It was about 1:30 a.m. on January 13, 2010, when Bob Poff sent an instant message on Skype, “Another BIG aftershock! I’m really scared.”
I had contacted Bob because he was the disaster services director for The Salvation Army in Haiti and I wanted to set up interviews for him with CNN and ABC News. A massive earthquake had destroyed the country only hours before. The media wanted eyewitness accounts of what was happening. The public wanted information. The Salvation Army, my client, was already there, and they were responding.
What was most important to my work was that I had direct access to an eyewitness who was prepared to speak publicly. This is just what the media needed, and just when they needed it. And, Bob was good. He knew how to tell a story and describe the action. He knew how to deliver a message. I was impressed from the start. His message was: “Send help! Fast!”
It wasn’t lost on me, as we typed back-and-forth, that he was in one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest countries in the world. I was sitting in northern Virginia, on my couch, with electricity, heat and hot water, satellite television and food in the fridge. Bob was in the midst of real third-world stuff, and not far off the Florida coast. But, supplies couldn’t get to him and people couldn’t get out. The airports were closed, the streets were shut down. The government—such as it was—was in disarray.
Even before the earthquake, thousands of Haitians were relying on Bob and the 700 Salvation Army workers in the country every day. Now, they had no homes, no schools, and no businesses. Worse, they had no food, no water, no electricity, no phones, nothing. It was clear that this problem was going to get worse before it got better, and it wasn’t going to get better any time soon.
Yet, Bob had one thing going for him: He could communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world through the Internet.
The Skype connection wasn’t perfect. It kept dropping off. And, he clearly had people interrupting him every couple of minutes as we typed. So, he’d disappear and I’d wonder what happened. Every so often he would return and convey a new piece of information. He told me about the hundreds of people sleeping in his compound, which buildings were left standing, or something more tragic than that.
Then, another aftershock would strike.
But, the Internet connection was reliable enough so that he could relay what was happening. And, over the next several days, it got steady enough so that he could do Web cam video interviews with Larry King at CNN and other media throughout the U.S., London and other global outlets.
As the crisis wore on, Bob and The Salvation Army began to use social media more and more. A community began to build up around Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, blogs, Web sites and other venues. The world saw photos and video of what was happening in Haiti and people were moved to action. Thousands upon thousands sent messages of hope and support. More importantly, they sent money and donations. FedEx and UPS signed on to help. The Coleman Company sent tents. WalMart sent water. Volunteers packed millions of meals. The list goes on.
Bob was quoted in The Nation saying, “Thank God for Facebook.”Yes, indeed.
That night, I told Bob about the media requests and we arranged a time to get back in touch the next day. Before we disconnected, I told him to get some sleep. He was going to have a big day ahead. He never did. Not that night, nor the next day. He worked almost non-stop for weeks. And, he is still there.
He did promise to send a letter describing what he had seen so far. Here is what he wrote:
The following is a letter from Bob Poff, Director of Disaster Services for the Salvation Army in Port-au-Prince, Haiti:
January 12, 2010
Devastation in Haiti - Words cannot begin to describe the devastation that has taken place in Port au Prince, Haiti. I am the Director of Disaster Services for The Salvation Army in Haiti, and I am from the United States. My wife and I have been in PAP (Port-au-Prince) since April, and have fallen deeply in love with the country and its people.
When the earthquake struck, I was driving down the mountain from Petionville. Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out the windows to see buildings "pancaking" down, like I have never witnessed before. Traffic, of course, came to a stand-still, while thousands of people poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bloody bodies, looking for anyone who could help them.
We piled as many bodies into the back of our truck, and took them down the hill with us, hoping to find medical attention. All of them were older, scared, bleeding, and terrified. It took about 2 hours to go less than 1 mile. Traffic was horrible, devastation was everywhere, and suffering humanity was front and center. When we could drive no further, we left the truck parked on the side of the street, and walked the remaining 2 miles to get back to the Salvation Army compound. What I found was very sad! All of the security walls were down. The Children's Home itself seems pretty intact, but our home, which is attached, is destroyed. Unlivable. The walls and ceiling are still standing - but so badly compromised that I wouldn't even think of trying to stay there. All of the children, and hundreds of neighbors, are sleeping in our playground area tonight.
Occasionally, there is another tremor - another reminder that we are not yet finished with this calamity. And when it comes, all of the people cry out and the children are terrified. As I am sitting outside now (Haiti has satellite internet), with most people trying to get a little sleep, I can hear the moans and cries of the neighbors. One of our staff went to a home in the neighborhood, to try to be of assistance to the woman who lived there. But she was too late. The scene will be repeated over and over again. Tomorrow, we will begin the process of assessing damage, learning about casualties, and preparing for the future.
God bless Haiti.
For more information on The Salvation Army’s relief efforts in Haiti, or to make a donation, visit the Salvation Army Haiti Relief Web site.
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