Monday, February 22, 2010

Washington Times commentary: Haiti heroism

From today's Washington Times. Nice to hear from the FSOs about the work going on in Haiti.

HENNING: Haiti heroism
Americans' swift determination saved lives

By Michael Henning

The Haiti search and rescue effort is historic and heroic by any measure. More live rescues over more days were achieved in the 2010 Haiti effort than ever before. I was lucky enough to have been able to provide some of the local support that helped make the difference.

The first international responders to any earthquake are search-and-rescue (SAR) teams that deploy from around the world to any nation within hours. These teams of highly trained rescuers extract survivors from collapsed structures, knowing that every minute counts. SAR teams rely heavily on local support, and in the case of America's two internationally certified teams from Los Angeles and Fairfax, Va., on U.S. government funding provided through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Around 4 a.m. on Jan. 14, about 35 hours after the magnitude 7 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, I was working in the U.S. Embassy's control room when an electronic report from Washington indicated a Haitian trapped under rubble had sent a text message to a relative in the United States requesting help. As a USAID Foreign Service officer, I knew that our Disaster Action Response Team (DART) would know what action to take based on this information. Unfortunately, the team had barely arrived in Haiti, so I ran down to speak directly with the Fairfax SAR team, which was ready to mobilize. As I explained the report, the Fairfax team immediately swung into action, preparing the rescuers and their gear to do their first reconnaissance of the site.

Critically needed was transportation to a hilly site several miles away through windy roads of unknown condition, lined with now homeless thousands sleeping in the streets. Having served in tough places before, I knew that a good local driver and safe vehicles would be crucial. Luckily, U.S. embassies and USAID missions always have such drivers on nonstop duty through any disaster. Without seeking prior approval, I found an embassy driver who directed me to the USAID dispatcher on duty.

All of these local men understood immediately the simple fact that if we could just get these Virginia rescuers to the site, minutes saved could translate into lives saved. We finally got a van loaded with gear and men that would best suit the team. I later learned that the driver of that van got the first recon team to the site in just 15 minutes, a drive that normally would take an hour or more. After struggling to figure out how the tens of thousands of pounds of additional gear and personnel would cram into a sport utility vehicle or two, we stumbled upon a large flatbed truck that would do nicely, and off it went minutes later.

It is a tribute to the dispatcher and his weary men - all of whom had lost their modest homes or members of their family, or both, and were sleeping on the streets like the rest of Port-au-Prince - that they heroically managed to get things moving so quickly and effectively in the middle of the night. But I know that our common humanity and our strong commitment to help others were uniquely compelling and sufficient motivation to drive us onward in the face of daunting challenges.

Twenty-four hours later, the first survivors were pulled from that pile - a Haitian bellhop, still in uniform, who, 64 hours after being buried alive, walked away with just a small cut on his forehead. Next was an American who joked with the rescuers throughout the effort to extract him. That American was taken back down the hill in one of three makeshift ambulances. At about the same time the next morning, the same drivers, dispatcher and I commandeered the vehicles again without orders or permission in order to carry out more rescues. My colleagues and I have never been prouder about seizing the initiative under extreme circumstances and helping save lives during those two early mornings in Haiti.

Michael Henning is a U.S. Agency for International Development Foreign Service officer and was one of the first to arrive in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake. He is a member of the board of the American Foreign Service Association.

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