The day started before dawn with a 4:00 wake-up. We hit the road by 5:30, initially in two pickups. Stopped in Pont du Sundae just as the sun was rising to pick up our armed-and-uniformed police escort. In St Marc we met up with the minibus we had hired and transferred over to it. After dropping the pickups off at the police compound for safekeeping, we hit the road again about 7:00 or so. The main road out of St Marc was blocked by something that was going on, so we took the back road out of town - a different side of the city from what we'd seen before.
On the road into Port, we found ourselves right behind a UN patrol convoy of Brazilian troops. Were we glad to be going in with them! Along the road were piles of rubble, obviously where the dump trucks had been depositing debris. People were climbing all over the piles, scavenging. Damaged buildings or walls, some collapsed entirely, became more frequent.
Our "escort" turned in at the airport grounds. US Blackhawk and other helicopters were everywhere. A large military cargo plane flew low over the road on final approach just as we drove by the runway. UN vehicles, Haitian police, and troops were everywhere. Thankfully the aid program was rapidly kicking into high gear. (A solider escorting us to the airport later in the day commented that the Canadian representation was looking likely to be on the scale of our involvement in Afghanistan, but with one to two weeks instead of six months! Our hearts go out to the troops and their families who will be bearing the stress of being stretched so much by two major and difficult missions.)
As we reached the main roads of PAP traffic became quite intense. People lined the grounds outside the airport, and small tent cities could be seen. Crowds lined up outside the entrance to an industrial park, where dump trucks and vehicles were also queued two lanes wide for quite a distance. This was apparently a distribution site for food and/or water. A pillar of dark smoke rose from somewhere in the distance.
Damage wasn't as immediately apparent - the streets and sidewalks were busy, and many buildings appeared fine from a distance, or with relatively minor cracks. There were buildings that had been flattened and that we cringed to think about very much, but even on the main road (DelMas) they weren't as uniformly destroyed as we had feared from rumours and TV coverage. As we moved further in, destroyed buildings became more frequent, but a lot of debris had been removed to allow traffic to proceed already, and thankfully we didn't see as many obvious horrors as we had feared that the kids might be exposed to.
Lineups for food, water, and gasoline were blocks long in places. The need there is immediate and great, and people are afraid of the looming supply shortage with the normal infrastructure destroyed. Very simply, Port-au-Prince was the center of the country in nearly every sense. The destruction of basic utilities and infrastructure, not to mention shipping and logistics, government, health care, education, commerce, etc., leaves those you speak to simply stunned or in tears.
As we climbed DelMas into the hills around PAP, we saw another large crowd on the left side of the street. "Wow, another food lineup. I feel bad for the people there," I thought. Then we found out that was the Canadian Embassy!
Karen and one of our police escort hopped out once we got turned back around to find out how to get in. Unfortunately, we had to work our way through the crowd on foot (with the kids) and present ourselves with passports at the gate. Further, no baggage except a carry-on (not a big deal, but we had "loaner" suitcases and such that we wanted to be able to return). We quickly organized ourselves, grabbed a couple things from our bags, and worked our way through the crowds to the lineup. We found that there wasn't much of a line for Canadian citizens - most were Haitians looking for a way out of their country and situation, but who unfortunately were mostly bound for disappointment. As citizens, we were able to proceed through relatively quickly. People were packed against one another, but were amazingly accommodating to having a bunch of nervous Blancs jostle through them, backpacks bouncing against them. "Pardon", "Merci", and smiles of sympathy and understanding for the kids and their anxious parents were common.
Once we got to the gate, the sight of Canadian Forces troops and embassy staff was such a welcome sight! Members of what we believe were the DART team, Royal Canadian Dragoons, RCHA (?), and/or other units were on guard at the gates. Military Police and Haitian security staff were on duty to process those requesting access. We were so thrilled with the reception we received - calm, professional, good humour, friendly, efficient, are all words that describe it. We were quickly processed through the gates and directed to a spot in the shade by several very friendly and confident staff.
