By Oisin Walton
I am among the two teams of Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF) emergency telecommunications specialists who deployed to Haiti as it was hit by four cyclones–Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike–all in less than a month. TSF’s teams deployed from bases in Nicaragua and in France to support communications both among humanitarian relief workers, and for Haitians who had been driven from their homes by flood waters.
The hub of humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti is in Gonaives, a northern city that has been mostly destroyed by the hurricanes. Local authorities estimate that as many nearly 56,000 families have been affected by the cyclones, and living conditions here are extremely difficult.
Although water levels in Gonaives’ streets have lowered, mud has taken over. Gonaives is surrounded by hills devastated by deforestation, triggering mudslides that pour into the city. Daily storms make removing mud from homes and roads impossible, and aid agencies fear the stagnating water will spread diseases if it is not removed quickly.Haitians forced from their homes by the storms are now crowded into schools, churches or hospitals that have been converted into temporary shelters, even while these buildings also have been affected by the storms. In other instances those left homeless are staying with family or friends. Our driver, for example, has been sheltering 20 people in his house for more than 2 weeks.
I am on the TSF team that is running a ‘humanitarian calling operation’ that provides affected populations with free, 3-minute phone calls to reconnect with loved ones. Since we launched our operation two days ago, it has been a tremendous success. Already more than 500 families were able to contact a loved one to ask for money or just give news to their family for the first time since the cyclones.
Each day, the TSF team providing calls for the local population travels from shelter to shelter, reaching on average 2 shelters per day. We use both satellite and mobile phones–satellite phones for international calls, and mobile for domestic ones. Access to satellite phones is very important since 80% of calls being placed go abroad–of those calls, 90% are to the United States, mainly to Florida but also to New York, Boston, Washington or Kansas.
Today, a 53-year old woman was able to call her father in Miami for the first time since the disaster. She thanked us because even if her father wasn’t able to send any money they were both very happy to give news. “It was so good to hear his voice. You gave me 3 minutes of happiness,” she said before leaving. Later, a man cried after calling his wife in Boston.
The Western Union office here has now reopened, making TSF’s calls even more important as people will now be able to arrange money transfers. The Haitian Diaspora is indeed a huge source of revenue for many families living in Gonaives.
Normally, a 3-minute call from Haiti would cost around 135 gourdes. To put that in context, a cup of rice here (people don’t count in kilos or in pounds but in “cups”) costs 35 gourdes. For a population devastated by the food crisis and then these storms, access to TSF’s phone lines may mean not only moments of comfort connecting with loved ones, but possibly also a lifeline to friends or family who could send money.
TSF’s calling operations should last another 10 days depending on the needs. Our deployment to Haiti–which also includes telecommunications support for United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams, as well as for relief workers with UNICEF and NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the Spanish Red Cross–is supported by partners including the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, which supports the use of emergency communications for disaster relief.
Oisin Walton is head of communications and international relations for Télécoms Sans Frontières. For more information about TSF visit www.tsfi.org. For more information about the UN Foundation-Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, visit www.unfoundation.org/vodafone.