This week, Hurricane Sandy crashed into the Eastern seaboard of the United States. The so-called superstorm dramatically redefined coastal towns, killed at least 74 people in the U.S. and left millions without electricity. My area of Brooklyn suffered few damages, but in the evening, my kitchen window still displays a bewildering site -- lower Manhattan plunged into darkness. Like so many New Yorkers lucky enough to be spared the worst, I have closely followed the news on social media as people post their status updates and organize volunteer responses to the disaster. Over and over again I've seen a reminder familiar to all Americans -- call 911 in case of an emergency.
The simple idea of 911 draws a connection -- beyond the winds of the hurricane -- between my life in New York City and a place I've been working for the past three years: Haiti. When a devastating earthquake hit the country in early 2010, there was no 911 emergency response call center. In their moments of most urgent need, most Haitians have no official number to call.
All that is changing through the work of an inspiring women's organization, KOFAVIV. Building on eight years of work supporting survivors of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, last fall Digital Democracy worked with them to launch #572, Haiti's first emergency response hotline for gender-based violence. Staffed by women who themselves are survivors, 572 provides a free number people can call 24-hours a day to access medical, legal and psycho-social support.
Hurricane Sandy, of course, directly ties Caribbean countries and the Northeastern United States. The same heavy winds and rain that flooded New York last week ravaged southern Haiti, eastern Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and beyond, killing an estimated 71 people in the region, 54 in Haiti. Today, President Martelly declared a month-long state of emergency in Haiti because of Sandy's effects on the country. Last week, while checking the safety of my Haiti-based colleague Emilie Reiser, I was inspired to learn how our Haitian colleagues had gone above and beyond to keep the call center running through the storm.
As rains pounded Haiti's southern provinces, the operators found themselves fielding inquiries from the worst-hit areas and connecting them to emergency providers like the Red Cross. For callers whose roofs had blown off, they advised them to stay in groups, find shelter on higher ground, stay away from trees and wait out the storm. For camp residents whose tents were flooding and tarps were ripping, the 572-member staff referred them to IOM and the Red Cross for temporary shelter.
One of the most poignant calls was from an 18-year-old whose water broke. She had been trying for two hours to find transport to a hospital to deliver her baby, but no public transportation vehicles were on the road. When a call to the Red Cross went unanswered, the call center staff connected her to Global DIRT, a partner EMT service, who safely delivered her to the hospital. Without them, she would have had to deliver her baby on her own.
These stories from the call center were made possible by KOFAVIV agents who traveled through the torrential downpours to get to work and stayed on the job extra shifts to ensure the line would be staffed for the duration of the storm. It's a mark of incredible service for women who themselves were living in post-earthquake camps not so long ago. Talking to Emilie as Hurricane Sandy blew northward, they said how vividly they remember the chaos after the earthquake -- crowded streets, confusion, having no number to call. Now, they are providing a service to others in their time of greatest need, helping them talk through options and connect to service providers.
Back home in Brooklyn, I look across the water to lower Manhattan. There, residents are going on four days without electricity, public transportation or running water. There is an urgent need to ensure that the most vulnerable among them -- the elderly, immobile, non-native English speakers -- access emergency care in the wake of Sandy. As I watch so many New Yorkers pitch in to support one another I am inspired by my Haitian colleagues and what we can learn from them about resilience and the ability to bounce back and recover from adversity.
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