Dialing for Help, and Hope, in Haiti

By Myriam Annette

More than a week has passed since a 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti and its capital city, Port-au-Prince. from the rubble tent cities have sprung up throughout the capital and in other affected areas of the country. For tens of thousands, bits of cardboard, a sheet, or perhaps a tattered mattress is now home.

I am part of a 10-person team from Telecoms Sans Frontieres, or Telecoms Without Borders, that deployed to Haiti within 24 hours of this devastating earthquake. We are here to provide emergency telecommunications support for UN agencies and other international relief workers. and we are running a humanitarian calling operation to help Haitians reconnect with loved ones to share news of family and friends.

We have three teams providing calling operations to 3 survivors’ camps a day. Each team sets up satellite-based calling operations that provide families with a free international 3-minute call. 90 percent of these calls go to the US. And most of the calls are the first contact survivors have had with their relatives outside of the country.

We are serving hundreds of families everyday, but it’s reported that there are 600 camps. With no place to live and no access to resources for those making the calls, the calls are often rough. Many ask relatives to somehow get them money so they can buy food and water. We hear stories of huge loss. Survivors carry purses and wallets full of pictures of family killed. The tell stories of unimaginable choices, like the man forced to save either a wife or a daughter when only one could be pulled out and brought to the makeshift medical facilities in time.

But other times we hear people let family know – for the first time – that they survived. Those are good calls. And more and more UN responders and resources arrive every day. The job is just so big and the resources and organization needed enormous. More than a million homeless, hungry and thirsty and spread out in pockets across the city. So we continue to see people who have not yet seen any support at all.

TSF is also assisting the UN by setting up VSATs and BGANs — two kinds of broadband satellite equipment — and networking equipment at UN locations, by setting up or supporting coordination centers for UN and NGO responders, and by providing IT troubleshooting support for anyone who needs help.

Telecommunications at UN camps are now well served. The mobile phone networks are working, but calls drop often. Only one of five calls goes through. Text messaging is more reliable. Yet many in the camps can’t afford international calls, and with power out, phones are going dead.

On Saturday we visited three more camps, one where survivors are gathered on the grounds of the Belgian embassy, one at Canape Vert, and at Champs de Mars, the single largest camp in the city. The destruction near Champs de Mars, including the Presidential Palace, is shocking. Yet from the rubble, hope emerged. A local business owner whose building was badly damaged allowed us to set up in his courtyard. In total, today we were able to reconnect nearly 350 families and friends — and in our mission overall thus far we have reconnected 2,630 families, and we’re still working.

Myriam Annette is communications coordinator for Telecoms Sans Frontieres, an NGO specializing in providing emergency telecommunications services in disasters. Support for TSF is provided by a number of groups including the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership. UN Dispatch enjoys the support of the UN Founadation. 


Image: Flickr (UN Foundation)