Search And Rescue Operation Continues In Haiti

Rescue workers and equipment can't get to many areas, and the needs often outweigh the resources available. Chief Mater Sgt. of the Air Force Antonio Travis and Gerald Martone, director of humanitarian affairs for the International Rescue Committee, assess the challenges in Haiti.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Doctors, U.S. troops and emergency aid workers continue to arrive in Haiti from all over the world. The medical needs are huge: injuries from collapsed buildings, dehydration and the looming threat of widespread disease.

In a moment, we'll hear about search and rescue efforts in Haiti. But if you are in the medical profession and have served in disasters, or you have questions about how to help, our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With us is U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Antonio Travis. He's a part of the special operations search-and-rescue team in Haiti, and he joins us from Port-au-Prince. Welcome to the program. Chief Master Sergeant Antonio Travis, are you with us on the line from Port-au-Prince?

Chief Master Sergeant ANTONIO TRAVIS: (U.S. Special Forces) Loud and clear. How are you all doing?

ROBERTS: I'm doing fine. Have you been able to rescue people still trapped in the rubble?

Chief Master Sgt. TRAVIS: I've got a four-man para-rescue team that is attached to the Fairfax County search and rescue. Those guys are doing a phenomenal job. Now, they've - since my guys have been attached to them, they've pulled 13 personnel out successfully. Now they have one rescue that (technical difficulties) 24 to 28 hours. They were able to get this Haitian lady out (unintelligible) and MedEvaced her to (unintelligible). All reports are that she's recovering well and doing well.

ROBERTS: And so you've been able to pull 13 survivors out?

Chief Master Sgt. TRAVIS: Well, there's just since my rescue unit has been the attached with the Fairfax County boys. I don't know how many they were able to pull out beforehand. And that's only one element - the Fairfax County guys out of Virginia are phenomenal. They save - they've got to be the world's greatest. If anybody is out there broadcasting anything, they've (unintelligible) working all the time. These guys integrated my para-rescue men. They're doing (unintelligible) collapsed structure rescue, pulling people out, taking, you know, 18, 20 hours to dig through rubble.

They even - let's get the - raised floors to get underneath, crawling through rubble, crawling through holes to pull these individuals out. They're doing a phenomenal job as a civilian and military effort combined together.

ROBERTS: And how exactly does that work? Do they have earth-moving equipment? Are they digging with their hands?

Chief Master Sgt. TRAVIS: They don't have any earth-moving equipment that I've seen. I'm running airfield operations with the air traffic controllers. Their rescue men are equipped with a lift (unintelligible), four or five different (unintelligible). The Fairfax County guys are fully equipped with saws, jackhammers, (unintelligible). They've cut down (unintelligible), so they're able to get in to the whole (unintelligible) where normally they wouldn't be able to get them out.

They have just about anything they need to cut through the rubble, lift small pieces of rubble so they can get underneath, crawl underneath and try to pull somebody out. And they're doing a phenomenal job getting through there. We had - first day, my para-rescue men where attached with then, they worked 30 hours straight and were able to successfully pull three people out.

ROBERTS: And when they - when the survivors are pulled out, are they able to get the medical attention they need?

Chief Master Sgt. TRAVIS: That is the first part on - the first they do when they get out is they have a medical team there. I also have an individual duty medical technician and another Air Force medic there on site, assisting with the medical treatment and triage. And the para-rescue men are the finest combat and trauma medics in the world.

And they assist with the civilian medics and the military medics that are there, and they do a medical treatment triage and then push them out to through nearest medical facility. The best one so far was the double amputee that one of our para-rescue men used the SH-60 off the USS Carl Vinson to hoist out of the rubble and was giving her the oxygen bag and the IV all the way up her hoist. And that was a very fine combined effort between the Navy, the civilians and the Air Force personnel on the ground.

ROBERTS: And so from - I know you're working with this Fairfax County, Virginia, team and you're seeing, you know, your small slice of it. But in general, does it seem like there is a widespread enough search and rescue effort or is more help needed?

Chief Master Sgt. TRAVIS: I'm sorry, ma'am. Could you please say that again?

ROBERTS: Do you feel like the search and rescue effort has the resources it needs?

Chief Master Sgt. TRAVIS: I believe (unintelligible) they're doing everything they can. I personally have not been out on site. As I said, I'm running all aircraft control here for the Port-au-Prince airfield.

I don't know what all assets they have out there. The team that's (unintelligible) to Fairfax County told us they're (unintelligible) out of everything and there were several others, L.A. County, Miami - there are several other rescue organizations that are there, but I honestly do not have the information on how many rescue organizations are there. (Unintelligible).

