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Medical Aid Unable to Reach Many Earthquake Victims

January 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gwen Ifill speaks with two guests about the logistical challenges of getting medical care and other aid to quake victims in Haiti.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, for more about the situation on the ground, we’re joined by Greg Elder, the Haiti operations manager for Doctor Without Borders — he oversees La Trinite Hospital in Port-au-Prince, but he’s based in New York — and Yves Colon, a former Miami Herald reporter and editor who now teaches journalism at the University of Miami. He was born in Haiti, and he is involved with several Haitian-American groups and charities working in that country.

Professor Colon, I want to start with you, because I know you have family in Haiti. And I wonder what’s the latest you have heard about their whereabouts and the situation on the ground.

YVES COLON, University of Miami: Well, so far, no news whatsoever, Gwen. It’s really frustrating. And I think that’s what’s really bothering us here, that we haven’t been able to get any word about my family, specifically about my mom, who lives there. She’s all alone.

And we have been spending, since last night, just looking at Twitter and Facebook and all the other news channels, hoping for word. But, you know, it’s been impossible. I keep calling, and I haven’t been able to get through. It’s — first, it was busy signal. And then now there is nothing at all. You know, the lines are — I imagine, all the cell towers are down.

And it’s — I think, you know, it’s just we have been spending the whole day in complete frustration.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Elder, as you have been trying to get relief on the ground there, how has this communication problem been affecting you. And how do you get a reliable assessment of what the damage and what the needs are?

DR. GREG ELDER, operations manager, Doctors Without Borders, Haiti: Yes, Gwen, thanks. Thanks for inviting us here to discuss this.

Communications have been a problem. We were able to make communications quite quickly after the earthquake, and we were able to stay in contact with the team most of the evening and through the day today.

But, certainly, communications has been a problem. What we do know — and our team has been able to paint a picture for us of what happened during the evening. It was chaotic. People were on the streets. They didn’t know where to go, where to turn for help.

We had to basically move through the streets on foot to try to assess the extent of the damage to our own health structures and also to other health structures, so that we could see whether or not there was going to be any functioning hospital services today.

GWEN IFILL: So, Dr. Elder, you already had resources on the ground, functioning medical facilities on the ground in Haiti. Are they not there any more? And how are you getting more resources in? We have heard that the Red Cross, for instance, had said that their medical supplies are exhausted.

DR. GREG ELDER: Yes, we have been working in Haiti for some time. We have three hospital structures, a trauma center and a maternity hospital included, and nearly 800 staff on the ground in Port-au-Prince.

So, we already had facilities functioning. Those facilities structurally have been so badly damaged, we have had to evacuate patients out of those facilities into the neighboring grounds. But we have been able to set up some tented first-aid centers during the day today.

Those centers obviously have been overwhelmed, exhausted. Already in Port-au-Prince, the health system is rather — rather fragile, and the hospitals that we have visited during the evening and during the day have been overwhelmed. So, we’re — we’re sort of trying to fill a gap in the short term and then reinforce that in the coming days with inflatable hospital and surgical facilities that will be flowing in from the U.S. and from Europe in the coming 48 hours.

GWEN IFILL: Yves Colon, for those who have not been to Port-au-Prince, give us a description of what, before this happened, it was. It was not the best of situations physically, even before this happened.

YVES COLON: No, it’s not.

You know, Port-au-Prince was a small city that was built for maybe less than 100,000 people, and now it’s about two million people. And its streets are clogged all the time with traffic. And housing is at a premium in Haiti, so the only place to go is — is to crowd the house next door.

So, it’s a very, very, very crowded environment. And more and more people have been building towards the hills, and getting away from downtown Port-au-Prince. So, yes, it was not a — it was not a comfortable place in — to begin with.

And, over the past 20, 30 years, it has gotten even more and more crowded, as more people from the countryside have been coming in to the capital looking for work, looking for education, looking for a way to make a living. So, it’s a place, also, where there’s very little control in building, no building rules, zoning rules, per se. You might have you a — you might take a permit to build a house in Port-au-Prince, but you will not find any inspectors really checking out to see whether you are doing the right thing.

So, this is the kind of environment that Port-au-Prince — Port-au-Prince is. It’s — it’s very shoddy construction.

And you have the hillsides all around the city that are populated with — that are small favelas as you find in other places, slums…

GWEN IFILL: Right.

YVES COLON: … very small buildings that have, you know, one-room houses or block that are basically hanging on to sides of the hills.

GWEN IFILL: Let me…

YVES COLON: And…

GWEN IFILL: Yes. Yes.

YVES COLON: … that’s — that’s basically how it is.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask, Dr. Elder, you work in disaster areas like this around the country, in places where there aren’t disasters, around the world. How does this compare to, say, something like the Asian tsunami, the scope of this damage?

DR. GREG ELDER: Well, it’s a catastrophic event.

As the professor said, Port-au-Prince is a very congested city with a high population and a very relatively poor infrastructure. So, it’s really a catastrophic event, where absolutely no one knows really what the scope of this is, in terms of casualties and fatalities.

It will be some time before anyone can tell that, because people are buried under the rubble. Also, the existing infrastructure and ability to respond to an emergency is really not very strong in Haiti and is — and is rather dependent on international support, international organizations to be able to fill that gap.

GWEN IFILL: And, Yves Colon, I have to ask you. You’re right there in Miami. Little Haiti is a big neighborhood in Miami, probably as big a population of Haitians as exist in the country. What has been the reaction like there today?

YVES COLON: I think it’s — everyone is feeling a great deal of frustration. Like I said before, that the only news that Haitians are getting is trickling through from word of mouth.

No one has been able to reach their families. So, every Haitian wants to know — in Miami wants to know what’s happening with — everyone has family members in Port-au-Prince or elsewhere, and everyone is looking for news.

You know, the only way that I got news today about what’s happening with our students, for example, at the Haitian Education Leadership Program, HELP, in Haiti is through word of people sending Skype and Twitter feeds and all that.

And a lot of Haitians don’t have computers here. They don’t have access to this kind of technology and information. So, everyone is basically stuck, because they — they are all relying on basically one — relying on cell phones.

So, there’s a great deal of frustration and anger, really, that people want to know what’s happening. I think not knowing, as it is happening for us, not knowing is terrible. We all want to know what’s going on, what can we do? And we feel totally helpless. And I think I can speak…

GWEN IFILL: Is that something you’re — I’m just saying, is that something you are depending on the U.S. government to help you with, to help you establish those communications? Or is that something your own social networks are being able to — to fill that gap?

YVES COLON: Well, I’m relying on friends who are working — I’m a former reporter for The Miami Herald. And I have friends down in Haiti right now — and before they left last night, I gave them my mother’s number — and other friends who are working for other news outlets who are also going down to Haiti.

And that’s what I’m relying on, really, to try to get me word, trying to find out what’s going on with my mom. But, otherwise, I keep calling, you know, and I’m not going to stop calling on the cell phone, to see hopefully that some — soon, anyway, I will hear something.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Well, we wish you all luck in finding your family, and it being a happy finding.

And, so, thank you very much, Yves Colon.

And, also, to Greg Elder in New York, thank you.

YVES COLON: Thank you, Gwen.