The Exodus Begins Exhausted Aid Workers Among those Leaving Haiti

While the inflow of aid into Haiti is getting more organized, thousands are trying to flee the country. They include tourists, diplomats and reporters. And, increasingly, aid workers who are worn out by what they have experienced.

By in Port-au-Prince, Haiti


Christen Parker clutches a small, tattered notebook. "These are my stories," she says and shows pages and pages filled with cramped, scribbled writing, a gushing of words. Some are blurred, as if they have become wet. Others just break off mid sentence.

Parker, a slight bespectacled woman, is sitting on her backpack behind the half destroyed Port-au-Prince airport terminal. She is surrounded by countless other people who want to leave the city. They have been waiting for hours, some for days. Helicopters rattle through the air. A woman is nursing a baby with a bandaged head.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Aid Workers in Haiti
"My stories," Parker says again and then begins to read them aloud. She tells of a woman whose leg had to be amputated without anesthetic. A young boy who doesn't know if he still has parents. An old man who was rescued from the rubble of his home after five days only to die singing and praying.

By now, of course, these kinds of stories are well known. Yet Parker's graphic retelling reveals the horror all over again.

"It was so hard to hear all this," says Parker, with tears in her eyes. "But I wrote everything down. Every word. If I ever need courage, I will find it here."

Parker, 28, is a translator and lives in St. Louis. She came with a University of Miami medical team to Haiti the day after the earthquake to help overcome the language divide between the doctors and the terrified, desperate patients. "In case of amputations we tried to give them one night to think about it so that they could get used to the thought. Hardly anyone said no." Parker wrote down everything that she translated.

She now sits in the midst of chaos. Hundreds are waiting at the airport to get out of Haiti. Most are Americans: diplomats, tourists, US citizens with Haitian family members -- and above all volunteers who came to Haiti to help and are now so drained that they can't bear it any longer. They have packed their belongings in suitcases, bags and sacks.

The exodus has begun.

No one knows how many aid workers made their way to the earthquake area. Apart from the United Nations, the US aid organization USAID, the military and other official aid organizations, there are also dozens of private, independent groups here, that no one is counting. Yet even the hardiest of crisis veterans have found their nerves worn down by more than a week in hell.

'We're Beat'

"I need a break," sighs Jim Guest, a 50-year-old neurosurgeon from Florida, who was in Haiti with a group called Medishare -- the team for which Parker was interpreting. "I need some sleep. I have to unburden myself." And then? "Then I will come back," he promises.

Guest usually operates on brains, a highly specialized branch of medicine. In Port-au-Prince, however, he had to carry out very different, cruder operations. "We had 350 to 400 patients and approximately 100 amputations. But we hardly had the proper instruments. We had to make do. We used belts as tourniquets, and once we used a red water hose."

"We're beat," says Joe Mackey, a 46-year-old anesthetist from Boston. Mackey tells of the medieval methods he had to use on patients because of the lack of supplies in two operating tents. They had neither the proper anesthetic nor oxygen. So they used ketamine, a local anesthetic that is usually used on horses and cats. "Two packets per leg were enough."

Oselene Joseph is also standing in line. The woman in the flower print dress introduces her son Vladamir Fotaine. The 13-year-old has a bandaged jaw and his right arm is in a cast. He was buried under the rubble of their house before his father dug him out, the boy says. His mother hopes he will be able to fly to Miami as he has a US passport. She waves the two documents, her son's US passport and her Haitian one.

'I've Been Waiting Two Days'

It is only at the end of the conversation that she says, her face quite still, "And my daughter is dead."

Vivian Titus, 80, and her husband Roland Titus, 86, somehow miraculously survived the quake unscathed. Both live in New York but still have a house in Port-au-Prince. "It swayed and then fell over," she says. "We slept outside for eight days."

Around 45,000 Americans were in Haiti when the quake struck. Only around 6,100 have been able to leave the country since then. Of the 12,300 cases documented by the US Embassy so far, only 7,500 have been traced, another 4,800 remain missing. These are devastating figures but are not being mentioned very often in the media reports. The Americans want to avoid the impression that they are rescuing their own first.

Not everyone is managing to get out. Patrice Jacquet, 42, is slumped on a folding chair at the front of the line and is sobbing. "I've been waiting for two days," she says. "First they say yes, then they say no." Something is wrong with her passport, she has been told.

Two young, taciturn women from the US State Department, sit at their laptops, processing each case. How many people have they already allowed leave? "Thousands." And how many hours a day are spent on the process? "24/7." Had they slept the previous night? "Two hours."

Some want to get out, others want to get in. On Thursday, the US Southern Command, or Southcom, which is leading the relief efforts, announced that it was increasing its troop numbers here to 20,000.

Injured people are still being brought from the devastated areas to the airport, which has been taken over by the US military. After the last strong aftershock, the field hospital had to clear beds and release patients who were only half recovered to make way for new ones.

Marine Commander Stephen Polk says that on Thursday they flew out another 15 people to the US naval hospital ship, the USNS Comfort. Polk, a giant of a man, regulates the constant helicopter traffic at the airport, operating from a raised area right before where the aircraft land on the withered grass. That day between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. he had cleared 70 flights with silent precise gestures. The Navy is not allowed to fly civilians over the sea after sunset.

'Everything Has Gotten Better'

Like clockwork, the hundreds of soldiers, from the Marines, Air Force and Army, unload the arriving helicopters and then reload them. Polk directs the waiting civilians to the seats on board. A few exhausted young GIs are sleeping behind the countless palettes of drinking water.

The other flight traffic is now running smoothly after the initial chaos. Every few minutes a plane lands, including a charter flight from Delta Airlines. Huge juggernauts from the US Air Force and the Fuerza Aérea Venezolana wait on the runway to be filled with people and material.

Most aid organizations are no longer complaining. "Everything has gotten better," says Rebecca Gustafson of USAID. "And our search and rescue teams are still out there. Until the Haitian government tells them not to."

Shortly before 4 p.m. the last helicopter of the day reaches the USNS Comfort, which is anchored in the bay. The Dragonslayer 611 doesn't have any patients on board, just soldiers and reporters. Pilot Scott Hatch flies the helicopter in big circles over the city, "making donuts."

From above the image is still devastating, nine days after the quake. Some areas were left untouched, while others are completely destroyed. Plumes of smoke rise from the ruins. The wind pushes the acrid smell of burning through the doors of the helicopter. Then the crowds of people that are winding their way through the streets become smaller and smaller and finally disappear.

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