University mobilizes to assist Haiti after magnitude 7.2 earthquake

People search for survivors in a home in Les Cayes that was destroyed by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Aug. 14, 2021. Photo: The Associated Press
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

People search for survivors in a home in Les Cayes that was destroyed by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Aug. 14, 2021. Photo: The Associated Press

University mobilizes to assist Haiti after magnitude 7.2 earthquake

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Guerda Nicolas, a professor currently in Haiti visiting family, recounted the immediate aftermath of the temblor, as Miller School of Medicine Dean Henri Ford met with a group of stakeholders to consider potential relief efforts.

As the walls of her family’s home near the seaport city of Les Cayes, Haiti, began to shake, Guerda Nicolas knew there was no time to waste. 

She grabbed only her cellphone, then, along with other able-bodied relatives in the house, raced to the rooms where her 101- and 97-year-old godparents were asleep, rousting them from bed to carry them outside where it would be safer.

It was around 8:30 a.m. Saturday, and the Haitian-born Nicolas, who is a professor at the University of Miami’s School of Education and Human Development, had returned to her homeland for a few days to see family members and follow up on important work for Ayiti Community Trust—the community foundation that she helped establish. 

She hadn’t counted on a powerful magnitude 7.2 earthquake striking the island. 

“I’m hanging in there. It was a frightening moment, but we’re okay,” Nicolas said via internet phone call Saturday as she walked outside her residence shortly after the earthquake hit. 

The temblor, the epicenter of which occurred about 7.5 miles northeast of Saint-Louis-du-Sud, was stronger than the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the Caribbean country in 2010, killing more than 220,000 people.

President Julio Frenk’s message to the University community.

Donate to relief efforts through The U Responds: Haiti Earthquake.

Haiti Special Report: Five years after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

Two urban areas in Haiti’s southern region—Jérémie and Les Cayes, where Nicolas is now located—suffered major damage. Images and video footage sent by Nicolas via WhatsApp Messenger captured some of the destruction: toppled buildings, rubble-strewn lots, the injured receiving medical care in an open field, and panicked people screaming in the streets. 

The death toll has surpassed 1,300, with thousands injured, and those numbers are expected to rise. 

“My plan was to come back to Miami tomorrow, but it looks like I might need to be here for a couple more days, given the situation,” Nicolas said. Her family’s home had only minor damage. 

The temblor could not have hit at a worse time for Haiti, Nicolas said. The country of 11 million is still recovering not only from the earthquake that devastated much of Port-au-Prince more than a decade ago but also from Hurricane Matthew, which left widespread damage in the same southwestern region of the country affected by Saturday’s disaster. 

The country is also in political turmoil. Its president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated on July 7. And making matters worse, tropical storm Grace, which is bearing down on the Greater Antilles, could dump a massive amount of rain on the nation, complicating rescue efforts.

Making a statement that he is “saddened by the devastating earthquake,” President Joe Biden authorized an immediate U.S. response, naming USAID administrator Samantha Power as the senior U.S. official to coordinate recovery and rebuilding efforts. 

It was the subject of immediate and long-term aid and recovery efforts for her homeland that weighed heavily on Nicolas’s mind Saturday, as she walked in parts of Les Cayes surveying the damage. 

A massive influx of foreign food aid, such as what occurred after the 2010 earthquake, can actually hurt the economy, producing a glut that pushes down prices, Nicolas noted. Haitian farmers, wholesalers, and markets that sell rice, for example, reported that business was sluggish after the 2010 earthquake because people were receiving free rice from outside donors, she added. 

“It cuts them at the knee. It destabilizes the economy of the country, and it does not lead to development,” Nicolas pointed out. 

She called for greater cooperation with Haitian-led organizations for the long-term growth of the country. “We cannot take action solely on a reactive basis when something happens, because the next crisis is just around the corner,” Nicolas warned. “We’re dealing with Mother Nature. It’s not an issue of whether we’re going to have another earthquake in Haiti or another hurricane. It’s when. We must think about and plan for the future. And that requires us to think in a sustainable way, not in a reactive in-the-moment way.” 

At about the same time Nicolas was looking over some of the damage in Les Cayes, Miller School of Medicine Dean Henri Ford, a Haitian-born pediatric surgeon who traveled to the Caribbean country after the earthquake in 2010 to provide surgical care to children injured in the catastrophe, was on an hour-and-a-half call with a group of stakeholders to address earthquake relief from a medical and surgical standpoint. 

On the call with Ford were the deputy minister of health in Haiti; renowned University of Miami neurosurgeon Barth Green, who cofounded Project Medishare in 1994 to improve health care in Haiti; noted Harvard physician Paul Farmer, co-founder and chief strategist of Partners in Health; and a representative from the humanitarian organization Direct Relief, and representatives of several other humanitarian organizations.

During the group’s brainstorming session, the Haitian minister of health provided an assessment on the condition of hospitals in Jérémie and Les Cayes. “They will need doctors, especially orthopedic and trauma surgeons,” Ford explained. “And the need for surgical supplies to manage patients is also high.” 

Hospitals in the earthquake region are overwhelmed, said Ford. He noted that the multitude of people coming in with fractures and other injuries exhausted surgical supplies and that some patients had to be airlifted to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, because some of the roads in the area were impassable. 

“This is pretty serious,” Ford declared. “And if [Tropical Storm] Grace ends up being a significant storm, it’s going to make it impossible [for the country] to get supplies by boat.”

Then there is the issue of COVID-19 to add to the mix. 

“It is very much a serious problem in Haiti,” Ford said. “One of the considerations we expressed with our partners at Direct Relief is making sure there is enough PPE [personal protective equipment] for anyone who’ll be going to the area to provide health care.” He noted that the country’s coronavirus vaccination program is still in its infancy.

Ford praised the University for its past efforts in earthquake relief, noting that the institution and Project Medishare opened a 240-bed critical care hospital in four white tents on the edge of the main airport in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 quake. 

As of now, no decision has been made on whether any Miller School physicians will be sent to the disaster area. “But without question,” said Ford, “we are doing everything we can to support the people of Haiti.” 

In a message to the University community Sunday, President Julio Frenk said the needs are great in Haiti for the people impacted by this latest disaster.

“The University of Miami has a long history of engagement with the Haitian people, and we are resolute in our commitment to assisting with their needs at this crucial time,” Frenk said. “Our ties to Haiti are broad and deep and we are determined to help.”