In January 2010, Kent Page, UNICEF Haiti Chief of Communication in the early stages of the earthquake response, keeps in touch with international media by Blackberry in the UNICEF Haiti tent office. In the background is Communication Specialist Françoise Vanni.
NEW YORK, USA, 9 July 2010 – Kent Page left New York for Port-au-Prince on 20 January, just over a week after the earthquake that shattered Haiti’s most densely populated areas – and the lives of its most vulnerable children. He had been asked to leave his UNICEF headquarters post for a month-long assignment as the agency’s chief media spokesperson in the Haitian capital.
A Canadian national and veteran communications staffer, Page has worked for UNICEF in West and Central Africa, Central Asia and Latin America. Having completed stints with UN missions in Angola, Liberia and Rwanda during the 1990s – and with UNICEF in Afghanistan in 2002 – he is no stranger to emergencies.
Still, the crisis in Haiti was on a scale that neither Page nor most other humanitarian aid personnel had ever witnessed. It was also the single deadliest disaster for the United Nations, which lost over 100 staff members when the quake hit on 12 January. Although UNICEF did not lose any staff that day, its offices were severely damaged. When Page arrived, crisis-response operations were being conducted from temporary tent headquarters near the Port-au-Prince airport.
Six months on, the memory of those early weeks remains vivid for the families and children who lived through them and the aid workers who lent a hand. UNICEF website editor Tim Ledwith spoke with Kent Page about his own recollections of the earthquake’s immediate aftermath. Highlights of their conversation follow.
UNICEF Haiti national and international staff outside the organization's tent office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, earlier this year.
What was your role in the UNICEF response after the earthquake struck?
Kent Page: I was sent in as the chief of the communications team for the emergency. I was working with a couple of other communication officers, and we also had a team from the Canadian National Committee for UNICEF. We were charged with dealing with the international media, literally on a minute-by-minute basis, getting the word out about actions UNICEF was taking on the ground. I think we worked very well together as a team. Everybody knew what they had to do, and we just got on with the work at hand.
Can you describe the scale of the quake damage that you saw in population centres?
Well, in Port-au-Prince and the other affected cities, Jacmel and Léogâne – I had the chance to visit those three cities – some streets and neighbourhoods were completely destroyed like it was World War II. On other streets, you’d see five buildings up and four buildings down, and other streets wouldn’t be affected at all. But overall, the scope of the devastation was immense. The city of Léogâne, when you flew over it by helicopter, essentially the entire city was levelled. And the sights you would see out in the cities were of people in a desperate situation.
How were the living conditions for displaced families in temporary settlements?
Anywhere in Port-au-Prince where there was an open space, there were makeshift shelters. Any public park was now set up with tents, in the very best case, or shelters made out of plastic sheeting, tarpaulins or even plastic bags – very rough living conditions. But you would still see, as you see in other emergencies, that children are children. I remember seeing kids flying plastic-bag kites in the air and just being kids. And that was wonderful to see.
From your point of view, which UNICEF interventions had the greatest impact on children in the early stages of the emergency?
First, UNICEF and our partners were delivering clean, safe drinking water to almost million people a day in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel and Léogâne. That was certainly a key, life-saving intervention.
A girl walks over the rubble of a destroyed building in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 12 January 2010 earthquake.
We also started a campaign to immunize up to 500,000 children against measles, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and rubella. That was a preventive intervention, because measles is a child killer, and if it were to break out in the unsanitary conditions of the makeshift camps, it would spread like wildfire.
And we were distributing tent schools. Something like 5,000 schools were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, so getting those tent schools out was very important.
On the 30th day after the earthquake, we were able to open the first tent school, in a remote mountaintop village overlooking Port-au-Prince. The school was packed, and the parents were hand-in-hand with their kids, walking them to school. This was the first school that opened in any of the areas affected by the earthquake, and parents were proud – as they are anywhere in the world – to see their children in school. It was also important because the children had a chance to play and interact with other kids, learn and just have a routine and a sense of normalcy.
What was the status of children who had been orphaned or separated from their families?
