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Continued: Minnesotans find tiny victories amid ruin in Haiti

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 12, 2011 - 9:41 AM

The young mother was one of 1,000 hungry Haitians standing patiently in the 100-degree heat. Like so many around her, she was desperate.

Five months before, her husband had died in the devastating earthquake that had leveled Port-au-Prince, leaving her alone to support five children. Weeks before, she admitted, she had sold her two oldest sons for $125 to buy food for her other kids. Now, the money and food had run out.

"It was as though her heart and soul had been torn out of her," said Mark Crea, executive director of a nonprofit Christian group from Coon Rapids, who helped deliver food to the tiny village several hours from Port-au-Prince.

As the woman reached the front of the line, Crea watched as she was handed a box with enough food to feed her family for a month.

"Her face just radiated," he said.

It was the tiniest of victories in a country overwhelmed by loss. But to Crea and the hundreds of Minnesotans who have spent time working in the chaos that has defined Haiti for the past year, the simple stuff has come to matter most.

"Every day you know in your own job what you have to do to have a measure of success,'' said Deb Ingersoll, a Minneapolis resident who moved to Port-au-Prince after the earthquake to work for the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee. "Whatever that measure is here, it's not looking at the big picture. Because if you do, you might as well just go home now."

'It's overwhelming'

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians died in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. Thousands more died in the cholera outbreaks that followed. Countless others struggle on, some having lost arms, legs or the will to look beyond today. More than a million Haitians remain homeless, living in tents or shacks patched together from sticks and tarp. Rubble still lines the streets of Port-au-Prince, the capital. Crime and corruption are rampant.

Over the past year, hundreds of Minnesotans have been on the ground, fighting against the obstacles to bring clothes, food and medical aid. Some have stayed for the duration, others have returned home to raise money and restock before heading back.

Deb and Al Ingersoll, of Minneapolis, were so determined to help that they put their Minneapolis condo on the market, packed up their belongings and moved to Port-au-Prince.

For much of the past year, Deb Ingersoll has worked as a community development coordinator for the American Refugee Committee while her husband, who works for Healing Hands for Haiti International, makes prosthetic limbs for quake victims.

"January 12, our whole lives changed," Deb Ingersoll said.

Jeff Gacek, co-founder for Healing Haiti, a faith-based charity in White Bear Lake, has made the trip a half dozen times since last January, helping his organization deliver more than 1 million meals and more than 6 million gallons of water while also rebuilding two schools and two orphanages.

Crea has gone twice to deliver food for the nonprofit, Feed My Starving Children. The organization shipped 58 million free meals to Haiti in 2010, more than double that of the previous year.

Retirees Joyce and Dale Grabarkiewicz, of Rochester, were in Port-au-Prince during the earthquake and went back for an extended visit in July to help organize recovery and rebuild a volunteer house next to a children's home run by the Mother Teresa Sisters.

"So many of the buildings are still ruined and you know the bodies are in them. ... It's overwhelming,'' said Joyce Grabarkiewicz.

"But you know, it's about helping one person at a time. I can't solve the whole problem. But I can take care of one little bit. That's all we can do.''

'Trench warfare'

Despite, or perhaps because of, all they've seen, volunteers struggle for metaphors to describe a country in ruins.

"This is like the World War I of disasters," said Daniel Wordsworth, president of American Refugee Committee. "It's like trench warfare. You get that imagery of World War I where people are fighting over 10 feet of land. Every step of the way you're in mud. Every step of the way it's difficult."

About half of the $1.2 billion raised for reconstruction and recovery by non-government organizations in the United States has been spent. But much of the money initially pledged to the recovery effort worldwide never materialized. Many of the containers of supplies that were shipped were held up in customs for weeks, disappeared or were stolen.

Recovery also has been slowed by a hurricane, the cholera epidemic, and political unrest and rioting in the aftermath of national elections in November.

"Visually, if you drive down the street and had never been here before I'm not sure you'd see the progress," Deb Ingersoll said. "But in my heart I believe that there has been."

Wordsworth said the scope of the disaster, which hit a major metropolitan area inhabited by millions and crippled an already shaky government, has left volunteers to tackle "a giant logistic task" -- delivering drinking water and food to nearly 2 million people, and 600,000 tarps to provide short-term shelter.

One of the biggest issues of late has been finding land for transitional housing.

"So many people have been displaced," said Ingersoll. "But you can't just put them back where they were because there is so much rubble. And if you clear the rubble, you don't know who owns the land.

"Its been a crazy time."

Inspirational tales

Amid the devastation, Minnesotans find inspiration in simple acts of kindness and tales of perseverance.

For Patty Nelson, a retired nurse in Aitkin who flew to Port-au-Prince within weeks of the quake to help deliver medical supplies for Project Haiti, a small nonprofit, it's the reaction of the teenage girl who received several new dresses from Minnesota donors. The girl's family died in the earthquake and she lost a leg to amputation.

"She just kind of hugged the clothes and just squeezed them," Nelson said.

Grabarkiewicz raves about "the sheer willpower, faith and love" of a Haitian co-worker who, within minutes of the earthquake, used a wheelbarrow to take his injured wife to a nearby hospital. The woman sat in the wheelbarrow there for four days without seeing a doctor. Her husband then took her to another hospital, where she was told that her legs would be amputated. Unwilling to accept that verdict, the man wheeled his wife to another hospital where U.S. military doctors made arrangements to transport her to the United States for treatment. Both legs were saved.

"That is such an amazing thing," Grabarkiewicz said.

For Gacek, the memory of comforting a frightened and injured girl who had been separated from her mother brings a smile. So, too, do the faces of the orphan children as they race to greet him and other volunteers delivering food, water and other supplies.

"It doesn't matter where we go, we can't get out of our car or truck without 25 or 50 or 100 kids coming up and surrounding us," Gacek said.

"They have huge smiles. I mean, they hold onto you and they won't let go. And they cry when you leave."

It's that kind of response that keeps Gacek and other Minnesotans going back.

Nelson and a team of doctors and nurses are heading back in March. Grabarkiewicz will fly to Port-au-Prince later this month. Gacek left Monday.

"We look into the eyes of the children we're feeding, we look into the eyes of the children we're delivering water to, and there's no way you can feel defeated," Gacek said.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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