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Doctor discusses Haiti earthquake relief services

Mel Flanagan | Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti Jan. 12, 2010, Dr. Jude Marie Banatte, Head of Programming for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Les Cayes, Haiti, was driving south from Port-au-Prince to his home.

“This earthquake struck at a time when people were getting off work, when they were in school working, and it hit the key areas of the country,” Banatte said.

Banatte spoke about his experiences in the aftermath of the earthquake that shocked the country over a year ago Monday evening at the Hesburgh Center.

He has worked with CRS for eleven years, mainly overseeing large-scale agriculture and health projects.

Banatte was not harmed, but because communication towers were not functioning, he and the other 100 CRS employees in Les Cayes had no way of reaching the 200 CRS employees in Port-au-Prince.

The day after the earthquake, Banatte said he gathered his staff and asked who wanted to join him in making the arduous trek to the capital. Then he traveled north to Port-au-Prince with the first 35 workers to respond.

Banatte and the rest of the CRS brought any supplies they were able to, including generators, blankets and hygiene kits that were prepared for hurricanes.

“But what will strike us is when we actually reach Port-au-Prince, when we compare what we have and the number of people in need of services,” Banatte said.

As a medical doctor, Banatte first stopped at the Hospital St. Francois de Sales, the main medical building of the city.

Although there was already a multitude of injured Haitians waiting outside, Banatte said there was nothing he and the other doctors could do to help. The hospital was 80 percent destroyed and they could not help patients, and any other hospitals they could travel to would all be filled to capacity.

Banatte said firefighters soon arrived at the scene, looking for people still living under the wreckage of the hospital. They dug holes that enabled Banatte to crawl through the rubble and look for supplies and equipment that were still functional.

Later on, Hospital St. Francois de Sales opened as a temporary hospital. 1000 emergency surgeries were performed, along with 74,401 outpatient consultations. Currently, it is in the middle of a 3-year rebuilding project.

Along with healthcare, a large concern of CRS was figuring out how to feed victims. In the beginning, it provided one million people with emergency food assistance. Today, it continues to distribute monthly food rations to 125,000 students.

Shelter was another huge issue that had to be tackled.

“People just fled their house and didn’t have anything,” Banatte said. “They were just lying on the grass on the first day under the sky.”

He and the rest of the CRS handed out plastic sheeting, nails and ropes for people to construct makeshift shelters. These later evolved into tent cities often seen on the news.

Today, the relief services are relocating people to transitive shelters in their neighborhoods of origin. Banatte said their goal is to erect 8000 of these by the end of April.

Many children were separated from their parents in the aftermath of the quake, Banatte said. The CRS set up a network to identify these children and reunite them with their families.

The displaced person camps also contain child-friendly spaces.

“At these spaces they can play together, and they can also receive some psychosocial assistance,” Banatte said.

Banatte said one overwhelming distinction of post-earthquake Haiti is the current dependence of urban populations on rural populations.

“People living in Port-au-Prince used to be the ones supporting the surrounding provinces,” he said. “As they fled the site, they became the dependents of the ones they were supporting.”

Thousands of individuals are employed in labor-intensive activities that have multiple benefits. They are working to rebuild the present city, as well as receiving a small income they can store for the future.

Banatte said Haiti’s goal of relief, recovery and rebuilding has just begun.

“I want to say that there is a lot that has been accomplished, but I have to say that there is more that needs to be done,” he said. “Solidarity is the main way to accomplish that.”

Haiti is not only looking to rebuild, Banatte said, but to improve as well.

“We don’t want to rebuild the country in the same way it was, we talk about building it better,” he said. “There’s a lot to be done in terms of centralization.”

In the past, Port-au-Prince contained all the employment opportunities. Banatte said the country is aiming to balance the economy with the surrounding provinces. He said a tentative roadmap for Haiti for the next three years adds a second economic center in the north and a third in the south.

“How do we continue to strengthen the capacity of the communities so someone can stay out in the farms instead of sending them in and living their lives in the main cities?” Banatte said.