by Frank Keating
Mr. Keating, who served as governor of Oklahoma from 1995 to 2003, is on the Board of the American Red Cross for the National Capital Area. He and his wife, Cathy – a member of Marymount University’s Board of Trustees – are co-chairs of the Red Cross’s Next Century Campaign. After the earthquake struck this January, the Keatings traveled to Haiti to get a first-hand look at the devastation and the work of Red Cross staff and volunteers there.
We flew into Port au Prince aboard a spotless airbus. The fuselage was freshly painted and the interior had the smell of a newly vacuumed hotel room. The ride was smooth and uneventful, and the view from the air camouflaged the upended chaos that awaited us on the ground.
The airport was a temporary metal building. When we passed through immigration and stepped outside, we were confronted by several hundred people stretching, looking, gesturing, hoping for a glimpse of a friend or relative who might have been aboard our flight. To bring help? To take them away? The air was alive with anxiety.
Matt, the young Creole-speaking Red Cross country rep, greeted us with Red Cross and Red Crescent marked vans that whisked us away and around the two-lane mountain roads that twisted and turned their way up, down, and through the capital city. On either side of the street were the pulverized remains of houses, businesses, schools, and what had a few short months before been sites of family and activity. Now it was all broken glass, shattered stones, crushed and splintered cars. And silence. Nothing lived there anymore. Only pigs rooted through the piles of garbage that lay in heaps upon the ground.
Sandwiched between the remains were tents, lots of them, where the displaced temporarily housed themselves. Trucks filled with water and provisions squeezed by as we twisted and turned from camp to distribution center, where the main work of sharing and caring and holding together took place. Frequently, we stopped to look and to talk. More young Americans, speaking Creole, and walking with their Haitian friends, explained the need for water purification to families compressed in shanties along the way.
What wonderful people are these Red Cross professionals. Living in tents themselves, they are up early and late, consoling and providing fresh water, medicine, and food to people who have nothing. We attempted to take it all in. We saw children at play. No panhandling, No anger. No begging. An occasional “merci” from residents whose only mistake was to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The youngsters appeared clean and healthy. The mothers, proud and caring. In Creole they asked, “You see my new baby? He is only a month old.” A month old. Here. In this place of destruction and disintegration and the lurking devil cruelty of disease. Occasionally, the wind brings the stench of human waste. But the people continue to smile. The boys play soccer. And the sun beats down on the crushed skulls of yesterday’s homes and the day before yesterday’s dreams.
Where do they go from here? When the rainy season begins in April and hurricanes form across the ocean and begin to move. Who knows? The world community cares. America is here with strong backs and good hearts. But the place is so destroyed. Two and a half million people with nothing but pride and hope. Two and a half million. The population of more than a dozen states. The Red Cross will be here, as they always are when agony and tragedy strike. They do this because they must. It is what the Cross is all about. Suffering and salvation. Brotherhood. Love. Selflessness. To help those who cannot help themselves.
When we left the island long after sunset, all that we could see, for as far as eyes could see below, were the flickering lights beneath the fabric of tents. Thousands of flickering lights in dozens of colors, appearing as if they were colorful fireflies on trees. Hopeful. Beautiful. Natural. But we knew that it was all a mirage. The real story was one of immediate need. Rebuilding. Homes to protect against the strong storms that would soon come.