Haiti Update: A day in the life of Handicap International’s team in Les Cayes

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Handicap International’s emergency response team arrived in Les Cayes on October 11, a week after Hurricane Matthew, to support staff already on the ground in Haiti. The ten-member team is working on a dual mission: assessing the scope of the disaster in the Sud and Grand’Anse regions and offering care and psychological support to those affected. 

Geoffrey Guimberteau, an occupational therapist, is solidly built with a full beard and bright eyes. He has worked in the humanitarian, non-profit sector since 2009 and previously came to Haiti to support the victims of the earthquake in January 2010.

“In emergency response situations, it is difficult to plan since we are dependent on information coming back from the field,” Geoffrey explains. “Very often, information arrives piecemeal, as is the case in this particular crisis. This requires a constant readiness not only to adapt, but also to prioritise zones that have not yet been assessed so that we can share our information with other humanitarian agencies and deploy aid more effectively.” 

Currently, the team's priority is to assess individuals affected by Hurricane Matthew at two locations: the Dumarsais Estimé school, which is being used as a temporary shelter for some of the 180,000 people displaced, and the Immaculée Conception Hospital, the main healthcare facility in Les Cayes. 

Chaos in the temporary shelters

Dumarsais Estimé is a school located near the base of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (UNSTAMIH). With one glance into the classrooms and compound, one can see that the situation is more than just challenging. A tree in the middle of the playground has collapsed and debris is scattered across the muddy ground, interspersed with pools of stagnant water.

Handicap International’s team is joined by Alexis, 23, who is responsible for liaising between the community and the displaced people. He makes a classroom available for the team members to use, where he brings together the vulnerable individuals–elderly and isolated people, pregnant women, and people with disabilities–living in the shelter. 

Velium Ligé, 50, is an elderly man with a gentle expression. He is hemiplegic since suffering a stroke a few years ago, and later lost the power of speech. He is supported by his partner, Mélienne, who cares for him at the Dumarsais Estimé school, where they took shelter after losing their home in the storm. 

Handicap International Physical Therapist, Jeannica Verneret, is treating Velium. She shows Velium and Mélienne simple exercises they can do each day to improve his mobility. Handicap International provided Velium with a crutch, which will help him become more independent. 

In another part of the room, psychologist Fanélie Raban and social worker Fedner Weche are setting up a listening support group that gives affected individuals the opportunity to express their feelings in the wake of the hurricane. The team supports them and helps them share anxieties resulting from the disaster.  

For Fanélie, this is an important moment: “Even though the Haitian people are very resilient, many of those in the shelters have not had the opportunity to talk about the disaster and voice their fears for the future. Setting up these support groups is a first step towards enabling them to overcome their trauma, a less visible impact of the damage caused by the hurricane.”

Les Cayes General Hospital operating in semi-darkness

Located in the town center, the Immaculée Conception Hospital is the main hospital for the entire Sud region. Here too, Hurricane Matthew left its mark. With debris piled high in the courtyard, the hospital continues to operate without electricity.

Jeannica makes her way through to the orthopaedic unit, plunged into darkness until the generator can be powered up–she uses the light from her mobile phone to find her way.

In this part of the hospital, the suffering is palpable. None of the patients injured in the disaster have undergone surgery, due to a lack of time and available staff resources. While waiting to operate on patients, staff use bandages to secure fractures and apply makeshift splints.

Among the injured is Gisela, 71, who has been hit particularly hard by the hurricane. With a fractured left tibia, Gisela, who lives in Disis, describes the trauma she has experienced: “Because we lived too far away from the shelter, we tried to stay at home, but the winds were too strong and ripped off our roof and the walls of our home fell on top of us. My son died. I have absolutely nothing left and my injury is very painful.”

Gisela’s 15-year-old granddaughter, Dieunane, looks after her in the hospital. After losing her father in the hurricane, Dieunane recounts how may wounded people stayed in Disis since they had no way of getting to the hospital. Some of the patients had to wait several days before being transferred to the hospital.

“For us, the most important thing is to ensure these people are properly looked after,” HI occupational therapist, Geoffrey Guimberteau explains. “They need psychosocial support and appropriate care, in particular physical therapy so that they do not develop further debilitating complications.”