Haitian couple anguish over earthquake that has hit their home country
Flowery Branch man recalls surviving Haitian earthquake
James Jennings has responded to six of what he calls “complex emergencies.” He calls the earthquake in Haiti a complex emergency times two.
“Here, everything sort of came together,” Jennings said. “The level of the disaster, the magnitude of it, and then the population density and the poverty of the people. They had no resources, nothing that they could do.”
Jennings, who lives in the Gainesville area of Forsyth County, founded humanitarian aid organization Conscience International in 1991. He’s been doing relief work since 1982 all over the world, especially in the Middle East.
He was in California when he heard the news about the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12. By Sunday, he had a team organized and flying down to respond. On. Wednesday, he was there when the 6.1-magnitude aftershock hit.
Jennings went with Flowery Branch resident Al Nixon, who worked for 10 years as a disaster response coordinator for the Red Cross, and orthopedic surgeon Michael Hogan of Cumming.
“We got in there fairly early, and our doctors — one doctor, Michael Hogan, the orthopedic surgeon — went to work within 15 minutes of when we got there,” Jennings said.
Hogan worked at a field hospital in the United Nations compound next to the airport. He and other doctors operated on patients lying on folding tables, partitioned by hospital gowns.
Most of the work he did was amputations, Jennings said. Crush injuries become infected with gangrene. The doctors work first to save the life; then if they can, they save the limb and if possible, they save the function of the limb.
Jennings estimated that Hogan spent about half an hour to an hour on each patient.
“They would bring one in — I helped carry them in and out. And they would bring one in, take one out, bring one in, take one out, bring one in,” Jennings said.
“He just worked flat out for 15 hours and slept three hours in a chair and started all over again.”
Hogan applauded the work of anesthesiologists who had no machines, but used nerve blocks and intravenous drugs to treat pain.
“They did just an outstanding job,” Hogan said. “We didn’t lose any of our operative patients.”
Jennings applauded Hogan’s work.
“Hogan is a hero,” he said. “He has got so much skill, and he’s so precise about his work and what he does.”
“I can call him on the phone and say ‘Mike, would you want to go with me to respond to this disaster?’ It takes him like 15 seconds ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’”
The medical emergency is only part of the response, though.
The United Nations reports that between 500,000 and 700,000 in Port-au-Prince were left homeless by the quake, with many living in an estimated 500 makeshift camps in parks, vacant lots and other open areas in the capital. Haitian government officials estimate the earthquake killed as many as 200,000 and left another 1.5 million homeless.
Providing basic necessities like food, water and fuel is a logistical nightmare.
The city is plagued with riots. Jennings said he expects a lot more violence in the country because of the condition of the people and the devastation.
“(There were) thousands of thousands of people just milling around with nothing to do,” Hogan said. “They don’t know what to do with themselves.”
Haiti has no strong central government. Most work is done by U.N. troops and troops from other countries like the U.S.
“They’re dispatched throughout the city to keep order, but there’s not enough of them to be in the right place at the right time,” Jennings said.
The lack of coordination has been costly. But U.N. troops are setting up water and food stations in the city. There are plans to move some people away from the city.
“It is chaotic because if you try to land a helicopter and hand people food, or even the back of a truck, you’ll get mobbed,” Jennings said. “You have to fight them off.”
The motto of Conscience International is linking needs with resources, but the needs overwhelm the resources.
The psychological effect of the tragedy is another component.
“It’s unbelievable just the devastation. What a calamity,” he said. “And for the people. Everybody that you talk with, their life has been affected by it. ‘My mother was killed.’ ‘My sister was killed.’ ‘My 7-year-old child.’ ‘I’m wounded,’ you know.
“You can’t see on a 21-inch screen what the scope of the devastation is. And certainly the smells — and the flies.”
Jennings said one lady just broke down and cried saying that she knew she needed psychological help because of what had happened to her family and her home.
Another man working to help the team get food had just buried his mother that morning.
“Those are heavyweight things in any context,” Jennings said.
But relief workers must push aside personal reactions.
“I think a first responder or a rescue person has to be like a doctor. You have to put your emotions to the side,” Jennings said.
“And then if you come home and you deal with it, there’s something like post-traumatic stress. I did see a lot of that from people there.”
“For me personally, I’ve seen a lot of it,” he said. “And I think you have to be motivated by your core values or something that comes out of you in order to do this kind of work.”
But many Americans have come together to help Haiti, a response that Jennings calls heroic.
The country needs orthopedic surgeons, general surgeons and OR nurses, especially, he said. Other doctors may be needed later.
But while Haiti is on everyone’s mind now, it won’t be forever.
“There’ll be another war or emergency somewhere else,” Jennings said. “Haiti will be ... people will be fed up with it. Six weeks from now you won’t hear much about it.”
But Jennings has organized another team to go to Haiti, possibly Thursday. There’s still much work to be done.