MAF playing critical role in Haiti food distribution

By March 12, 2010

Haiti (MNN/MAF) — Nearly two months following the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) must continually redefine its role in Haiti. What began as crisis management shifted to food distribution to the Haitian people.

Now the aviation ministry is gearing up for the next phase: to assist with rebuilding the nation's shattered infrastructure and partner with ministries serving in the most remote areas of Haiti.

While these steps trace the usual path following a crisis, each disaster presents its own challenges, according to John Woodberry, MAF Disaster Response manager.

"Disaster response always throws something new at you, so you have to adapt. You can't just respond based on the needs following a previous disaster," said Woodberry, who has led MAF responses to other parts of the world, including efforts after Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh (2007).

Tragedy Concentrated in City, Ripple Effects Elsewhere

Although this recent earthquake was centered just 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital city, many remote communities were affected.

"The earthquake's devastation is the magnitude of the 2004 tsunami, but it's localized," Woodberry stated. "Most of the deaths and destruction took place in the capital. But many remote communities depended on Port-au-Prince for their food supplies."

An estimated 1.5 million Haitian people were left homeless following the earthquake. Camps of the homeless sprung up everywhere. Many Port-au-Prince victims who lost their homes went to stay with equally poor relatives living in remote villages.

"Where there once was a family of five in a home, there are now 20 people," Woodberry said. Towns that had 5,000 people now have 20,000, "but these towns don't have more provisions than they had for the 5,000."

Before the quake, the infrastructure supporting food distribution from Port-au-Prince to the rest of Haiti was in disarray. Now it's in shambles. The nation's seaport just west of the capital sustained severe damage and only recently has been able to receive goods. The commercial sector of Port-au-Prince was decimated.

"Farm plots in remote villages can't provide enough food for additional family members who have arrived from the capital, so there's a need to help feed displaced people," Woodberry said. MAF helped feed thousands of hungry, isolated families in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake because its aircraft could deliver food to areas not quickly accessible by land.

As the ministry addresses long-term needs in Haiti, a huge advantage is that MAF established its presence here in 1986. Since then, MAF has assisted the country through a succession of natural disasters. In 2008 alone, Haiti was ravaged by three tropical storms and one hurricane. Knowing the culture, the language and the people has enhanced the ability of MAF to serve this suffering nation.

MAF Resumes Haiti Flights

MAF has long networked with Christian and other humanitarian groups that were ministering in Haiti well before the latest tragedy. Almost immediately after the earthquake, MAF began flying in partnership with Missionary Flights International (MFI) about 10 times more than it had before the quake. In the eight weeks following the disaster, MAF has distributed approximately 120 tons of food via planes. This food has been delivered mainly to the remote areas of Haiti, primarily using 14 different airstrips throughout the country.

The emergency response by MAF entailed learning of specific needs of displaced Haitians in areas too difficult to reach by ground transportation. MAF then flew in lifesaving aid.

Most Haitians eat only one meal a day. Food boxes contain humanitarian ration MREs (meals ready to eat). These high-calorie meals typically consist of rice and beans, peanut butter and crackers, and fruit slices, all providing a person with a day's worth of nutrition and energy.

MAF staff link aid shipments for distribution by agencies they know are reputable. "Through our partner organizations, we learn where the needs are," Woodberry said. "We're getting food and vital supplies to them."

Much of the cargo arrives designated for specific projects at a particular hospital or ministry, such as Operation Blessing International or World Concern. "But other aid comes undesignated, sent by churches and other organizations," Woodberry said. By knowing an agency's specific needs, MAF can help meet the need. "If we hear from a partner agency that a remote hospital needs crutches, for example, we can get them to the hospital."

Transition to Rebuilding, Long-Term Needs

Most of the food now being distributed will become part of food-for-work projects. "Due to the disaster, countless Haitian people have lost their home, job and income. That's where the search comes in for sustainable solutions. "Haitians will be able to work, whether it's building a road, sanitation system or whatever, in exchange for food," Woodberry commented. Schools, clinics and other infrastructure must be rebuilt as well.

Challenges abound. Haiti is no longer daily front-page news, which means the public won't read about the ongoing misery that still needs millions of donor dollars toward rebuilding efforts. And everyday tragedies still hit. On March 1, a volunteer nurse from a U.S. Christian humanitarian ministry died of a heart attack. MAF, in conjunction with MFI, helped arrange for his body to be flown back to the United States.

As road conditions in Haiti improve, "more and more aid is being transported by truck," Woodberry said. This allows the focus of MAF flights to turn from delivering food to transporting missionaries and humanitarian workers to where they're most needed around the country. MAF will likely add more staff and aircraft to its Haiti flight program in order to address the long-term needs.

"God works through disasters in many ways to open doors that had been closed," Woodberry remarked. He cited as an example the Christian relief agencies that after the great tsunami were allowed to help in Aceh, Indonesia, where previously they hadn't been permitted to serve. The local leadership in Aceh was so impressed with many of these groups' work that they were invited to stay after helping with the immediate disaster relief efforts.

Woodberry knows that Romans 8:28 is true, even when a crisis doesn't result in an apparent silver lining. "God is still in control, and someday in heaven I'll understand the whole picture," he said.

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