Karen was able to accompany us inside after leading and coordinating our trip through the crowd. We were so thankful for her help, and the chance to see everyone safely inside and say proper good byes. We have all become so close as a team and to Karen over the past weeks.
Did we mention that Karen is something of a force of nature? As soon as she had seen us in safely, she went back to the gates to negotiate with the staff there to see if we could bring at least some of our bags through. She disappeared back out the gates, and in a few minutes the truck was seen backing up to right next to the gate. Next thing we knew, Karen and then Luckner were lugging our suitcases (some weighed awfully close to as much as Karen does herself!) up to and through the gates one at a time! She had gotten the okay for us to bring one suitcase apeice through. That was more than we needed, since much of the team had given away most of what they brought either for the PAP mercy mission or to be left with Karen for local distribution, so we were able to bring all of our bags through.
We had been a bit frustrated at not being able to get through to the Embassy or get much information before arriving, but once we got there and saw how many people they were managing, and what a wonderful job they were doing, we immediately understood. We can't say enough about how good they were to deal with, looking out for everyone's well being. We're grateful for their speed and efficiency - we know that having the kids with our group made our evacuation a higher priority than if we had just been a group of adults, but we are so thankful.
We hadn't been at the waiting area more than an hour or two when we were taking to a staging area for those being prepared to convoy to the airport. Four or five small buses had been hired, along with several SUV's. A squad or two of Canadian troops and a number of Haitian security staff accompanied the convoy and each bus, and these were being filled and taken to the airport as quickly as the logistics allowed.
We were only in the staging area another hour or two when our names were called and we boarded the buses. After a false start or two and some delays while things were coordinated, we were taken the short distance to the aiport where we entered the grounds directly. The tarmac was crowded with planes of all shapes and sizes from many different countries and organizations. US troops were everywhere, as well as UN troops and police. Canadian flags were seen on stacks of aid packages, and soon Canadian Forces troops were also seen. Aid agencies, rescue organizations, etc., from all over North America and Europe were everywhere.
Soon we approached the biggest Canadian Air Force jet most of us had seen (A C-17 Globemaster). We waited while a Forces Rescue helicoper was offloaded from it (!) and while we waited the Flight Surgeon came aboard each bus to give us a quick briefing on what to expect. (We'd go through security, go up the ramp, and be seated on the floor - just like Air Canada he joked.) After a bit we were taken right to the ramp at the rear of the plane, went through a security search, and boarded the plane.
Our seats were quite literally on the floor of the cargo area. Cargo straps were run across, and five people on each side of every row were strapped down together. There was a stretcher rack near the front where three or four elderly people with medical needs had been placed, right next to the two flight nurses and the flight surgeon. Our bags were strapped down on the cargo ramp, along with the last bus load of people. Water was handed out to everyone, with instructions from the doctor to make sure we all drank to prevent dehydration and fainting. The ramp (and those on it) was raised as we prepared for takeoff.
Once we arrived, Red Cross blankets were distributed to those dressed in shorts and +40 in Haiti instead of -3 in Montreal. We were were fast-tracked through Customs and Immigration and greeted with coffee, juice, cookies, and snacks. A few fast phone calls ensured, and then on to waiting buses for the ride to the hotel.
At the hotel, the Red Cross, Quebec Government, and aid organizations had a welcome center set up. More food and drinks, clothing, travel arrangement, hotels, meal vouchers, toiletries, social works, crisis counsellors, free cell phone calls - anything we might need was there waiting and even being pressed upon us to ensure all of our needs were taken care of. Staff were there to direct and assist us all. It was amazing - we were overwhelmed and felt so unworthy of all the attention and treatment, especially compared to what so many of the others with us (and even more so those who were still in the midst of Port-au-Prince) had been through.
We were exhausted by this point - here are a couple of photos showing the condition of the kids by that point (around 11:00 pm or so Eastern):