ROBERTS: Well, tell me about the Port-au-Prince Airport because we've been hearing that it's a logistical bottleneck and there have been issues with supply planes getting in and out. How are those issues getting resolved?

Chief Master Sgt. TRAVIS: Well, that is pretty the same as it is. (Unintelligible) issues here in getting out. We came in on the first day for the first time on Wednesday. Twenty-eight minutes later we assumed control the airfield and started running aircraft. The first full day on Thursday was extremely jam-packed, difficult day. At one time we had 42 aircraft on the deck, 17 in holding, and I want to say it's 97 (unintelligible) days (unintelligible) and as the ramp is normally designed for 12 to 13 aircraft. The issues are that the first day, was getting the aircraft downloaded in a timely manner so we can get it off the ground and bring another aircraft in. When we arrived, we were only able to secure one forklift, and the special operations link was able to fly in additional equipment the next day. This special operation's going out of (unintelligible), Florida. Well then, an additional lift capability to download aircraft. And then we were able to oversee airfield management here. The personnel were able to call some of there (unintelligible).

The first day, we had a difficult time getting everything unloaded because of lack of equipment and personnel. But with the first offering in additional equipment and the Haitian government willing to work with us to help us along and call in to see what the work (unintelligible) we have in the airfield. To bring it in, we were able to see that up on the second and third day.

And the first day, we had an average holding time per aircraft (unintelligible) two to four hours. (Unintelligible) second day to 45 minutes to two hours. And right now, we are just between 15 minutes to an hour average holding time between aircraft on the ground.

ROBERTS: Tony Travis, I'm - I want to let you get back to work there because I know you have an incredible amount to do. Thank you so much for joining us.

Chief Master Sgt. TRAVIS: I appreciate it, ma'am. You have a great day.

ROBERTS: That's U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Antonio Travis. He joined us from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And I know that line was a little hard to understand. He was talking about the airport delays at the Port-au-Prince Airport which we have been hearing about.

He said his first day there delays the average holding time for incoming aircraft for two to four hours. On the second day, they got it down to 25 minutes to two hours. And it's now closer to 15 minutes to an hour holding time for incoming aircraft to the Port-au-Prince Airport.

We are talking about the medical needs following Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti, how people can help.

With us is Gerald Martone. He's a registered nurse and director of humanitarian affairs for the International Rescue Committee. He joins us from NPR's New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. GERALD MARTONE (Director, Humanitarian Affairs, International Rescue Committee): Hello, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Sir, we're hearing about tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people needing help. How do you even begin to tackle something on that scale with limited resources?

Mr. MARTONE: Well, it's been - one of the things that's done in a large-scale emergency like this is that organizations are closely coordinated, often under the auspices of the United Nations. They'll set up coordination centers in what we call in the field cluster groups, where we work on the various sectors: water, food, sanitation, shelter, public health. And we organize around that. So we look for areas that are not being served, map the areas that are affected and what areas are - the most of the needs are.

ROBERTS: And how do you decide who gets treatment first?

Mr. MARTONE: Well, in the case of treatment, in individual health treatment, that's part of the practice of medical - emergency medical care is the triage, the prioritization of who is most injured and who needs care most acutely. So that's a decision done in every facility. You always look at the amount of people that are waiting to be served, select the ones that are bleeding or at most risk and need emergency treatment, and they get treated first.

ROBERTS: What kind of injuries are medical professionals treating in Haiti?

Mr. MARTONE: At this moment, you're still seeing crush wounds. You're still seeing injuries related - soft tissue trauma from falling structures. And now, you will begin to see a lot of infected wounds that weren't cleaned or treated early enough.

ROBERTS: Let's take call from Tom(ph) in Sioux City, Iowa. Tom, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TOM (Caller): Thank you.

ROBERTS: Yeah. You're on the air, Tom.

TOM: Oh, yeah. I'm the medical manager for the Urban Search and Rescue for Iowa Task Force 1. I got to give a shout-out to the guys on the coast who have gone to Haiti. I felt that they're doing a wonderful job down there.

One of the things that we see most commonly - and we're in a profession of a lot of Type A personalities - is they all want to rush in and help, and I think it may be helpful to listeners to understand that as noble as that might be, if you're not going within an organized system like these search and rescue units are, that you can actually compound the problem.

The difficulty is that when you go into an area as hard hit as Haiti, you carry with you an envelop of need in that you need food, clothing, shelter, water that the populace down there doesn't even have. So if you place a demand on their infrastructure which is already nonexistent, you become part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.

ROBERTS: Well, Tom, let me ask you this. We're hearing about all of these injuries they - frankly, the time when the search and rescue teams are still pulling live injured people out of the wreckage is starting to grow short, so there is some urgency to needing medical attention down there. And as Gerald Martone says, some of these injuries are going to start to get infected. If you want to keep away, you know, the type A volunteers who might get in the way and take scarce resources away from the survivors, how can they help?

