Berkeleyans Contribute to Haiti Disaster Relief

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday January 15, 2010 - 11:17:00 PM

Berkeley is doing its part to bring relief to disaster-struck Haiti in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that crippled the Caribbean nation, killing tens of thousands. 

East Bay residents are joining the cause however they can, raising funds here at home or providing food and medical supplies in Haiti.  

“I head about it half an hour after the earthquake happened and my heart just sank,” said Margaret Trost, founder and executive director of the What If? Foundation at 1563 Solano Ave., which has partnered with St. Clare’s Church in Haiti to provide impoverished children with meals for the last decade. “I know from being in Port- au-Prince how fragile the homes are, how fragile the infrastructure is. I have never seen an ambulance or a fire truck. There’s no 911 to call, there is one doctor for 10,000 people. The houses are essentially cinder blocks or cemented together with your hands.” 

Footage of the aftermath shows miles and miles of destruction, with the presidential palace, hospitals and schools in shambles. Monetary damage is likely in the billions. 

“[Haiti] is already such a frail country, when you have an earthquake on top of it—the worst one in 200 years—it’s even more catastrophic,” Trost said. “The need for food, water and shelter becomes even bigger. Many of them don’t have water—they have to walk to get water.” 

After worrying for almost two days about their staff in Port-au-Prince, Trost finally received some good news Thursday. 

“We just got word that our food program coordinator, Madame Gabriel, and her family, and our education coordinator are alive and doing OK,” Trost said. “We’re so relieved and happy that two key people are safe. We have not been able to talk to anyone because the cell phone service is down, so we are relying on second hand information.” 

Trost said that a tent community was being formed on the land surrounding What If’s office building in Tiplas Kazo, a neighborhood close to the Port-au-Prince airport, where food would be served to survivors. 

Trost said that although Tiplas Kazo had been damaged—including the church bell tower and a nearby school whose students she fears may have died during the earthquake—the majority of the houses are still standing. 

“Nobody in Haiti is inside, everybody is on the street and sleeping outside,” Trost said, because they were scared of aftershocks and tremors. “Power is down... There’s no communication—somebody sees somebody walking down the street or crossing the road and knows that they are safe.” 

Trost said that What If? liason Lavarice Gaudin was unable to land in Port-au-Prince and was instead flying into the Dominican Republic with Chicago-based Zakat Foundation, from where he will drive to the Haitian capital with food, water and health supplies. 

Trost said she was overwhelmed by the “compassionate response” of Berkeley residents. 

“Children want to donate supplies, parents wanted to donate food, it’s remarkable,” she said. Berkeley High School’s Student Leadership Team announced Friday that it had put together a “Relief for Haiti” fundraiser with the goal of raising $8,000—about $2 for every person on the campus. 

Berkeley residents Michael Romani and his wife Dinali Abeysekera, who volunteer for AMURT, a national non-profit which partners with the World Food Program to provide disaster relief in Haiti, are coordinating the organization’s relief efforts and trying to find more qualified medical staff to travel to Haiti. 

Romani and Abeysekera returned from Haiti a few months ago, where they were helping with the 2008 hurricane relief efforts. 

AMURT currently has a team at Port-au-Prince and recently procured a plane to fly 40 to 60 medical personnel and supplies into the capital over the next few days. 

“We (AMURT) were already there when the earthquake happened,” said Abeysekera by telephone Thursday. “Our team in the Bay Area is currently getting ready for a push to raise awareness and funds in order to help these relief efforts. Today we spent the whole day mobilizing.” 

Abeysekera said that although AMURT's 10 volunteers in Haiti are safe, one of the organization’s two schools had collapsed during the earthquake. 

“It was located in Delmas, one of the worst-hit areas,” she said. “It was quite difficult to get in touch with people right after the earthquake hit. We last heard from them during afternoon time and didn’t hear back until the next day. They said there was ‘rubble everywhere, buildings everywhere’—the roads were blocked, so people couldn’t get from one part of the city to the other.” 

AMURT’s offices were located in the school that was destroyed in the earthquake, Abeysekera said. 

“We are redoing everything,” she said. “The phone lines are still down—there is very very sporadic cell phone communication. It’s only ‘in person’ communication. There’s no gas left, millions of people are on the street with no shelter or water. People are panicking and becoming very volatile.” 

Abeysekera said that a Berkeley couple, Peter and Hannah Meadow, are part of an AMURT team that flew over to the Dominican Republic Wednesday to drive to Port-au-Prince to start on relief work. 

Peter is a lawyer and Hannah teaches. Their son Josh has been in Haiti since August to make a film. 

“Plans are not very clear at the moment,” Abeysekera said. “They will get their resources together and survey and evaluate the area, especially the ones most hit. The idea is to get them out of Port-au-Prince and into a safe area where they can get water and shelter. We’ll know more in the next few days.” 


Local and national fundraising efforts 

• Local Haitian musicians will stage two benefits in the next few weeks at Ashkenaz on San Pablo Avenue. At 8:30 p.m. Jan. 28, Kalbass Kreyol and Friends, led by Haitian-born Sophis, will perform their signature blend of traditional Haitian dance music with proceeds going to the Haitian Emergency Relief Fund, a part of the Haitian Action Committee. At 9:30 p.m. Feb. 6, Mystic Man and Lakay, plus Haitian dance troupe Rara Fusion, will headline a second benefit, preceded at 8:30 p.m. by an AfroHaitian dance lesson with Ifonia. www.ashkenaz.com. 



Berkeley High School fundraising site or on campus at the Leadership Office 

• The Shattuck Down Low Lounge on Shattuck and Bancroft is hosting an earthquake benefit relief for Haiti on Sat. Jan. 16 and Jan. 23, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. featuring a hip hop, reggae, Latin and Afrocaribbean line-up. Suggested donation at the door is $10 and all proceeds will go toward a Haiti relief charity. www.shattuckdownlow.com

The White House  

Doctors Without Borders 

Red Cross