some cases. The hospitals, which are now housing only a few earthquake victims, were overwhelmed with victims who had traveled over 5 hours on bus or other vehicles to Les Cayes in hope of receiving care. We visited with some of the patients who still live in tents at the hospital. All medical care was provided free by the two hospitals (which are self-supported) to the patients affected by the earthquake. Even those not affected only pay a small fee for services and supplies. It was great to know that the thousands of dollars worth of medical supplies we brought would be put to good use.
We then visited the first orphanage. Outside we observed a large truck overfilled with rotting garbage from the recent floods. The city does not have any heavy equipment, or a proper garbage truck, to fill the truck so a number of workers try to shovel the refuse into the vehicle. They are trying their best to maintain sanitary conditions, however it is extremely difficult.
At the orphanage, Dr. Leger introduced us to his first earthquake patient who was one of the orphans! He had to amputate her leg which was initially devastating to her. There is little hope for handicapped individuals in Haiti for employment, marriage, etc. so the impact on their future lives is so much more than in our country. This is the reason why I have heard many times that many patients asked their doctors to let them die rather than live as an amputee. Dr. Leger lost his sister in the quake and felt it imperative to save this girls life. It was wonderful to see her smile after all she’s been through.
On the way to Yvald’s orphanage we stopped at some of the markets to purchase local coffee, artwork, and Haitian rum, one of which we gave to Yvald. His orphange is 20 kilometers out of town, off on a small gravel road. We came across a small concrete house and the girls came running out. They quickly surrounded Rick (amused by his soft, straight hair) and we distributed more toys, of course! We had brought mostly medical supplies on this trip, however we had found a large number of protein supplements, and other food for the girls.
Yvald was extremely proud of the new home that they were building for the girls. A short distance away we came across a small clearing with sea shipping containers being painted white and covered with thatch roofs. They had converted them into bunk rooms, shower facilities, as well as composting toilets. The designs were very creative and show a lot of promise. It was incredible to see otherwise castoff shipping containers put to such a great use.
Rick and I headed back to Santiago in the Dominican Republic, with a shopping list of needs from Yvald and Dr. Leger. When we landed we immediately started looking in the Go-Ministries warehouse for the supplies. We found a large number of medical equipment that we specifically needed that had been generously donated by Cardinal Health. We loaded the plane with the medical supplies, drugs, and another 250 lbs of food and clothing for the girls at the orphanage so we could leave quickly in the morning. We also promised Jeanna in Jacmel that we would bring her more supplies for the orphanage with the neglected children. Go-Ministries has been great, managing a warehouse of donated supplies and allowing us the flexibility to deliver where we thought they were needed most.
On Thursday morning we headed back to Les Cayes on our first trip. After dropping off our cargo with Yvald, and providing the airport staff with some supplies, we took off for Jacmel.
We had been the last international flight to land at Jacmel last week and we had heard that the Venezuelan Army had now taken control, however we had no other information. We didn’t know if we would be allowed to land, and if we did land if we could depart. One of our local contacts, Bob Davisson of Lifeline Haiti, had visited with the Venezuelans who assured him we would be okay. We had food and toys for the kids, so we took the chance.
As we approached Jacmel we tried several times to raise the airport on the radio and request permission to land. After several attempts, we decided to try anyway. On final approach, only a few seconds from landing we noticed several people standing on the runway right in our way. Just before we were about to abort the landing they cleared. They wanted to photograph our landing from a good vantage point, directly in our path! Turns out it was a helicopter crew of Canadians! Upon landing, it was great to see some familiar faces of the Haitian staff and they were glad to see us. We were approached by one of the Venezuelan officers who was extremely hospitable. Fortunately one of the relief workers, and Rick, spoke Spanish. The officer wanted me to know that we were welcome and they did not know how to communicate with pilots. I briefed him on communications procedures and how they could work with pilots. It should work as long as the pilots are fluent in Spanish!
After distributing some promised tarps to the airport staff, we headed off to Lifeline Haiti’s orphanage to see Bob’s program, who has been the recipient of our supply runs in the past. As has been the case we were pleasantly surrounded by the kids! We picked them up, gave them hugs, and had a wonderful time visiting with the kids and the staff. They operate on a shoestring budget, including paying $3/day for their teachers. Perhaps a large sum to some Haitians, but a small reward for their efforts. Bob’s group has built an impressive building, that is very well designed. Despite approval by army engineers the Haitian government will not allow them to sleep in the building at night. Hopefully that will change shortly. It was hard to leave, however we had to visit Jeanna’s orphanage, the one Brandon and I had visited earlier in the week.
As we were leaving, Bob showed us the UN-donated tents where they all sleep. He mentioned that they are concerned about the children, especially since children are being placed into slavery forced to work for other Haitian families. They are concerned about their children, most of whom have been abandoned by their families, being placed in this situation.
At the orphanage where Jeanna visits, we ran into the kids we had seen earlier in the week. We had brought clothes, food, and of course more toys from San Diego! On our way into one of the buildings, we observed a class on the patio. They were studying French and one of the older kids was serving as a TA! She even thought it was important to use a ruler to gain the attention of the other students. It was great to see her, and perhaps she will continue to be an educator!
Back at the Jacmel airport we met again with the Commandante, and then headed back to the Dominican Republic. Rick and I decided to make another run to Les Cayes, despite the deteriorating weather.
We search for more medical supplies, and came across a treasure trove of medicine, everything from Fentanyl (an analgesic) to a wide assortment of antibiotics. My graduate degree is in Pharmacy and I thought this was just what the hospitals in Les Cayes needed. Rick found some other high-end medical equipment and along with a large amount of food for Yvald’s girls we were back in the air flying another 250 miles to Les Cayes.
The weather had gotten worse in just the hour we were on the ground. On our RADAR we saw very large cells and navigated around them on the hour flight. We decided we would need to expedite after landing in Les Cayes. After quickly unloading, giving baby food to two new parents on the airport staff, and receiving three coconuts from Yvald, we were back in the air!
In just the short time we were one the ground, the weather along our route was deteriorating. As we climbed we were surrounded by lightning flashes and strong updrafts (some 3,000 feet per minute!). Navigating around the worst of the precipitation we were back in Santiago in just over an hour. We landed and saw the other two airplanes that were also flying supplies from Santiago into Haiti. It was great to see them back at the airport, especially considering the weather conditions.
We flew nearly 1,000 miles on Thursday delivering supplies. Along with the other pilots, Greg and Rob, we had made 8 trips that day providing food, medicine, and other supplies to the Haitians. All of us volunteering our time, airplanes, and fuel.