March 3, 2010

Shock lingers as Haiti recovers


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A Haitian man walks past a Port-au-Prince building razed in the Jan. 12 quake. “For the Coast Guard, it’s the largest human relief effort we’ve ever done,” says Capt. James McPherson.

James McPherson photo

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Capt. James McPherson, commanding officer of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, has been in Port-au-Prince since Jan. 15, helping with communications in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake. He’s working at the American Embassy, above, to coordinate and get out information from both the military side and the civilian government side.

Courtesy James McPherson

Staff Writer

Before he left for Haiti, Capt. James McPherson of Kittery was given a little toy shark by his 5-year-old son, Connor.

McPherson, commanding officer of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England in Portland and South Portland, gave the shark to a 4-year-old boy near the American embassy in Port-au-Prince. The little boy, covered with dust from the ruined city, plays with the toy all day.

McPherson is amazed at how well the children of Port-au-Prince are rebounding from the earthquake that destroyed their city.

''They're just completely resilient. But it makes you wonder -- what's his future, what's going to happen from here?'' said McPherson.

The earthquake struck on Jan. 12. McPherson was in Haiti with the Coast Guard on Jan. 15.

He's assigned to the Joint Task Force for Relief Efforts, working for the joint information center at the embassy. He's helping to coordinate and get out information from both the military side and the civilian government side.

''It's a massive, complicated situation,'' McPherson said Friday in a phone interview from Port-au-Prince. ''For the Coast Guard, it's the largest human relief effort we've ever done.''

He was in the capital when aftershocks hit last week. The biggest rated a 6.1 on the Richter scale, McPherson said, and an 88.1 on his ''I-need-to-go-to-church-more-often'' scale.

The embassy, which wasn't damaged, is only about a year old. It was built to withstand a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, said McPherson, and is actually on rollers -- so when the earth moves, the building moves with it.

Most of his work has been to get word about relief efforts, food lines and safety warnings to the Haitian media. That involves distributing tens of thousands of crank- or solar-powered radios to Haitians, so they can get broadcasts from the 20 or so radio stations that are up and running around Port-au-Prince.

No TV stations are operating, he said, but newspapers are -- though he isn't sure how they're printing or delivering.

The devastation means that almost every task requires a work-around. What would normally be a 20-minute drive takes hours because of the buildings that have been knocked into the roads and the damage to the routes.

In one case, he received a text message from a Coast Guard cutter in the harbor that needed the position of CNN's Anderson Cooper. It was nighttime, and Cooper was at the site where a 69-year-old woman had been found in the rubble and had to be airlifted out.

McPherson was part of an elaborate phone tree that included Cooper's producer, CNN in Atlanta, its Miami offices, the Port-au-Prince military base and ultimately the captain in a trailer by the embassy.

The Coast Guard launched a helicopter in the pitch black to find the site. Cooper relayed that they could hear the helicopter but couldn't see it. Cooper's team flashed their vehicle lights; the Coast Guard found them, landed and airlifted the victim.

McPherson saw the destruction of the war in Bosnia. And he was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Those scenes weren't on the same scale as the devastation in Haiti, he said.

''The video on TV doesn't do justice to how widespread the damage is,'' he said. ''People are in shock, not knowing what to do.''

In Port-au-Prince, there are signs of hope, signs that normalcy is returning -- however slowly, McPherson said. Merchants are starting to appear on the streets again, selling bread and sugar cane.

There's a huge enterprise in fixing tires that have been damaged by all the debris, he said. The Haitians use cutting torches to melt the rubber and fix tears in the tires. To work on metal, they use live power lines to somehow weld damage.

McPherson said he will be in Haiti until the Coast Guard's initial response mission is over, then he'll return to Maine. That will likely be relatively soon.

''The Coast Guard is good at quick response -- it's harder for us to sustain because we're so small,'' he said.


Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:


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