News

Coral Gables Mayor Travels To Haiti

Mayor Slesnick describes Haiti relief mission to deliver supplies, T-shirts and clear debris

By Don Slesnick

Apr 02, 2010
It all started with an unexpected phone call from a young man who five years ago led a group of University of Miami students to the Gulf Coast on a mission of mercy to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.  At that time, Coral Gables was picking up the pieces following Katrina’s visit to South Florida, thus all I could do was wish the students a safe journey, wave “goodbye” as the three chartered buses departed and four days later welcome them home from their educational, humanitarian adventure of aid and assistance.

This time was different; Coral Gables could spare me for four days and I was anxious for an elected official to take a visible participative role in the volunteer relief effort in Haiti to set an example for others.  As the day of departure approached, the serious nature of the trip began to sink in as I was vaccinated for tetanus, diphtheria, polio, hepatitis A and B, influenza and began the oral administration of malaria tablets.

The group’s leadership had “collected” an army of volunteers numbering 120 persons including people from all walks of life, various geographic locations, a multitude of professions and a full range of age representing youth and maturity. Everyone who wished to participate was required to contribute $500 to the cause.  Many of those on the trip had raised that amount and other associated costs by contributions from family and friends.

Several days before departure, we were reminded that the need was great for relief supplies – especially medical and clothing.  Through a fast two-day e-mail effort using local resources like the GablesHomePage, Pat Morris’ personal outreach and Boo’s List; my wife, Jeannett, collected approximately 7,000 t-shirts for the children of Port-au-Prince.

Thousands of shirts came from the students at West Lab, St. Thomas, St. Philip’s and Coral Gables Elementary Schools, private businesses such as Comcast, Cotton Images T-Shirts and Baptist Health, the University of Miami and local civic organizations such as the Junior Orange Bowl, and the Orange Bowl Committees.  For two days and nights boxes and bags of t-shirts showed up on our front steps – placed there by fellow Coral Gables citizens who felt the need to help in clothing the young people suffering the aftermath of the earthquake.

Our two-person law firm was well represented: both partners (myself and Jim Casey) were part of the traveling crew.  There were a number of University of Miami students and recent graduates, a beauty queen from Texas, several Florida “Gators”, an Episcopal Priest from Philadelphia, a County Commissioner and a Circuit Judge from Seminole County (Florida), military veterans, housewives, doctors, teachers, religious missionaries and nurses.  Special mention should be made of the UM’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house that raised funds to sponsor three spirited, hard working “brothers” to be part of the team.

Friday, the day of departure was a surreal scene at Miami International with this ragtag group of individuals carrying sleeping bags, shelter tents, bug spray and boots into the airport building as the belly of the aircraft was loaded with the collected supplies.  The goal of the mission was to make base camp at the New Life Children’s Home Orphanage which desperately needed assistance and to send teams to other needful locations including schools and churches.

Due to the charter company’s delays and the difficulty of getting permission to land at the Port-au-Prince airport, the arrival did not take place until midnight, at which time the Haitian customs and immigration officials had left the premises making it all the harder to unload the plane and to make our way to the orphanage.  We finally reached our goal at about 2 a.m. — a situation which required everyone to erect their tents in darkness with only the illumination of flashlights (a task many of us had not attempted since our long ago days in the military).  By the time we located the port-a-toilets and stretched out on the ground, the cock was crowing and the dogs barking.

Not much sleep was had to prepare us for the next day of labor in summer-like heat.  On Saturday morning teams were formed to either work at the orphanage (assisting with the children in the rehabilitation clinic or clearing ruble from a quake-destroyed wall) or taking relief supplies to other locations impacted by the recent disaster.  Part of my day was spent with Lt. General Ken Keen, Deputy Commander of SOUTHCOM and Commander of the military Task Force in Haiti, who took me on a helicopter tour of the entire Port-au-Prince region to see the extent of the damage and destruction.

We concluded this incredible overview of the situation with a visit to the Marine encampment to be briefed on their efforts to help local government re-establish effective civilian authority and to begin the process of infrastructure construction.  The Marines took special pride in their partnership with local Mayors in the distribution of food (especially rice) and medical supplies to the surrounding neighborhoods.  We took a motorcade tour of the busy market areas along the streets which demonstrated that life was gradually returning to a more normal state with people buying and selling household goods, fruits, vegetables and, yes, even cigarettes.

After another night of “roughing it”, the highlight of my Sunday schedule was a visit to the University of Miami “Project Medishare” Hospital (in tents on the airport grounds) with support elements from Jackson Memorial and Miami Children’s and volunteer doctors and nurses from around the country.  Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Nicholas Namias, escorted me through the various wards caring for patients suffering from unhealed wounds, AIDS, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and severe earthquake-related trauma.

It was an incredible, overwhelming sight – but one full of hope and promise, thanks to the unselfish devotion of the medical and support staff to saving as many lives as possible.  (One story that captures the depth of the outreach commitment is that of Jim Vermillion, a retired State Department diplomat living in Northern Virginia, who travels to Miami every week at his own expense to spend five twelve-hour days in the operations center at the UM coordinating support to the team in Haiti.)

Throughout the day, teams from the relief mission continued to help clear ruble, build latrines and distribute clothing wherever their assistance was requested.  One participant, Miami Haitian-American attorney Mark LaPointe, led several mini-missions to areas outside the city which had not yet been reached by other programs.  His leadership and strong resolve was highly motivating to many of the youthful participants.

Monday, which was the scheduled last day of the trip, was time well spent with the children at the orphanage – playing games, singing, distributing clothes and toys.  Many hearts were broken when we had to leave these adorable youngsters who are bravely fighting disease, injuries and homelessness: Regretfully, their futures are not bright.

What should have been the easiest part of the mission, the return home, became our biggest challenge and scariest moment.  The plane’s arrival was again delayed, the runway lights went out and all operations were cancelled and we were stuck on the “tarmac” outside the terminal because the building was condemned following the earthquake.

That is where we stayed until 11 a.m. the next morning with limited sanitation facilities, no cover and no accurate information on the possibility of our charter plane getting a landing clearance the following day.  Thank heavens for the United States Air Force (a contingent is stationed at the airport).  They brought us water, MRE’s (i.e.:  “meals ready to eat” – the space-age version of “C” rations) and cots!  The next day there were conflicting reports on the arrival of our flight, but finally as the temperature reached 90 (maybe over 100 degrees on the cement where we were forced to stand) our salvation arrived and we returned to this wonderful country and our beautiful South Florida.

The trip was both depressing and exhilarating.  The condition of Haiti, which is only in part the result of the earthquake, is deplorable as exemplified by poorly paved roads, no sewers, little electricity, limited running water, few toilet facilities and a struggling government.  That is depressing.  On the other hand, the people of Haiti have not given up in the face of such odds.  They wake up every day and face their challenges with the conviction that God will provide and that times will get better.

I pray that I can exhibit that same positive attitude when something beyond my control goes wrong or a challenge is thrown in my path.  We are back from the mission, but the impressions of Haiti and its people will remain a part of my life forever.  “Thank you” to Peter Groverman and Armando Gutierrez, Jr. for being the inspiration behind this incredible crusade – the UM can be proud of these two graduates, they learned what social responsibility really means.  Finally, “thanks” to the people of Coral Gables for allowing me to represent you as your Mayor.