Updated at 4:39 p.m.
LES CAYES, HAITI — Government officials here, after hours of meetings with a delegation from the Maine ship Sea Hunter, gave permission this afternoon for the ship to come into the local harbor and prepare to offload its 200 tons of relief supplies for earthquake refugees.
“You’ve got it. No problem,” said Joseph Yves Aubourg, the regional delegate to Haiti’s federal government, when asked through an interpreter whether the Sea Hunter finally was authorized to deliver its food, clothing, medical supplies and other goods.
Aubourg’s comment came after three hours of meetings involving himself, Les Cayes Mayor Pierre Yvon Chery, Sea Hunter owner Greg Brooks, ship Captain Gary Esper and Fr. Marc Boisvert, founder of Hope Village on the outskirts of Les Cayes.
Under the plan hammered out this afternoon, a local customs official will board the Sea Hunter when it comes into port Thurdsay at 7 a.m.
Once that official has had a chance to verify that the supplies aboard the ship match those listed in packing lists handed over today, the offloading can begin, Auborg said.
Officials agreed that the contents of 10 20-foot containers aboard the Sea Hunter will all go to Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program founded by Boisvert, a native of Lewiston.
Other donated supplies inside the Sea Hunter’s two cargo holds will go to the city of Les Cayes.
Still unclear is how close the Sea Hunter actually can get to Les Cayes’ only functioning dock, which is blocked by several submerged shipwrecks.
“We’ll have to sound (the bottom) ourselves” as the Sea Hunter enters the harbor, said Esper. “We can’t take the risk of losing the ship.”
The Sea Hunter has been at anchor since Tuesday near the island of Ile a Vache, seven miles off Les Cayes.
ABOARD THE SEA HUNTER – Thirty days after it left Portland Harbor on a humanitarian mission to Haiti, the Maine relief ship Sea Hunter dropped anchor Tuesday near its primary destination, Les Cayes.
“I’m still apprehensive,” said the ship’s owner, Greg Brooks of Gorham, as the ship stopped for the day at Ile a Vache, an island seven miles off Les Cayes. “Until everything happens, I’m going to be skeptical about all of this.”
Brooks planned to meet early this morning with officials in Les Cayes to devise a plan for offloading nearly 200 tons of supplies for refugees from the earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12.
Also waiting at the port will be the Rev. Marc Boisvert, a Lewiston-born Roman Catholic priest who founded and operates Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program on the outskirts of Les Cayes.
“Our goal is to get (the local government’s) approval,” Brooks said. “As soon as we talk to them, if it’s a go, then we’re going to pull it right up in there and start opening up containers.”
But Brooks, who has encountered numerous obstacles in his month-long quest to bring help to Haiti’s earthquake victims, said he anticipates a delicate balancing act.
Originally, all of the food, clothing, medical supplies and other items stuffed into 10 20-foot containers on the Sea Hunter’s main deck, along with 80 tons of donations from people all over Maine in the ship’s two cargo holds, were to go to Hope Village.
But after talking with local officials by cell phone, Felix Vital, the Sea Hunter’s interpreter, told Brooks that the mayor of Les Cayes and the region’s delegate to Haiti’s parliament want some of the aid to go directly to the city.
“Part of the deal is that we’re going to give some of the stuff to the town because we want them to supply the labor to offload,” Brooks said. “They said they’re going to donate a good portion of that to the people in Port-au-Prince. And they also have refugees from the earthquake who need help here in Les Cayes.”
Vital said that if all of the aid passed through Les Cayes for storage and distribution at Hope Village, it could create a political and bureaucratic backlash both for Boisvert and Brooks.
“It is my opinion that it would be better for Father Marc this way,” said Vital, 29, who grew up on Ile a Vache and has spent much of his adult life in Les Cayes.
Brooks said he spoke with Boisvert on Wednesday about diverting some of the relief supplies directly to the community.
“He agrees with that,” Brooks said. “He said, ‘Whatever makes it work.’“
Because Les Cayes’ only dock has been blocked for years by several sunken ships, the Sea Hunter’s crew cannot transfer its cargo directly onshore.
Instead, the supplies must be transferred parcel-by-parcel to smaller vessels, which will then ferry them ashore.
The Sea Hunter sailed through Monday night to Les Cayes from the port of Miragoane, where repeated attempts to offload the containers and two other large pieces of cargo onto a deep-water dock proved fruitless.
Still aboard the ship, in addition to the containers, are a 37-foot mobile medical unit and a solar-powered water desalinator — donated, respectively, to a regional health program in northern Haiti and a church-orphanage near Port-au-Prince.
As the Sea Hunter sat at anchor for four days in Miragoane, Haitian customs officials insisted that a formal cargo manifest, listing all of the donated items aboard, be hand-delivered to the central customs bureau in Port-au-Prince before any offloading could commence.
Some 35 pages of packing lists and other documentation, provided to the Sea Hunter by various organizations that put donated materials aboard the ship, were deemed inadequate by Haitian officials because they were not consolidated into a single manifest.
That position changed suddenly — and belatedly — Tuesday morning.
Boisvert notified Brooks by satellite phone from Hope Village that Haitian President Rene Preval had personally intervened in the matter.
“Preval said that we should be allowed to go into Miragoane and offload all of the big stuff without any more delay,” Brooks said. “Can you believe that?”
But with the ship already approaching Les Cayes by that time, Boisvert and Brooks agreed to stick with their latest plan and empty the containers here.
Given the apparent softening of the Haitian government’s demands, Brooks said the Sea Hunter might make one last attempt to offload the medical unit, the water desalinator and the 10 (by-then-empty) containers.
Early Tuesday, he was considering an additional seven-hour sail east to the deep-water port of Jacmel. But after plotting that course later in the day, Brooks decided it would take too long and consume too much fuel.
“So when we’re done here, we might make one more try with Miragoane,” he said.
Brooks vowed that before that happens, he’ll want the government’s ironclad promise of tighter security in Miragoane.
Before leaving that port Monday, a delegation from the Sea Hunter beat a hasty retreat back to the ship after dockworkers voiced anger that the relief supplies were going to Les Cayes rather than to their community.
Brooks said any return trip to Miragoane “will have to be worked out here (in Les Cayes) — way ahead of time.”
“Otherwise we’re not going into that place,” he said. “There are too many rowdy people up there.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: email@example.com