Christine Rodecker, left, a senior purchasing agent at Catholic… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
On an ordinary day, Katie Goldsmith would be monitoring political and security conditions in West Africa from Catholic Relief Services' Baltimore headquarters.
But on Thursday, with Haitians still waiting for international help in recovering from the earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, Goldsmith was working the phones at the agency, trying to find a port where it could begin landing food, medicine and supplies in the Caribbean nation of 9 million.
"We've heard that the commercial port in Port-au-Prince is nonoperable," Goldsmith said in between calls. "We're really trying to figure out where we can ship stuff, how we can ship stuff, who's going to be able to pick up the stuff that we ship, and how?"
It was one of dozens of challenges, large and small, confronting the emergency response veterans at the agency's West Lexington Street offices, as they shifted focus from accounting for the 300 staff members stationed in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation to figuring out how to begin delivering relief to the millions of Haitians now in need.
"The key in emergency response is the distribution network," said Jim O'Connor, the agency's director of overseas support. "This has obviously disrupted on a massive scale any kind of humanitarian distribution network. So we have to rebuild it."
The international relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, CRS is one of several organizations headquartered locally that is responding to the worst earthquake to strike Haiti in more than two centuries.
Lutheran World Relief and World Relief in Baltimore and IMA World Health in New Windsor are also sending staff and supplies, and several local organizations, faith-based groups and individuals are raising funds.
The International Committee of the Red Cross on Thursday estimated the dead at 45,000 to 50,000, but with communications down, hospitals destroyed and bodies still lying in the streets, it was impossible to get an accurate toll. For survivors, aid officials were warning of a dire need for drinkable water, food and shelter.
Catholic Relief Services, which has been working in the country for more than 50 years, has pledged an initial $5 million for earthquake relief, a number that officials said would climb. With $20 million going annually to hunger and HIV/AIDS in Haiti, the country already is home to the agency's largest program in Latin America.
With no functioning economy in Haiti, the agency transferred an initial $500,000 to Santo Domingo in the neighboring Dominican Republic for the purchase of emergency supplies.
On Thursday, CRS officials in Baltimore monitored the progress of an initial team of three senior staff members as they boarded a chartered bus in Santo Domingo, climbed the mountains to the border with Haiti, and arrived in the capital with food, water, hygiene kits, mosquito nets and bedding. Ultimately, the agency likely will send more staff from the southern Haitian city of Les Cayes and from the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince.
Communications with Port-au-Prince remained spotty. The CRS building in the capital survived the quake, but staff members, fearful of aftershocks, continued to work out of tents in the courtyard. While they wait for satellite telephones to arrive, the primary mode of contact was the Internet.
Back in Baltimore, calls from donors were flooding into headquarters - thousands in the first days after the quake - and donations director Nancy Fletcher said the callers represented only a fraction of contributors. The great majority send money in by mail, with online donors a distant second and callers a more distant third.
Downstairs, Arnold resident Bill Fleming, on his lunch break from his job working with the disabled at the Archdiocese of Baltimore, walked in off the street with a $25 check.
"I know that Catholic Relief Services does wonderful work," said Fleming, who had been following news accounts of the disaster. "It was the first place that I thought of."
The mood at CRS headquarters, a working space for nearly 400 staff in the former Stewart's department store, was businesslike. Those working on Haiti - Goldsmith estimated a core of about a dozen, and a dozen more lending close assistance - have been coming in early and preparing to stay 16 to 18 hours.
O'Connor, who has worked at CRS for 24 years, likened the atmosphere to that following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
"Nobody really knew the magnitude, and each day it got worse and worse and worse," he said. "I really don't know how to gauge it right now. We're not seeing much in the way of assessments, and the death tolls look terrible."