The Haiti Disaster — My Reflections

By Lieutenant Commander Samuel Ayelazono, Ghanaian Navy

Prior to February 13, 2010, I was all psyched up for this year’s Africa Partnership Station (APS) deployment and did not imagine myself heading any direction other than towards Africa.

All of a sudden news about a terrible earthquake in Haiti began to filter in. When I heard of the decision to use USS Gunston Hall for relief operations in Haiti, I was immediately filled with excitement. However, my excitement took a hit when I heard a decision was yet to be made on whether the APS staff would be involved in relief operations. I got clearance from the Navy HQ in Ghana to participate even before the decision to take the APS staff along. I would have been seriously disappointed if it was decided otherwise.

I arrived at the coast of Haiti ready to do anything within my power to relieve the pain and suffering of the earthquake victims and was happy to be part of the reconnaissance team to go ashore to assess the situation.

On arrival at the Killick Coast Guard Base in Haiti, I saw a typical developing country, not too different from my own country The decision to use the Killick Base for relief operations was quite important as it afforded easy access to all kinds of resources arriving by sea.

The APS staff, working with the USS Gunston Hall crew, quickly established a Joint Coordination Centre (JOC) that provided for security, food distribution, local volunteers and helo operations. I worked together with two local assistants at the medical evacuation section. This was an area where patients, who have been triaged to be evacuated, were kept pending the arrival of a helo to transfer them either to the hospital ships anchored off shore or the Sacred Heart hospital, a few kilometers away.

I had the job of collecting from patients the names, addresses and phone numbers of their contact persons. This was very important because there were so many patients to be evacuated and yet the helos could only take a few at a time. Therefore, patients sometimes couldn’t be transferred with their relatives. The information collected was to help in the reunification with relatives when patients were finally discharged. The information I collected was particularly important in the case of young children, who otherwise would have ended up in orphanages and possibly never reunited with their families.

My job was quite challenging in the early days of the operation when we had to deal with many patients at a time and especially when critically injured patients had to be rushed directly from the clinic to the aircraft. My small team was occasionally overwhelmed when we had two aircraft on ground waiting to airlift patients at the same time. Fortunately, with the help of my assistants, language was not a barrier.

When the medical evacuation traffic slowed down, I went off base with the Military Civil Affairs Team (MCAT) officers to assist in food distribution. I also assisted in the organization of humanitarian aid into a warehouse and onto vehicles for distribution.

This operation has brought out a number of lessons for me. It is a clear demonstration of the flexibility with which maritime assets can be deployed. Within a twinkle of an eye, a ship billed for a training exercise in Africa was redirected to play a key role in a peace support operation.

It has also shown that a peace support operation is not a one-man show. All types of maritime assets and their personnel from different nations worked together with governmental and non-governmental agencies to alleviate the pain and suffering of victims of a disaster. No wonder the operation was code named Operation Unified Response.

I am happy to have played a role in this relief assistance. It has indeed broadened my horizon as a naval officer.

(Note: Lieutenant Commander Samuel Ayelazono served as the Ghana hub officer for Africa Partnership Station 2010 (West) onboard the USS Gunston Hall. Ayelazono was responsible for coordinating all APS events taking place in his home country. The USS Gunston Hall was originally scheduled to make three hub visits in Africa between February and April 2010 — Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal. The Cameroon hub was canceled when the crew of the USS Gunston Hall and the APS staff were called upon to aid in relief efforts in Haiti. Cameroon was visited later in the spring by the Belgian ship BNS Godetia, the second non-U.S. ship to conduct an APS mission, which conducted training and other collaborative activities aimed at improving maritime safety and security.)

See related stories:

Africa Partnership Station Supports Operation Unified Response, Haiti

USS Gunston Hall Diverted from West Africa to Haiti (January 16, 2010)

Africa Partnership Station USS Gunston Hall Arrives in Ghana (March 11, 2010)

BNS Godetia Departs Benin (March 24, 2010)

APS Gunston Hall Arrives in Dakar, Starts Final Phase (April 8, 2010)

Senegalese, Spanish and U.S. Ships Work Together to Train African Sailors (April 22, 2010)

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