From Haiti, Americans carry tales of despair, hope

By Sam Tyson email | Twitter

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - With little fanfare, the passengers of the first planeload of Americans fleeing Haiti stepped foot onto the Charleston tarmac. They waited in line some 18 hours for the C-17 to touch down on the island, boarding sometime after 4 a.m. Thursday.

For all they left behind -- friends and loved ones, homes and businesses -- each person still carried with them tales mixed with destruction and despair, sometimes sprinkled with signs of hope.

Of those that arrived Thursday morning, each person's story was different. Some were missionaries. Some were Haitian-Americans looking to reconnect with stateside families. Some were relief workers like Pavaune Pearson from Washington, D.C.

Pearson touched down in Haiti five days after the magnitude-7 earthquake and went to work in the intensive care unit of the main hospital in Port-au-Prince.

Inside the hospital, a doctor and two nurses were trying to treat more than 60 patients, she said. They were completely overwhelmed and unable to give anyone the care they needed.

"Patients weren't dying from their injuries but from malnutrition because no one was feeding them or giving them water," said Pearson.

Without medical training, the 23-year-old event planner stepped up, delivering high-calorie biscuits to patients, helping them shift in their beds to prevent bed sores. "I was doing all these basics that you don't need a medical education to do. You just need a head and two hands," she said of the experience.

One patient stands out above all the others she treated, a woman in her eighties who Pearson described as being in severe condition. The woman was one of dozens, if not hundreds, who was lost in the system. Family members didn't visit or didn't know where to find her, if they were even capable of finding her themselves.

Pearson said she would visit the woman daily and, in broken French, try to talk to her.

"It wasn't until she had a translator that I knew what effect I had," she said. The message from the bed-ridden woman was one that Pearson carried with her off the plane. "She said, 'You are my daughter. You are my whole world. Every day I get lonely when you leave and I love seeing you smile when you arrive. Please just never forget me. Never forget me.'"

Two weeks later, Pearson made her way to the airport where chaos reigned. "You just show up at the airport and there are two lines -- a line for Haitians and a line for U.S. citizens and you just go and wait in line," she said. "There's no data, nobody knows anything."

However, the disorganized chaos she and the others on the plane experienced in the disaster-stricken country gave way to careful planning and regimented order inside the Charleston International Airport. Each passenger met with representatives from the departments of social services, health and human services as well as customs officials.

The process, said Derrec Becker, the public information coordinator for South Carolina's Emergency Management Division, is meant to provide immediate stability and determine the needs of each passenger so they can adapt quickly.

"They may need financial assistance, a variety of different things. Quite literally, they have been in one of the worst disasters imaginable," said Becker.

To make sure the transition process for incoming  repatriated Americans is as smooth as possible, the SCEMD has studied Florida's response.

"We've been in very close contact with Florida to see what they've been going through, what types of experiences they've had to go through because they've dealt with at least 20,000 repatriated citizens," said Becker. "We've taken every precaution we can and tried to prepare based on on what they learned in Florida."

Charleston made an ideal site because of the Air Force base that has been used extensively since the Jan. 12 earthquake, said Becker. The city is also geographically situated close to the island, he said.

While city and emergency management officials have no idea how many people from Haiti might eventually arrive in Charleston, Becker doesn't expect many of them to stay in the Lowcountry because they are from across the country.

Joseph Lorrius, a Haitian-American who survived the earthquake, was headed to New York where family and friends were waiting for him. Lorrius, 70, was from Port-au-Prince but living in Leogane, a small town 25 miles outside the capital city. He ran a night club and was inside as the earthquake started.

What started fro Lorrius as a dream turned into a harrowing tale of survival.

He thought he was dreaming as the ground started shaking. "You see, I see people running but I, I could not run because I was the captain of the boat," he said, speaking of his business. "I have to stay and see what's going on, but with my Bible I prayed 'the Lord is my shepherd' and a hand pushed me some way."

The three-story building in which Lorrius was standing collapsed around him. Three men died in the collapse, he said. "But I came out with my glasses on, just like you see me," he said pointing to the wire-framed glasses perched on his nose.

In the aftermath, Lorrius said the situation turned from bad to worse. People were capitalizing on the destruction and the lack of assistance. He said he had to pay people money to dig friends and coworkers out of the rubble.

"If I don't pay to pull them out of the dirt, no one will," said Lorrius.

He did not say how much he was charged to pull his friends to safety. The looting and exploitation that was such a concern within the capital city seemed to have spread into the nearby countryside.

Help was slow to come, he said. People everywhere struggled for food, or for any type of assistance, but it was a rarity so far outside Port-au-Prince.

Lorrius survived by the kindness and luck of family who not only had a home that did not fall during the quake or subsequent aftershocks, but also had a supply of food and money. The cousins that helped him remain in Leogane, making due with the supplies they have.

Lorrius isn't sure about going back to Haiti after losing everything and has little faith in the government to rebuild the infrastructure. "I don't see when or how. There is no government -- no government," he said.

Both Lorrius and Pearson booked planes headed north; Pearson headed back to her home in D.C. and Lorrius to family in New York.

For now, the early morning activity has given way to quiet expectation at the terminals of Charleston International Airport. But that quiet will soon give way to more commotion as another flight will land in Charleston about 1 a.m. Friday.

Authorities had expected the next C-17 to hold nearly 200 Haitian-American children, but that rumor proved to be untrue.

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