Grassroots help for Haiti: Tahoe/Truckee residents coordinating relief
February 8, 2010
TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8211; Amid homelessness, hunger and sheer desperation, life or death can be a simple matter of luck and logistics.
It’s something Sam Bloch knows well. The Truckee resident and founder of Grassroots United, a Haiti relief organization, has been working with Haitian officials to coordinate aid since Jan. 27 and#8212; two weeks after the massive earthquake struck.
With a home base in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Bloch said he and his team have flown 10,000 doses of antibiotics and more than 1,000 pounds of medical supplies into the country. This, in addition to doctors and other medical personnel.
and#8220;It’s a massive logistical nightmare over here,and#8221; Bloch said.
While supplies are constantly coming in, he said relief organizations and#8212; including the United Nations and#8212; are struggling to distribute food and medications fast enough. In Jacmel, a city just 25 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, he said aid is just beginning to trickle in since the Jan. 12 earthquake, which has killed more than 200,000 people, according to recent counts.
Bloch said he remembered one woman who gave birth to twins only to watch one of her children die for lack of a breast pump located in a supply cache in a town not far away.
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and#8220;Here the entire infrastructure of the entire country has fallen to ground,and#8221; he explained. and#8220;So our main objective here is to fly supplies as well as doctors in.and#8221;
To accomplish this, Bloch and his mother, Sharon Velez, a physician’s assistant in Pasadena, Calif., are setting up field clinics around rubble and ruined buildings. In one day Bloch said they treated more than 400 people with more still waiting to be helped.
With such great demand for aid, conditions often near riot levels, Bloch said. To calm tensions, Bloch said part of the help he offers is to assign crowd management to members in the crowd.
and#8220;The best thing I’ve found to work is to empower the people and#8212; get them to control themselves,and#8221; he said.
Living conditions are a hit-and-miss affair. Bloch said at night there is the echo of gunfire, all traffic stops and people sleep in the streets. In contrast, the day he said is filled with military helicopters flying overhead, supply trucks lumbering across dusty roads and the constant gathering of crowds searching for food or medical attention.
Unlike the earthquakes in Peru in 2007 where Bloch served as operation director for the non-profit Burners Without Borders or the tsunami in Thailand in 2005 where he served as project manager for the Tsunami Volunteer Center, Haiti, he said, is a completely different animal because of the nation’s lack of infrastructure and almost non-existent emergency relief programs.
and#8220;Personally, the main thing I’ve been working on is not to tax their current resources,and#8221; he said.
As meals go, Bloch said he and his staff are subsisting on military standard Meals Ready to Eat, and all of his belongings are carried in a light backpack.
Sleep, he described, is sporadic.
More than 700 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince lies Hangar 58. It’s Grassroots United’s informal base of operations at Fort Lauderdale International Airport. Here medical supplies are stacked on shelves, pallets and anywhere empty floor space can be found.
Kings Beach resident Brenda Zimmerman has been navigating the hangar’s small maze of boxes for about two weeks since operations began. As Logistics and Operations Manager, Zimmerman said she is in charge of coordinating shipment and passenger transport on their donated Cessna T210 airplane.
and#8220;I can’t tell you how many people call each day asking for a ride on our plane; but right now, we only have space for medical personnel,and#8221; Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said even she hasn’t made the trip in order to allow more room for supplies such as antibiotics and medical staff.
and#8220;Right now we’re trying to mobilize as many supplies as we can,and#8221; Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman is working late nights and long days for this effort but said she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything and thanked pilot Mike Budincich, one of the organization’s main sponsors, for making it all possible.
and#8220;It’s one of the most powerful experiences in my life.and#8221; Zimmerman said. and#8220;I’m here until they send me home.and#8221;
And, according to Bloch, that might be awhile.
Bloch said he sees these first efforts of Grassroots United as preliminary measures to spearhead a much larger operation.
Once there is a measure of stability in the country he looks to expand the volunteer program and set up a base of operations where volunteers can be contracted out for free to help build orphanages and housing.
Already he’s talked with Haiti’s administrator of health and its administrator of agriculture in the Jacmel region to get things started.
and#8220;This is all being done with no red tape, just phone calls and networking,and#8221; he said of the process.
Though food and medical attention remain paramount, Bloch said the next challenge will be weather, as the rain season is coming and the thousands of homeless gathered in the streets will suffer with sickness.
Whatever comes, Bloch said he knows the process will continue long after the public has forgotten or moved on to other issues.
and#8220;It might take a few months to a few years, but that’s what we’re going to be doing,and#8221; Bloch said.