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United Hatzalah Pulse: Reflections on Rescue from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake
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Dovie Maisel: It’s a humbling event to understand that you are like dust in the wind. You are like dust in the wind, literally. You’re looking at powers of nature that are so powerful. And you come to a place that is in absolute devastation and destruction and you can’t, the human mind, it’s very hard for it to comprehend what it means to see a quarter of a million bodies. And millions of people displaced out of their homes in a city the size of, I don’t know, Manhattan. That’s basically the size of Port-au-Prince.
And you come in and it’s like everyone is coming to help. And all the local people want to do is escape. And actually when you go there around the streets, there is silence, silence in the streets and people are just walking around with their hands up in the air like in despair and like there’s nothing to do. And you really, really feel, you get that feeling – first of all you look behind you to see where is the help because you look right and left and you see that there’s no one there and no ambulances, no doctors, no anything and you look behind you to see where is the help and then it occurs to you that you’re the help.
And it’s a very powerful feeling, impact on you that when the night will come down it will be pitch black. There is nothing there. And first like you need to be out there to try and help. And that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people that are just missing. And you see people walking like they don’t know – you see everybody walking, but they don’t know where they’re walking to. They’re just walking because one place is not better than the other. The whole city is devastated.
And as you’re going by, in the back of these trucks you’re like waved down by people from every area wanting help to go and dig under their houses. But because your resources are very limited, so we get our tasks and missions by central coordination where they know where there is high probability for people to be saved at least on their data. So you try and stick to your mission. And every now and again driving through the city you will pull over because people are begging you to come and help and you somehow go a little bit under the house but you understand that there is no sign of life there.
And you continue onto your mission.
And it’s a very tough mission. Also, while you’re working on the site already, where you know there are live people because you have signs of life, mothers are coming up to you, and pulling you by the arm, begging you to come and help to rescue their babies and children that are buried under their houses. And you know that there is probably no chance to save anyone there. But it’s just tearing as a human being, as a parent to see them crying and begging you and you end up going there to find that there really isn’t anything.
And you’re working on the site for hours and it’s hot, it’s like 40 degrees with 100% humidity, impossible situation to work in. The terrible stench of decomposing bodies everywhere in the city. Something you can’t even understand.
And then suddenly all the work was worth it because suddenly you manage to get in under and pull out someone. And it’s a 15 year old kid, girl that was just trapped in this capsule for four days, three days and she’s actually all intact, bumps, bruises but she was stuck in a capsule like half a meter over half a meter with huge cement beams over her. And it just took four days to get her out. She’s dehydrated but she’s smiling and you wet her lips a little bit and you start an IV line and you actually get really, really excited for a minute there.
And then when the initial excitement goes over a little bit, you understand you want to transport her to a hospital, the only problem is, there is no hospital. Because the only hospital was half-devastated in the earthquake itself and the other half is overwhelmed with thousands of injured people there.
So even with your brief success and happiness there, you’re actually thinking what is going to be with the person because what’s the next step? Things that are so trivial to us, you know, a doctor, a hospital, water, light, fire, food, water, whatever it is are now so scarce and non-existent.
And in many different ways, so what are you doing in the next step in the hospital? So you end up taking her to the hospital even though you know it’s overwhelmed and you don’t know what will end up being with her care. But you try. And throughout this process, it’s a humanitarian challenge as a human being, as a responder, as a paramedic, to see people in this human distress for losing their children, their families, their most basic needs of food and water and shelter. Things that are so obvious to each and every one of us.
I mean we were on water rations and we weren’t allowed to even drink next to the people. Because first of all, it’s not human just that you yes and them no. It wouldn’t feel right. You go and hide and drink from your water rations. And you fear that they’ll actually steal it from you. I mean not because they’re bad people, on the contrary. These people were as thankful as thankful you can get but it’s the human instinct to want water, to want food. And it was truly a humbling experience understanding that these powers are like so way above and beyond you.
We felt it. We felt the tremors, we felt these things that are like – and in these tremors houses fell. Right next to you. It’s like – and it’s a very, very scary thing. And within this we keep doing more work and trying to help more people. And every little success, out of a quarter of a million people that were killed and thousands of others that were injured, we managed to help some of them.
And then it’s a good feeling because you see how people who are really in the worst situation who have lost everything, even the most basic humanitarian needs, you were able to help them preserve a little bit of it by showing that you carem about them.
By showing that you’re there to help. And it’s a really humbling experience.
Eitan Press: So talk about resiliency.
Dovie Maisel: Resiliency. Well, I think as far as resiliency goes, I think the human race is the most resilient race period. And the power to live is stronger than anything because even in the worst situation where the whole city was devastated, more than a quarter of a million people killed, not a house without a loss, not a family without a loss. And yet people have that powerful instinct to keep moving forward.
Statistically out of, in the earthquake there were almost 200,000 people trapped under the rubble. And there were hundreds of rescuers that came out from around the world to help support it. And then in the aftermath we looked at the numbers and the numbers were mind-blowing. How many of the 200,000 people were actually rescued by the professional rescue teams? 210. All the other 200,000 were just rescued by their neighbors with sticks and stones and pieces of metal and broken doors, dug out by their own neighbors. The power of survival of human beings is the most amazing thing.
And yes we were able to be part of both independent rescuing and organized unit rescuing. But the power of people to survive goes beyond everything.
This is the seed of me understanding back then that the community, why did I call it project, that the community based emergency response? The reason I look at the whole concept of United Hatzalah, the United Rescue as community based emergency response because in these situations, there ain’t nobody coming in from the outside. It’s you and your community. Looking at Haiti, looking at Nepal, looking at Japan, looking at the Philippines, all these major disasters, which I’ve personally experienced a lot of them on the ground. The power of the community is stronger than any other assistance that will ever come in.
And in those first hours, the first 24 or 48 hours the community will be alone. And that’s what the understanding was that United Rescue, United Hatzalah is doing is community based emergency response. Enabling, giving the power to these people to be able to stand up and help themselves in a more organized fashion – I mean look how successful they were in an unorganized fashion through a human instinct. All the more if they are organized and that’s what we’re trying to do today; is organize people to do things on a regular basis. Whereas all the more when the earthquake hits or a disaster like this they’ll be much more resilient, much more powerful knowing what to do already in a more organized way and possibly even save many more lives.