Navy veteran among those treating injuries, distributing food for Haitians who lost everything in storm

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 21, 2016

JABOUIN, Haiti – At night she sings. A rich, melodic gospel hymn that carries from the porch of her ravaged home into the village night, as if to summon joy.

But joy is slow to return to this stricken peninsula region of southwest Haiti. Hurricane Matthew unleashed fury here Oct. 4, with walls of water and 140-mile winds that whipped and grinded everything on the western half of the peninsula for seven terrifying hours.

Homes were damaged or demolished and roofs blown away, and crops were destroyed.

“Singing makes me feel better,” Joseph Rose Yvette said.

She and her husband and their three children fled through the howling gale to the home of a neighbor after the storm took their roof. Now, she has no shelter for her family and no longer any crops to sell at market. She has only the fear she carries in her heart, she said reluctantly. She does not wish to complain.

The U.S. military arrived in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince airport shortly after the storm, responding to the Haitian government request for helicopters to deliver U.S. Agency for International Development food and medicine to areas unreachable by road. For two weeks, military aircraft have flown near-constant sorties into southwestern Haiti.

But without eyes on the ground, those efforts did not reach all of the estimated 1.4 million people in need. There were villages in the far mountains that remained hungry and thirsty, and in some areas, there have been reports of local relief trucks being robbed or corrupt leaders hoarding the delivered supplies.

News of localized need spread randomly through networks of volunteers who arrived in Port-au-Prince to lend a hand.

In Jabouin (pronounced Jah-bwah), people were hungry. Hundreds suffered from storm injuries. Yvette Moise, a Lansing, Mich., resident of 21 years who was visiting her birthplace when the hurricane struck, sent word to a Kendra Trepus Luna, a friend who works in relief and development in Port-au-Prince.

That word reached Burke Bryant and William Gagan of the Humanitarian Aid and Rescue Project – photographers turned activists who often go into war zones to assist people in need.

Bryant, a Navy veteran, and Gagan, a videographer, arrived in Haiti on Oct. 12 without a plan. There, they met a volunteer couple from Texas, who offered to share their hotel room. By chance, Bryant met Luna in the lobby of the hotel and learned about Moise and her village of Jabouin.

A few others joined in and the group left the next day on the 140-mile journey by road down Haiti’s southwest claw to Jabouin.

As they moved west, the destruction grew. Everywhere were downed trees, their roots reaching into the air, looking like rigor mortis had set in. Some rested on top of walls or pierced through roofs, crossing at odd angles with downed electrical poles. Men with machetes hacked away at the tangles of deadwood, clearing the roads before tackling their homes.

Many houses had been reduced to shells. In larger towns like Les Cayes on the southern coast, shop owners swept piles of debris, and the fortunate ones placed shiny new corrugated metal sheets on gaping rooftops. Along the rural passages, people without shoes stood in front of the broken remains of their houses, in gardens that no longer bore nourishment.

The bridge to Chantal, the small town before Jabouin, was washed out in the storm. Bryant and Gagan forged their way over the water by vehicle. They landed in Jabouin, where Madame Moise, as she is known, guided them through the hurricane’s path.

Her large, modern house was one of just four structures in the village of 160 families to make it through, she said. Four small homes in her large yard, housing dozens of relatives, were left in varying degrees of disrepair.

As the hours of the storm passed, she and her husband, Rafael, could hear cries of terror and took in more than 70 soaked, shaking people, giving them clothing and tea and trying to make them comfortable.

“The storm affected everyone,” she said. “There are no houses, no places to sleep. Some (people) are hurt.”

Bryant and Gagan got to work. Many people suffered from injuries to their legs – from flying debris or sheet metal from roofs. With basic first aid, they began treating as many people as they could, bandaging wounds and offering hydration. They treated more than 300 people that first day, Gagan said.

Bryant said they also made “call after call after call” to USAID, to the U.S. military joint task force, to the United Nations. The UN World Health Organization sent medical supplies and an evacuation helicopter for a woman with a deep hole in the sole of her foot that was gangrenous. They’d driven her to the hospital in Les Cayes, Gagan said, but the hospital was overwhelmed and turned her away. The health organization flew her to a hospital in Port-au-Prince.

She has seven kids and a husband who was not well, so her 15-year-old is caring for them all while the mother remains hospitalized.

“We’ve been taking extra care of them because they lost the head of the family,” Gagan said.

The very next day, they said, the first U.S. military relief flights landed in Jabouin. Under the authoritative direction of Moise, Bryant and Gagan locked the 2,000 pounds of rice and beans and the bottles of oil in a storage room and rationed them equitably, basing the amount on the size of the family.

Meanwhile, the sick and injured kept coming. Jackson Bogait, 65, from Chantal, came in with a gaping wound exposing the muscle in his calf.

“I was sitting in front of my house in Chantal and the metal sheet came flying at me,” he said. He went to the hospital in Les Cayes, but they didn’t take him in, so he came here. They cleaned the wound, but Gagan said he didn’t have the training to do anything more.

Bryant heard that there were bodies washing downstream in the river. One was buried a short distance away. Animal carcasses were also floating down. With contaminants in the village’s main water supply, cholera became a serious concern.

A Canadian rescue-dog team, brought in by the UN, joined the relief effort. The team leader, Sylvie Montier, said they sat in Port-au-Prince for two days waiting for the UN to fly them to Jeremie on the northern side of the peninsula. The UN was taking too long to put them to use, so when they met Bryant, they joined his effort.

