published Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Chattanoogans recount horror tales from Haiti


by Brittany Cofer
  • photo
    People take goods from a collapsed building in Port-au-Prince on Saturday. U.N. peacekeepers said popular anger is rising and warned authorities and aid organizations to increase security to prevent looting after Tuesday's earthquake. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Ashley Aakesson's trip to Haiti wasn't supposed to include falling buildings, catastrophically injured people and choking clouds of yellow dust.

When Mrs. Aakesson, executive director of the Chattanooga-based Children's Nutrition Program, arrived late in the evening Jan. 10, she expected to work out the details of a fundraising program during her six-day stay. About 18 miles west of Port-au-Prince, she joined two American CNP staff members and about 40 Haitian employees at the Holy Cross Hospital in Leogane.

"We were basically right next to the epicenter," she said.

On Tuesday when the 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit one of the world's poorest and least developed countries, Mrs. Aakesson was having a late lunch with several colleagues in Port-au-Prince.

Since the earthquake struck, there has been an overwhelming effort from organizations around the world to help those in Haiti. The American Red Cross set up a base camp near the airport in Port-au-Prince, and several planes with relief supplies have landed in the area. The first distribution of supplies is scheduled today, according to a Greater Chattanooga Area Red Cross news release.

"I was at the Kinam Hotel and just sort of relaxing in my room and all of a sudden everything started shaking and moving," said John Talbird, Chattanooga resident and chairman of the board of Holy Cross Hospital. "It was like it was in slow motion. It was a violent jerking, but not a quick jerking."

The area of Port-au-Prince did not show immediate damage, but cell phone networks went down right away, Mrs. Aakesson said. As she attempted to contact the other workers in Leogane, the air filled with thick, yellow dust from the crumbling Haitian homes. That night, the group met with Mr. Talbird and slept on the ground in the courtyard of the Kinam Hotel.

Haitians covered in dust and clinging to their children filed into the park across from the hotel. Carrying nothing more than a pillow, blanket and bottle of water, people refused to sleep in their homes for fear of the inevitable aftershocks.

Wednesday morning Mrs. Aakesson and her colleagues began making their way back to Leogane, where they would find their living quarters destroyed, the hospital cracked and unsafe.

Mr. Talbird said he thinks the hospital is still OK.

"But I've got to go back and make some assessment about that," he said. "It has some massive cracks in it, but it seemed to withstand it."

Workers at the Holy Cross Hospital treated hundreds of people with "some of the most horrible injuries you could possibly imagine," Mrs. Aakesson said. Falling debris from collapsing buildings and homes led to smashed and severed limbs, fractures and lacerations.

"We basically just had sutures and bandages. We were using cardboard for splints, and we had no pain meds," she said. "These kids were in so much pain, and all we could give them was ibuprofen and Tylenol."

TIPS FOR CHARITABLE GIVING

* Research charities before you contribute. Use sources such as the Better Business Bureau (give.org) and GuideStar (guidestar.org).

* Be wary of telephone solicitors asking for contributions.

* Never give your credit card, debit card or bank account information to a telephone solicitor.

* If a tax deduction is important to you, make sure the organization has a tax deductible "501c." status with the IRS.

* Watch out for organizations that use questionable techniques such as sending unordered merchandise or invoices after you have turned them down for a donation.

* People can file a complaint against a charitable organization at www.sos.ga.gov/securities.

* For more information, call Georgia Secretary of State's Securities and Business Regulation Division at 404-656-3920.

Source: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp

Mrs. Aakesson and Mr. Talbird boarded a flight Friday on a U.S. military plane that had dropped off relief supplies. Late that night, the two Chattanooga residents returned home to their families.

"I can't really describe it," Mrs. Aakesson said. "Any time I got a quiet moment, that's what I was thinking about, just imagining being back. It was good."

Now that she's home, Mrs. Aakesson said the next step is to coordinate with other groups to help the people of Haiti. Though she knows at least one member of the CNP team who had been living in Haiti plans to return soon, Mrs. Aakesson said she likely won't be going back soon.

"I don't want people to forget, because it's going to take a long time to rebuild. It was already bad, and I'm hoping to rebuild with the Haitians to make it better than before," she said. "For me, it will probably be at least a couple of months before going back."

Mr. Talbird said although he needs to get back to Haiti to assess the damage to the hospital and its nearby buildings, he won't go until the first phase of relief has been completed. In the meantime, he is working to set up a mechanism on the Children's Nutrition Program Web site at cnphaiti.org to allow people to make donations for the Leogane relief effort.

"I am not going back until they at least have enough infrastructure and they have pulled themselves back together and have enough supplies where I will not be one more person they have to take care of," he said.

about Brittany Cofer...

Brittany Cofer is a business reporter who has been with the Chattanooga Times Free Press since January 2010. She previously worked as a general assignment Metro reporter. In the Business department, she covers banking, retail, tourism, consumer issues and green issues. Brittany is from Conyers, Ga., and spent two years at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., before transferring to the University of Georgia. She graduated from the university’s Grady College of Journalism in December ...

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