On January 12, at 4:53 p.m., a 7.0-magnitude earthquake violently shook the densely populated capital and surrounding areas of Haiti, forever changing an already ravaged country into what many described as sheer apocalypse.
As the world reacted to Haiti's need, NYC Medics, an international relief organization, mobilized and within five days had placed two teams on the ground in the country. Over the next eight weeks, NYC Medics deployed a total of seven teams-nearly 60 paramedics, nurses, physician assistants and doctors. During this initial response to the earthquake, NYC Medics treated roughly 20,000 patients.
NYC Medics is a not-for-profit organization created in the wake of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. This group of paramedics, physicians and PAs had witnessed disaster before: As New Yorkers, we experienced the tragedy of September 11, 2001, directly; in 2005 many of us served the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Pakistan quake struck a personal note, and even as headlines about the tragedy disappeared from our nation's newspapers, the team's founders responded. They collected donations, food, medicine and courage before heading on the long journey to Pakistan, where the organization was born.
Since then NYC Medics has struggled to find its place in the world of disaster relief. As the organization matures, its mission has become clearer: to fill the gap in the immediate aftermath of disasters when local resources are overwhelmed and large organizations are just beginning to gear up their long-term efforts. The NYC Medics model relies on being light and flexible to rapidly access patients who would otherwise be isolated by injury, illness or geography. When the earthquake struck Haiti, NYC Medics put years of planning into action.
One of the most important facets of responding effectively to disasters is having the necessary information. For NYC Medics, information from the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) and confirmations from reliable partners on the ground, plus the plea for international assistance from the government of Haiti, were enough to warrant deployment of a Field Assessment Team and a Rapid Surgical Response Team.
Initial personnel departing for Haiti consisted of three people with international experience in disaster responses, emergency management, public health, delivery of emergent medical care and interagency collaboration. Commercial flights could not fly directly into Port-au-Prince, so organizations arrived through the Dominican Republic via an eight-hour drive from Santo Domingo.
Transportation was complex: Local drivers entering Haiti were required to hold certifications in both countries and be familiar enough with the streets of Haiti to get around without directions and street signs, and through road closures and detours during both day and night. Drivers speaking both Spanish and French were a commodity. Thankfully, passing through the many checkpoints required only a nod from officials for relief workers.
You could feel the Haitian border not only by the changes in language, time zone and several border gates, but even more so by the distant, fatigued and traumatized looks on the faces of people trying to leave. The mass destruction, loss of life, hunger and desperation seen on entering Port-au-Prince are not easily explained. Take everything you've seen on television, read in the newspaper or heard on the radio, and multiply it by 10. Sections of the city looked like they were bombed out from air raids, with partially standing skeleton buildings, rubble and debris strewn through the streets, vehicles twisted like tin cans and some areas still burning. Acrid smoke and dust hung in the air, as did the smells of sewage and decay. Bodies were still being unearthed and placed in the streets.