We were working with other partners on family reunification and family tracing. While I was there, we certainly helped to bring together a number of children who had been separated from their families in the earthquake.
I remember one young boy who was injured when his house collapsed, and he was taken for emergency medical treatment. The hospital couldn’t treat the child and his life was in danger, so he was then brought aboard the USNS Comfort [a US Navy hospital ship that was on a relief mission in Haiti]. The child’s parents didn’t know where he had been taken, and they assumed the worst, that their son was dead.
Haitian students whose school was destroyed in the 12 January earthquake walk past a tent serving as a temporary school supported by UNICEF in Port-au-Prince.
Through the family-tracing programme, we were able to reunite the child with his parents. CNN’s Anderson Cooper was there and they filmed the whole scene. It was very emotional. And hats off to the UNICEF child-protection team and the teams from other organizations who pulled that off and are still helping to reunite children with their families. It’s great to see good news like this come out of a situation like that.
Did you see evidence of child trafficking during your month on the ground?
Well, before the earthquake, it was estimated that about 2,000 Haitian children a year were being trafficked illegally. And with the chaos post-earthquake, with the number of children who had been separated from their parents or had been orphaned, one could imagine that the number of trafficked children would go up.
Because traffickers in Haiti – these aren’t amateurs, they’re professional criminal networks. They know exactly what they’re doing, and the marketplace for them, you could say, expanded as a result of the earthquake.
So working with the government and partners, we took a number of actions immediately to help protect children. There were radio broadcast messages telling people about the dangers of trafficking. Hospital staff were briefed that if there were any unaccompanied, injured children, anyone coming to pick them up had to provide documentation. UNICEF also helped train the child-protection brigade made up of the Haitian national police, who were operating at the border-crossing points and the airports.
What was the environment like for relief workers in the earthquake zone?
We worked out of two open-air tent offices at the MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti] logistics base. It was a huge area, and all the UN organizations were based there, which was helpful because it allowed us to better coordinate our operations. At the start, we only had a few tables and a few chairs to work from, but we had a lot of energy, expertise and good will, and a lot of work in front of us.
I’d like to say a special word about the national Haitian staff working with UNICEF. Obviously, they had all lived through the earthquake. One driver had three children who were killed. Others had relatives who died or went missing, homes that were damaged, homes that were destroyed – and still, they were back at work, working full-time for the children of Haiti.
Kent Page conducts a television interview outside the UNICEF tent office in Port-au-Prince.
Also at that time, the Dominican Republic office of UNICEF was coordinating the logistics and supplies, either by air or by road, and coordinating the staff coming into Haiti. They obviously had their own country programme going but they took this on and did a terrific job.
Were you living as well as working at the MINUSTAH base?
Yes, we were going to sleep in our pup tents at about 11 or 12 o’clock at night, waking up at 5:30 and working throughout the day. Basically, we were all camping for the month that I was there. And the base is right by the airport, so there were planes landing 75 or 100 metres away from us all night – huge transport planes bringing in relief supplies. The noise added to a lack of sleep on the part of the staff.
How did Haiti compare with other emergency situations you’ve experienced?
I’ve worked in various complex emergencies, in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Angola, Liberia and other places in West Africa, but this was truly a unique emergency for a number of reasons. It was happening in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, in an urban setting. Because of the destruction of so many government ministry buildings and the impact on government workers, it was really epic in nature.
The earthquake itself only lasted about 35 or 45 seconds, and all of a sudden you had 1.5 million children affected directly – so many children injured, children killed, children separated from their parents. The scale of need was instant and immense.
Another important aspect was that Haiti is an hour and a half by plane from Miami and four hours from New York, so the international media coverage was immediate and then non-stop. The media did a very good job, I think, in bringing the issues faced by children in Haiti out to the global public, and the public response was outstanding.
Is there any one moment that stands out in your mind, in terms of the resilience of the Haitian people?
Yes, there is. I remember we were talking with one girl – I think she was about 11 or 12 years old – and we asked her, ‘Would you like to go back to school?’ She said ‘Yes,’ and we asked her why. And she said, ‘Because my country is broke, and I want to fix it.” I think that really sums up the positive spirit of Haiti.