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Berkeleyans Contribute To Haiti Disaster Relief

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:08:00 AM
AAMURT volunteers Michael Romani and Dinali Abeysekera are coordinating the organization’s relief efforts
Michael Howerton
AAMURT volunteers Michael Romani and Dinali Abeysekera are coordinating the organization’s relief efforts

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.  

Two members of the Berkeley Fire Department have already been deployed to Haiti to assist with relief efforts. 

Berkeley firefighter Michael Sullivan was dispatched as a volunteer member of the Disaster Medical Assistance Team 6 to assist with disaster medical response, and firefighter Seth Zweben was sent as a member of the California Air National Guard 131st Rescue Squadron. 

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

“I heard 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 only one doctor for every 10,000 people. Most of the houses are essentially cinder blocks, built by hand.”  

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. A strong aftershock hit Port-au-Prince Wednesday. 

“Most Haitians were already hungry and struggling for basic needs before the earthquake,” Trost said. “So when you add an earthquake on top of it—the worst one in 200 years—it’s even more catastrophic. The need for food, water, shelter, and medical care is enormous.”  

After worrying for almost two days about their staff in Port-au-Prince, Trost finally received some good news Jan. 15. 

“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 she had got confirmation that all of What If’s program coordinators were safe and working to get the food program back up and running as soon as possible. She said that their program liaison, Lavarice Gaudin, along with the Chicago based Zakat Foundation, had driven from the Dominican Republic with relief trucks to Port-au-Prince Sunday.   

“The frequent after-shocks, including the 6.1 earthquake this morning, have prevented the cooks from cooking in the kitchens, but food and water has been distributed daily since Sunday to people in the neighborhood,” Trost said Wednesday. “Another truck filled with food and water arrived yesterday. No supplies from the Port-au-Prince airport have made their way to this community yet, so we are so grateful that we’ve been able to get desperately needed food and water in from the Dominican Republic.”   

Trost said hundreds of people are living on a dirt soccer field across the street from the St. Clare’s rectory, where the food program takes place, “using the surrounding space to coordinate distribution of the supplies we’ve been able to bring in by truck.”   

Daily updates about What If’s progress in Haiti can be found at 

Trost said that although Tiplas Kazo had been damaged—including the church bell tower and a nearby school, some of 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 she was overwhelmed by the “compassionate response” of Berkeley residents.  

“Children and parents are calling, wanting to donate,” she said.  “It’s wonderful and so needed,” 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 United Nations 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 last 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 Jan. 14 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.” 

Romani said Tuesday that staff and volunteers were already on the ground and support teams were scheduled to fly into Port-au-Prince to assist with operation Give Your Heart to Haiti.  

“Satellite phone contact has been established with personnel in Port-au-Prince and the neighboring Dominican Republic while cell phone service remains patchy at best,” he said. “Arrangements are under way to help people receive life-saving services.” 

These arrangements include collaboration with other agencies to create emergency and urgent care clinics and moving survivors out “of the very volatile areas in Port-au-Prince to the northern area, where they will have access to food, water and shelter being brought in,” Romani said. 

Romani’s team is currenty helping out in a handful of local shelters where more than 1,000 patients have been treated for emergency medical care. 

“We will be sending more doctors, medical and emergency professionals—some of whom have a pre-existing history of working with us before the earthquake and have now switched to disaster emergency care—as well as medical supplies to aid several thousand more people that are expected to arrive at these clinic within the next few days. The current supplies have already run out.” 


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.  



• Berkeley High School fundraising site: earthquake/BHShelpHaiti 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. 


• AMURT and Paramount Booking are scheduled to present a Haiti Relief Concert Feb. 20 at the Shattuck Down Low., featuring Mystic Man & Lakay and reggae DJ Jah Warrior Shelter. A portion of the event proceeds will go to Amurt Haiti emergency relief fund. Advance tickets $5, and $10 at the door.  

• help-haiti 

• Page.aspx?pid=197&hbc=1&source=ADR1001E1D01 

• List2/Help_the_ICRC?OpenDocument 

• 2?df_id=3560&3560.donation=form1 

• df_id=6680&6680.donation=form1