When I last talked to 37-year-old Portlander Cassandra Nelson, she was frantically packing to ship out to Haiti with MercyCorps, one of a small group of experienced emergency first responders ready to get on the ground in the earthquake-stricken country. Two weeks later, Portland-based MercyCorps has 24 people on the ground in Haiti and Nelson is back in Portland for a much-needed break from the disaster zone.
Though Nelson has done relief work after the Iran earthquake, the tsunami in Sri Lanka and during wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, she says when she reached Port Au Prince with the help of a US Homeland Security Blackhawk helicopter, "it was by far the worst devastation I've ever seen." Nelson blames part of the horror on the dense, impoverished urban sprawl of Haiti's capital. "One building could be standing, but the next 20 would be just sandwiched. In every nook and cranny on every pile of rubble there are people just standing. There was no where to go."
As Haiti-based aid groups and the UN spent the first days after the earthquake coping with hauling their own staffs out of the rubble, Nelson's small team focused on trying to get 15 tons of food into hospitals overflowing with people. "The parking lots and courtyards were just filled with stretcher after stretcher. There was no shade, doctors were treating people in the middle of parking lots, applying body casts and putting kids into traction without pain killers." Simple tasks like finding gas for trucks, water, working phone and places for aid workers to sleep were "Herculean." At first, supplies were so limited that all classes suffered equally. "The banks were closed, the stores were closed, it didn't matter if you were a millionaire, you still didn't have anything to eat." After five days, supplies of food started finally arriving: first high-energy biscuits, then rice, chickpeas and oil.
Though many stories have trickled out about rampant looting in the capital, Nelson says security was only a major issue for her team at food distribution times, when hungry Haitians would start assaulting one another for food. The MercyCorps workers eventually developed a system of distributing food primarily to women. "Since we started targeting women as they way to get food out to families, distribution seems to have been much more peaceful and successful than before," says Nelson.
Nelson's perspective on the US military involvement in Haiti and five amazing photos below the cut.
The MercyCorps team has also worked madly to test and purify water supplies around the small country and start up a cash-for-work program. MercyCorps hopes to employ locals to rebuild their country, working on clearing out gutters and building sanitation before the rainy season strikes. Before the earthquake, 80 percent of rural Haitians were living on less than $1 a day—the MercyCorps cash for work program pays unskilled workers $3-5 a day. "If we can find ways to build sustainable and viable jobs for people, it's going to help not just for the short term but for the long term," says Nelson.
Though some have raised concerns about the US military "occupying" Haiti, Nelson says her experience with the armed forces has been surprisingly positive. The UN and US peacekeeping forces are all over Port au Prince, says Nelson, but the US military there is under the direction of USAID. That means, in Nelson's experience, the forces only act to help humanitarian efforts. At one point, Nelson asked a group of Marines if they would lay down their guns to comply with MercyCorp's no-weapons policy as they helped unload a food truck. Amazingly, the group of Marines agreed and handed off their firearms to an officer before grabbing MercyCorp's food boxes. "MercyCorps always has a lot of concerns about military actors, but this actually played out incredibly well," says Nelson.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!