Bryant founded HARP six years ago, believing he had more to offer than his work in photography and advertising. With a penchant for danger and a desire to help people, he thought his skills could do some good. He linked up with Gagan, working together in South Sudan and the Upper and Lower Blue Nile, delivering recycled medical supplies. The effort was humanitarian, but the fact that they carried weapons left room for controversy, Bryant said. Still, he believed in what he was doing. “I am from a pretty upper class family,” said Bryant, 46, during a moment’s rest. “I have had everything I ever needed or wanted in life.

“My biggest fear was regret,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do in life was to get old sitting in a chair and look back and wonder what would have happened if I had done this or that.”

An operations specialist in the Navy in the mid-1990s, Bryant said the Navy taught him teamwork. “To be able to understand it takes more than the lead person,” he said. “And I guess dedication, the end goal pushing through perseverance.”

Each day in Jabouin brings new projects. One recent morning, Bryant and Gagan led the Canadian team and their dogs to the river to show them where the bodies had been reported. Montier later said the dogs found the buried body that Bryant had told them was there.

The two men walked back to the village up a different hill, stopping at homes they hadn’t seen and inspecting the widespread damage. A family of 11 was sleeping in a single room because the rest of the house had no roof. Another family was living in a makeshift hut made of scrap metal next to the empty shell of what had been their home.

Back at Moise’s house, a man from a nearby village informed them that two local relief trucks had been hit by bandits and had to turn back. The villages received no relief. Bryant looked at Gagan and they agreed to go the next day, with relief supplies to deliver to the nearby villages, and put an end to the attacks.

By now, it was 9 a.m. The injured and sick began to show up. Gagan poured hydration salts into a bottle of water and gave it to a dehydrated woman. He treated a sick child, bandaged a boy’s leg. A frail young woman, shaking and listless, said “faim, faim,” or “Hunger, hunger.” Someone gave her crackers, and Gagan gave her a hydration mix.

Bryant eyed the girl cautiously. This could be cholera he said. “Give her the hydration and get her out of here. She needs to go to the hospital.”

Late morning, Bryant took a trip to Les Cayes to get a water filtration system large enough to handle the water supply for the entire village. Bogait returned to have his bandage changed. The wound was still open and seeping.

Gagan said he should wait for Bryant’s return.

Then, the chopping sound of helicopter rotors broke through. Gagan put down his medical supplies, told the patients to wait and rushed to the airfield where two U.S. Navy helicopters were circling.

As they landed, children came running and suddenly there were hundreds of people on the fields, watching the military machines set down in their demolished fields, filled to capacity with giant World Food Programme sacks. U.S. Marines, along with the Navy crews, began unloading the bags, aided by villagers wearing red wristbands given to them by Gagan and Moise.

Only those assigned were allowed to touch the relief. The rest stood, eyeing the delivery.

After the copters were unloaded, the U.S. military members posed for pictures with villagers. They shook hands and were reluctant to leave so soon. Gagan and others tapped by Moise guarded the piles, standing atop them to keep the crowd from taking the supplies.

An argument ensued. People yelled and Moise yelled back. People from other villages wanted to take food home. She told them they would have to wait, and promised they wouldn’t be forgotten.

She explained later that she told them: “We are going to go town by town and the leader of the town will get and share with his people – with dignity and respect,” she said. “Now what we need is coverings for the houses.”

Sack by sack, the men with the red wristbands carried the food to the storeroom behind Moise’s house. Gagan went back to seeing patients, aided by a Haitian nurse and the Canadian dog team, which had returned.

In the afternoon, Gagan took Bogait to the hospital in Chantal, fearing his wound was too deep to heal without medical intervention. Bryant, returning with the water filtration system, met them at the hospital, but after a conversation with the nun working there, they took Bogait home. The hospital had no beds, and Bryant agreed that Bogait’s wound looked much better.

“He’ll be fine,” Bryant said.

The day wore on. Young men played soccer on the field across from Moise’s home where cows ate suddenly accessible fruit from fallen trees. The medicines were moved upstairs and the courtyard was cleared for a game table, where men played dominoes while the women cooked in Moise’s kitchen.

For a few minutes, life looked almost normal here. Villagers had rice and beans and oil. Their injuries were being treated. But they knew it was temporary. People had lost their crops and their gardens, Moise said. There’s no sustenance, little livelihood. And it’s the same for miles and miles around. What happens when the emergency supplies are gone?

“We have something short term,” she said. “But long term -- we worry about it.”

Later that day, Gagan added a new post on the HARP Facebook page:

“We have been fighting to get more food and medical supplies as what we get brought in goes so fast. We can’t get enough of anything to even feel like we are taking a huge bite out of it yet. We already distributed the 3,800 lbs of food we had dropped in, and that only provided 160 families with three days at most of food. Our cries for help have managed to get another drop but people are coming from farther communities and there are more than can be helped. We have no return date in sight for home, as we can’t leave these people to fend for themselves.”

HARP donations can be made at www.facebook.com/harphumanitarian and www.gofundme.com/2tatazw

Twitter: @DiannaCahn

William Gagan, of the Humanitarian Aid and Rescue Project, right, tends to sick child in the southwest Haiti village of Jabouin on Oct. 18.