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Assignment: Haiti

Curtis Allen works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and served as a public affairs officer in Haiti, Feb. 25, 2010
Curtis Allen works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and served as a public affairs officer in Haiti, Feb. 25, 2010

Featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at

New bonds forged in Haiti’s rubble

By Curtis Allen

8:03 p.m. Wednesday, February 24, 2010

There were 12 of us who flew down to Haiti on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention medical plane converted for passengers — something akin to a flying pickup truck. Nobody knew exactly what to expect, but we were there and ready to work.

On the plane, I sat with a CDC employee who was going to the Haiti National Lab to work on disease surveillance. We talked about the need to get ahead of disease outbreaks. This is critically important because of the thousands of Haitians living practically elbow-to-elbow in makeshift compounds with little or no sanitation, water or food. Diseases can spread like wildfire under those circumstances, especially in a population with very low vaccination rates.

It was dark when we landed. As we moved along the cracked and broken roads from the airport to the U.S. Embassy, we could see very little from the truck bed.

We arrived at the embassy and were shown where to sleep. Some of us pitched tents, and some of us moved into tents with 10 or 15 others. It was hot and uncomfortable, but it was nothing compared to what millions of people in Port-au-Prince were — and are — facing. During the next few days we saw the true meaning of disaster and misery, and the dignity of the Haitian people in the face of unimaginable devastation and grief.

The next day, we snaked through teeming streets. Buildings and houses everywhere had collapsed. But “collapsed” doesn’t describe what really happened. The structures had disintegrated into piles of dirt and rubble. There was little to indicate these piles of debris were actually once buildings.

The streets were clogged with people — women with food and building materials balanced on their heads, dump trucks, weaving cars and brightly colored painted bus-trucks called “tap-taps” because the locals tap the sides of the truck when they want on or off. The sidewalks were becoming crowded again as makeshift supermarkets with vendors were erected, selling everything from bananas to batteries.

The hours were long — 15 or more hours a day, seven days a week. Few of us knew the time of day, the day of the week, or even how long we’d been there. The days melted together into a blur of meetings and work. But it was outside the walls of the embassy that we started to understand why we were there.

I saw unbelievable destruction, but I also met many heroes. I saw doctors operating under extreme conditions at Love A Child Village and Gheskio Hospital. I was on the USNS Comfort, where miracles happened every day.

I went to the Hotel Montana, where I witnessed some of the bravest people I have ever seen crawling through the rubble to find people who died when the hotel collapsed. I went to the morgue, where the last responders — the Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team — identified and prepared U.S. citizen remains to be returned to their loved ones. I heard about an Air Force pilot who refused to leave until he could take off with a planeload of orphans approved for adoption in the U.S. I saw Disaster Medical Assistance Teams work until the point of exhaustion. The list of heroes I had the privilege of seeing in action could go on for pages.

But it all comes back to the people of Haiti. Before the earthquake, most Haitians had little; now, they have nothing. Every day, it gets a little better — commerce is returning to the streets, many are working for the U.S. or nongovernmental organizations, and life goes on.

Every Haitian I met lost loved ones — brothers, sisters, cousins, mothers, fathers, wives or husbands. Many lost their entire families. The embassy drivers had all lost loved ones, yet they grieved with a quiet dignity, and never complained.

On Sundays, the streets were filled with thousands of the faithful pouring into church services.

One night, an Army major was reporting on his day to a room of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He had been making his usual rounds of the food distribution sites when he came upon workers pulling bodies from a collapsed building. His voice broke as he told us it was a school, and the bodies were those of children. There were more than 100 children buried in the rubble. There were many Haitian parents watching the workers remove their children and place them on the sidewalk. The major went to some of the women, hugged them, and — although he was not religious — prayed with them.

As he was about to leave, one of the women said to him, “Thank you for being here. We love you. We love the United States.” The room was quiet, but I could feel the almost tangible pride these men and women had in serving their country and helping these people who have lost so much.

The recovery will be long and hard. While we all hope we will be able to leave Haiti in better shape than it was before the earthquake, we will face many challenges along the way. But one thing is certain — those who came down on the flying pickup truck will never be the same. We are all proud of the work being done, and feel privileged to have been allowed to serve Haiti and its people.

Curtis Allen works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and served as a public affairs officer in Haiti.