Written by Ida Eva Zielinska and Dilber Shatursun
On September 1, 2021, Tzu Chi USA issued a press release to announce the arrival in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, of the Tzu Chi Haiti Earthquake Response Team, composed of volunteers from California and New York. They are there to coordinate and set immediate disaster relief distributions in motion, just two weeks after the magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit Haiti on August 14, 2021, causing extensive destruction. At the same time, they would begin work on the mid and long-term recovery plan.
Severe damage in Haiti following the August 14, 2021 earthquake. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
It is not the first time a major earthquake shook this island nation. In 2010, a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake caused tremendous suffering and destruction, with a death toll estimated at 250,000 lives. Tzu Chi has been helping communities in Haiti for more than a decade since then.
Tzu Chi’s local volunteers began assessing damages as soon as this 2021 earthquake struck, their rapid response paving the way for the work of the Tzu Chi USA teams. Four team members, all experienced in Haiti relief work – James Chen, Curtis Hsing, Ting Fan, and Jaime Puerta – make up the first unit from the United States to arrive in Haiti.
Among them, James Chen, who is over 70 years of age, frequently travels between the U.S. and Haiti at his own expense, and this trip marks his 79th time serving on the island.
Concurrent to the Tzu Chi USA team’s arrival, DHL International Shipping had also delivered relief materials from Taiwan to the Tzu Chi Haiti Campus warehouse located in Port-au-Prince. Items from Tzu Chi and the Taiwan Red Cross are now securely stored there until distribution begins. They include 250 boxes of rice, 100 Jing Si Multipurpose Foldable Beds, face masks, water buckets, antibacterial soaps, and feminine hygiene products.
The earthquake’s epicenter was Petit Trou de Nippes, located around 80 miles west of Port-au-Prince. However, the damages sustained in Nippes, with scattered residential housing districts, hardly compare to the death toll and devastating situation in two neighboring cities: Les Cayes of Sud Department and Jérémie of Grand’Anse Department. Tzu Chi’s disaster relief distributions would begin in those disaster zones.
Jing Si Multipurpose Foldable Beds are among the supplies. They can function as beds or chairs and are of great relief for disaster survivors whose homes are damaged or destroyed. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
The Tzu Chi USA team carefully selected each aid supply item for Haiti and then did more, with an added aspiration in mind. They printed and brought stickers with the Tzu Chi logo, which carries a symbolic message of deep meaning within its design. Each bag of aid supplies given to care recipients will have one of these stickers affixed on it, creating a heartfelt bond between the giver and receiver.
After checking on the status and storage of the disaster aid supplies, the Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team’s next two days in Haiti consisted of meetings concerning logistics and other matters. Among them, they met with Dashka Bennett, Vice President of Gigi Depot, a food products distributor in Port-au-Prince that Tzu Chi has partnered with for the upcoming disaster relief events. They aimed to confirm the goods ordered by Tzu Chi and their quantity.
Gigi Depot hopes to send the food goods to a designated warehouse or location in the disaster area in advance of distribution, but Bennett shared certain safety concerns. Given that public security is at risk in those areas, the company’s personnel will have to leave the scene immediately after unloading the goods within an hour or two. Details of delivery remain for the team to finalize.
On the same day, Tzu Chi volunteer James Chen visited Richard Ku, the Republic of China (Taiwan) Ambassador in Haiti. The purpose of the meeting was to show the Ambassador the list of supplies sent to Haiti by Tzu Chi Taiwan and request the Embassy’s assistance with duty-free entry procedures for Tzu Chi’s aid supply imports.
Other meetings on September 2, especially with Tzu Chi’s long-term partners in Haiti, the Salésiens de Don Bosco, helped confirm four venues for the upcoming distributions. And yet, between such critical assignments, there were also opportunities for the Tzu Chi USA team to discover the touching contributions of Tzu Chi’s Haitian volunteers.
The Tzu Chi USA team learned about what James Ocean, a Tzu Chi Haiti volunteer and industrial chemist, was doing. Recognizing that once the dust settles after a major disaster, cleaning up begins, Ocean saw that earthquake survivors were struggling to do laundry and other types of clean-up in their homes in Les Cayes, many damaged.
Inspired, he developed a multipurpose liquid detergent for clothing, dishes, and household surfaces using easy-to-find ingredients that he paid for himself.
James Ocean began mixing and bottling his product to donate to families impacted by the earthquake and has already produced 160 bottles, spending USD 56 so far. When Tzu Chi USA volunteer James Chen heard about Ocean’s project, he encouraged him to make more, and the Tzu Chi USA team funded the purchase of $500 worth of ingredients.
James Ocean’s fellow Tzu Chi Haiti volunteers, including Alberthe Merveille, were eager to help, speeding up the production process. The bottles of liquid detergent will soon be distributed at the upcoming disaster relief distribution to earthquake-impacted families.
On September 3, in collaboration with Tzu Chi’s community partner Gigi Depot, the Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team prepared for the first disaster relief distribution just five days later, scheduled for September 8, with more to follow soon after.
Dashka Bennett, Vice President of Gigi Depot, gives the Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team a tour of the facility. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
The items distributed to care recipients will consist mainly of food, packed in two hefty but thoughtfully prepared bags, each weighing nearly 83 lbs. The care packages will include rice, beans, shredded corn, flat pasta, macaroni, cooking oil, and, perhaps most importantly, Aquatabs® water purification tablets.
Bags of rice and other supplies with the Tzu Chi logo attached. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
The team estimates that all combined, the items can support a household of 6-8 people for a whole month. The supplies will be loaded for transport from Port-au-Prince via trucks to earthquake-impacted areas in the South in the days ahead.
The large volume of care packages is finally ready to go, and logistics planning for transport to disaster zones begins. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
The Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team also met with the Executive Director of Caritas Haiti, Father Jean-Hervé François. They aimed to introduce the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and explore how the two organizations could collaborate in short and long-term earthquake recovery efforts.
The Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team meets with the Executive Director of Caritas Haiti, Father Jean-Hervé François, and his colleague on September 3. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
Tzu Chi partners with Caritas in other countries, for instance, with Caritas Freetown in Sierra Leone. And, now, Tzu Chi Haiti will collaborate with Caritas Haiti to distribute earthquake disaster aid supplies in Les Cayes.
The first three days on the ground in Haiti for Tzu Chi’s Earthquake Response Team were chock-full of critical tasks and activity, as will the days ahead surely be with the countdown to the first distribution ticking.