Experts kick-start Haiti relief

Despite security delays, mission to re-establish communications and power networks remains an urgent priority.

DUBAI// Arriving in Haiti and walking straight into a landscape of destroyed buildings and devastated lives, Dane Novarlic and his colleagues were left in no doubt as to the scale of the job in hand. As members of the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (Fittest) based in Dubai, they are well versed with being dropped into such situations and expected to hit the ground running.

Now in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, having been held up by security restrictions and logistical problems getting into the country, Mr Novarlic and the team's mission is to re-establish communication and power networks as quickly as possible. This mission is vital to relief efforts as aid agencies try to co-ordinate the movement of supplies and staff. The team is helping get emergency telephone service up and running, to allow those who were caught up in the 7.0-magnitude earthquake to call family and friends in the country or abroad. The team is also repairing two or three damaged automated radio stations, which open lines of communication for humanitarian staff, and erecting solar panels.

Part of their work will also include assessing for the WFP where relief is needed most and how much. "Pressure is high but every time I speak to the team it is encouraging and morale is high," said Gianluca Bruni, the head of Fittest's IT division. "Everyone is very excited about what they are doing." Mr Novarlic, 38, and his colleagues William Twyford, 35, and Pierre Petry, 60, were one of several relief teams from around the world called into action by the WFP after the scale of the devastation in Haiti became clear.

By chance, Mr Petry was in Haiti when the earthquake struck. He was giving a driver training programme in Cap-Haitien, located about 130km away from Port-au-Prince, on the island's north coast. It took him several days to reach the capital. The rest of the team travelled on commercial flights from Panama, each carrying 210kg "fly-away kits", including laptop computers, satellite phones and solar battery chargers.

Yesterday, a charter flight left from Sharjah carrying more supplies for the team. The supplies, including blankets, tents and equipment for water purification, will be flown to the Dominican Republic, which shares an island with Haiti, where WFP has established a base. When needed, the equipment will be taken across the border to the Fittest team. "We speak to Dane, who is leading the Fittest operation on the ground in Port-au-Prince, every morning at 8am Dubai time, which is just before he goes to bed. He gives all instructions for what is needed in terms of equipment, assistance or manpower and then we process that by the time he wakes up," said Mr Bruni.

"We have deployed an additional seven people with another five on standby. That means the operation is bigger than anyone could have anticipated in the beginning." Mr Bruni said the mission was supported by two telecommunication teams from other organisations, the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of Haiti and Telecoms Sans Frontières, a French NGO. "In terms of the work we had initially planned, as very often we would in such circumstances, we have to start from scratch. Having partners such as these has been very helpful, but it will take longer than we initially thought."

The team will be in Haiti for a least a month, possibly longer, Mr Bruni said. While the situation may seem dire, it is not unfamiliar to the team. Between them, the three members have more than a decade of disaster relief experience. When they are deployed to an emergency situation, they are among the first wave of support and, with communications often down, they are prepared to jump into the unknown on the ground.

"I can speak for the team when I say we all love our job," Mr Novarlic said in an interview before he left Dubai for Haiti. "If we didn't, we would not do it. "We love to travel around, have a bit of adrenalin and the feeling that we can help is the reward, absolutely." loatway@thenational.ae