TOM: The best way they can help - well, it's actually multiple levels. The best way to help for people who don't have staff (technical difficulties) to actually respond through an organized system is to backfill. To, you know, if I may able to deploy down there do an organized system, having a couple of other docs who will come in and help to fill my shifts in the trauma center. To have people at home so that if something happens to my house while I'm down there working, there's somebody who could help my wife get the basement emptied out of water. (Unintelligible) in northwest Iowa that's a problem this time of year. So people who...

ROBERTS: Maybe shovel the driveway.

TOM: Shovel the driveway, yeah. That actually - yes. There's a tremendous need to support the folks who go down there. The rough ratio is six to one. It takes about six support personnel back home for one person to deploy in the field. And we learned this from military. This is why you don't send a Dear John letter to somebody under fire because they put their head up and not pay attention to what's going on.

The third way, though, and one of the most helpful ways - this sounds a little crass(ph) - but contributing money, giving the means to move a water purification unit, giving the means to purchase the oil to move a ship down there that has on it the supplies. That's a little something that anyone can do and go into a good organization. I noticed some up on your Web site. Go to a good verified organization, give in to a charity that will get in there and do the work. That's a wonderful thing that people can do.

In the long term...

ROBERTS: Tom, Tom.

TOM: Oh, go ahead.

ROBERTS: Yeah. No. I was just going to thank you for your call and remind people that they can find resources on our Web site.

You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Gerald Martone, would you add anything to Tom in terms of things people can do if they're feeling an urgent need to help?

Mr. MARTONE: Yeah. I think Tom gave some very good advice that, first of all, it's very frustrating to be on the outside of a situation like this and not be part of it - very hard to watch. And there's even a name for that syndrome called peripheral syndrome where people who are not involved in rescue operations feel very much marginalized and on the outside. And it's a terrible feeling. And the urge, particularly people with a medical or emergency background, is to fly down there, is to go there immediately.

As Tom mentioned, that's often not helpful to not have the support of an organization. You then become another person that needs to be taken care of.

ROBERTS: So there's the immediate need now with people still being pulled out of the rubble and all of these crush injuries. You mentioned a potential for infection coming up. There is also, often in the aftermath of disasters, when sanitary conditions aren't great, you know, widespread disease. How do you work to prevent that?

Mr. MARTONE: That's one of the biggest concerns is infectious disease. There's a lot of myths about that. The first thing we're worried about, of course, is drinkable water, is water that's not contaminated. One of the things in earthquake causes is ground rupture. Oftentimes, even here in the United States, water pipes are laid in the same ditch as sewage pipes. They're laid side by side. When there's a rupture in the ground, both pipes break so there's contamination between sewage into drinking water.

So securing water sources is vital and contamination of those sources is a weapon of mass destruction. You get cholera or dysentery bacteria or even diarrhea viruses into a local water source. And it's a - terrible infections can result. There's more than 50 diseases carried by water so securing water sources is vital.

ROBERTS: You mentioned there were some myths. Let's take a second to debunk some of those.

Mr. MARTONE: Well, the first myth that you often see in a disaster like this is dead bodies are infectious, that they're dangerous. And there's an unnecessary rush to get rid of dead bodies, and here in Port-au-Prince, we've already seen examples where mass graves are used. Bulldozers made very large holes in the ground and bodies were dumped in. This is done because of a concern that they're going to become infective.

A human being is more infective when they're alive than when they're dead. When there's a - remains are not identified, family members are left with lingering questions of whether they're still alive, whether there's still hope. And it's really - delays their grieving, as well as not having a place, a burial site to visit and pay respects and to continue having a connection. So it's tragic when that's done. It is not considered in a professional aid work a best practice of handling the dead. So that's one myth that we're seeing.

ROBERTS: We are almost out of time, but as someone who has had a lot of experience with emergency response, what would you say are, likely, the biggest challenges facing medical workers in Haiti?

Mr. MARTONE: The biggest thing we have to face now is realizing that this moment of search and rescue is just about over and that we'll be facing a daunting colossal task of recovery, of rehabilitation and, finally, development of a country that's been very poor and neglected for many years.

ROBERTS: Gerald Martone is a registered nurse and director of humanitarian affairs for the International Rescue Committee. He joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thank you so much.

Mr. MARTONE: Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: And, also, again, thanks to US Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Antonio Travis who joined us earlier on the phone from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And thanks again to all of our callers who have shared their stories of being in Haiti or reaching family there. Again, we wish all of you well and hope that you continue to get the news that you need from back in Haiti.

Tomorrow, President Obama's first year in office through the lens of history.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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