One of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean is bearing down on Haiti, and a Portland man is rushing to be there in case it strikes.

The National Hurricane Center said Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, could hit the Caribbean islands with “potentially catastrophic” force.

That threat won’t deter Nate Nickerson from flying out of Portland International Jetport on Wednesday morning and landing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, about 24 hours before Irma is expected to make landfall in the island nation’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

Nickerson, executive director of Konbit Sante in Falmouth, said he is heading to Haiti to help his nonprofit’s health care partners in Cap-Haitien, a city in the northern section of the country, prepare for the destruction the storm is likely to cause in the Maryland-sized nation of more than 11 million people.

“It’s a very concerning situation. The country obviously doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with a storm this powerful and that makes its people vulnerable,” Nickerson said Tuesday night. “I’m leaving tomorrow in the event of a direct hit. I want to get there before the hurricane arrives.”

Nickerson said Konbit Sante will provide money to buy medicine and hire local nurses at four health care facilities his organization has partnered with in the Cap-Haitien area. Nickerson also will lend his leadership and organizational skills to any post-storm recovery effort.

Before becoming Konbit Sante’s executive director in 2005, he was director of Portland’s Public Health Division for three years, and a program manager for the city’s health division for 11 years. He has a doctorate in international public health and a master’s degree in primary care nursing.

PREVIOUS AID IN OTHER CRISES

Hurricane Irma, which forecasters say is packing sustained winds of up to 185 mph, has the potential to devastate countries in its path.

Nickerson compares the potential damage to the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that rocked Haiti. That magnitude 7.0 earthquake, which was centered around Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital, killed 316,000 Haitians and displaced another 1.5 million, the Haitian government said.

Konbit Sante responded to the earthquake by sending volunteers, supplies and equipment to support the country’s fragile health care system.

In late 2010, after the earthquake, a severe cholera outbreak swept the nation, killing more than 7,000 people who did not receive proper medical care. Cholera, which is caused by drinking water contaminated with fecal bacteria, can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting.

Nickerson said Konbit Sante, which is Creole for “working together for health,” has formed partnerships with two hospitals and two health care centers located in Cap-Haitien and surrounding towns. Those partnerships, which have been approved by the Haitian Ministry of Health, allow Konbit Sante volunteers to work side-by-side with Haitian health care workers, providing medical expertise and supplies.

“We’ve gone out of our way to let the government know that we are not here to run things, but to help in whatever way we can,” he said. “Our efforts are really focused on strengthening the health care system there. We’re going to be there after this hurricane is over and after everyone else has left.”

AIRLIFTING MEDICAL SUPPLIES

When Nickerson arrives Wednesday, he will begin working with Tezita Negussie, Konbit Sante’s new country director. Negussie left Maine in January to take on the role in Haiti, said Danny Muller, Konbit Sante’s logistics coordinator.

Before joining Konbit Sante seven years ago, Negussie worked for the city of Portland as its minority health program specialist, said Muller, who was making arrangements Tuesday from Konbit Sante’s Falmouth office for medical supplies to be airlifted into the country before the hurricane strikes.

The supplies will be flown to Port-au-Prince by Direct Relief International, a California-based humanitarian aid organization. Its mission is to improve the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergencies.

“Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, by a long shot,” Nickerson said. “The country’s infrastructure is poorly resourced and that makes its people incredibly vulnerable. Only 30 percent of the people who live in Cap Haitien have access to a toilet, and about half of the population of Haiti live on less than $1 a day.”

ONE-WAY TICKET, LONG PARTNERSHIP

Nickerson is hoping Hurricane Irma misses the island, but is prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“My biggest hope is that all of this preparation will be anti-climactic,” he said. “We know the hurricane is going to hit somewhere, but we just don’t know exactly where yet.”

Nickerson has no idea how long he will be in Haiti.

“Right now, I have a one-way ticket,” he said.

Konbit Sante was established in 2001 with the mission of partnering with an existing public health system in a developing country with limited access to health care. A Haitian doctor who was doing his residency at Maine Medical Center in Portland in 2001 told Konbit Sante’s founding members about the needs of people living in Cap-Haitien.

In November 2001, the organization formed a partnership with Justinian University Hospital in Cap-Haitien, the country’s second-largest teaching hospital. Each year, volunteers travel to Cap-Haitien to work with their colleagues on strengthening people’s access to health care.

Live updates from Haiti are going to be posted on Konbit Sante’s website, www.healthyhaiti.org. Muller said the organization is welcoming donations. A link on the website allows people to make donations of as little as $10.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]