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3 St. Louis professors on Haiti: 1 worked there, 1 is from there, 1 is there now

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 14, 2010 - Since 4 a.m. Wednesday morning, Bob Corbett has sat at his computer in St. Louis, reading message after message about death and loss in Haiti.

A few hours later, the Webster University professor emeritus sent a message to fellow members of an email list serve he runs, which he estimates has tens of thousands of subscribers.

"Please write us to tell us if you are unscathed or hurt or whatever, and any other data you could send. There is virtually no NEW NEWS yet in the U.S. at 7:30 a.m. Central Time. Thank you and good luck, Bob Corbett" (Corbett's photo, at right, is from webster.edu)

A few hours after that, he heard back from Landon Yarrington, an anthropology graduate student at William and Mary and an American citizen, who gave the Beacon permission to include his response. Yarrington emphasized that he was speaking strictly for himself; he is not a spokesman for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti or any U.S. interests.

What follows is Yarrington's email, edited to make it easier to read:

"Bob, This is Landon Yarrington. I'm at the United Nations base in Port-au-Prince. ... Everything is a mess, and the term is 'tout ayiti kraze'! Was in Delmas when the quake hit, returned to the friends I was staying at, and found the house completely leveled. Everyone is thankfully safe.

"I tried rounding up injured people people into one spot, an open space on Delmas 17, Ruelle Verna. When I left to find UN last night, more than 200 people had gathered, and the message kept spreading to 'round everyone hurt into one safe location. A medical student named Samuel did what he could. Many people died.

"Digicel towers are down, but voila seems to work, or did work last night. The Palais National is in shambles, and a Haitian at the gate told me the cathedral fell too, but don't know if it's true. The Haitian security forces guarding the UN gates have not been allowed to leave and see if their families are all right; the whole UN base is now on lockdown. There was a small tremor this morning, and I'm praying it's still aftershock.

"The US sent Coast Guard airplane to do recon all over the city, and four generals from the Dominican Republic have arrived. The UN base here has set up a small triage area, which I'm helping translate for them. Most of the Haitians they've let in seem to know English well though.....

"The UN base is supposedly currently out of water and rations, and the police forces which are stationed here, along with the rest of the UN foreign staff, mostly Europeans, sit and smoke cigarettes and suck their teeth at the fact that the Caribbean Market and Hotel Montana have completely been demolished, never mind the singing, crying, and praying Haitians outside.

"There was a large meeting supposedly at the Hotel Christophe yesterday, with a Chinese delegation and top members of the (UN mission), who have all perished when the hotel collapsed. Don't know what's next, but an American police officer has said that USAID and relief groups have begun rolling in.

"I will try to check back in later, no promises, because as of last night, the CO of each UN base had to drive to the other to talk since their communications were down. UN communication seems better."

Corbett has taught about Haiti as well as studied the country's art, literature religion and film, to name just a bit of his work, which can be found at his website.  He's taken more than 50 trips to the country.

Now, he's working from his home computer to get information to and from Haiti about specific sites, people, the state of travel into and out of the country, how to volunteer and where to send money. Late Wednesday afternoon, Corbett got a note from film director Jonathan Demme that Jacmel, a south coast village, was hit badly, though no one in the media seemed to know.

On Wednesday, more than 100 new people joined Corbett's e-mail list, including 35 journalists.

Now, Corbett feels his main job is disseminating information.

"Other than through the Internet, they have no mobility," Corbett says of people in Haiti. "They can't go 100 yards in any direction."

So, from St. Louis, Corbett is connecting them with the outside world as best he can.

Beyond stereotypes of Haiti

Jean-Germain Gros left his home of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, at 14. Now, he's 46. "It's been decades," he says.

The associate professor of political science and public policy at the University of Missouri St. Louis, went back to Haiti last year, but says most of his family has left the island nation.

So far, Gros hasn't heard any word from an aunt and a cousin still there. He's been calling since last night and can't get through. "That's a cause for concern," he says.

Also of concern to Gros is the caricature he sees of Haiti as a desperately poor place filled with violence and disease. Gros doesn't think that perception is completely accurate, and keeps people from focusing on whatever the current and important stories in Haiti might be.

In November, the Miami Herald reported a 2.5 percent economic growth projection for Haiti, considered by the International Monetary Fund to be significant, considering the country's challenges. Thanks to that growth, Gros says he and a few friends were considering investing in Haiti by building and opening a school to train nurses and allied professional health administrators. He thought they'd go to Haiti soon to begin scouting locations.

"And so that was what we were talking about last week," he says. "But now, we have to deal with things."

The coming days will be crucial for saving lives in Haiti, which Gros says is the top priority. He hopes to see real action and not just talk and pledges of aid that never come through.

Gros also hopes to see a true international effort that focuses not just on saving lives, but on rebuilding Haiti.

"So that this does not become just another sad event in the history of Haiti," he said.

The difference of a day

On Tuesday morning, Dr. Charles Gulas worried about a hole in his mosquito netting.

"What a difference a day can make," he wrote Wednesday on his Web site. "This afternoon I was sitting and trying to calm a young girl who had a good portion of her tibia sticking out of her lower leg. She was in a building collapse in Port-au-Prince and was transported here in the back of a truck. She is one of the lucky ones."

Gulas went to Haiti to educate local health providers. Now, he's working alongside them.

Gulas, dean of the school of health professions at Maryville University, left for Haiti on a staff sabbatical Jan. 3, working with Health Volunteers Overseas. The trip took him to Deschapelles, Haiti, two hours from Port-Au-Prince.

On Wednesday, Gulas reported no significant damage in Deschapelles through his site. Later that day, he e-mailed the Beacon about what he had seen:

"There is minimal damage here in Deschapelles. There was severe ground trembling during the quake and there have been more than 10 aftershocks. There was a huge amount of screaming and yelling from the market here in Deschapelles comparable to a soccer stadium. A school collapsed in Petite Rivieria, which is near here, and Hopital Albert Schweitzer first received some people with injuries early last evening."

Along with him on the trip is PT program director Denise English. Now, Gulas and English are receiving patients from Port-Au-Prince at the Albert Schweitzer hospital, where Gulas had been teaching. Gulas reports:

"Today we are receiving people with injuries brought in trucks from Port-au-Prince. I assisted in triage today and I can report at times from the number of people being carried into the hospital by family members. At times patients are brought in and evaluated on the floor since the entire observation area is full. All of the halls here are full waiting for surgery or X-ray.

"The entire medical staff is Haitian and they did a tremendous job with this continued stream of patients.

"It is 2.5 hour trip from Port so most of these patients were stable with moderate to severe fractures, crushed limbs, lacerations and contusions. I spent considerable time with a young girl with a compound fracture of her leg, she and her mother were very brave considering that the bone was protruding through her skin. I cannot imagine her ride in the back of a truck from Port-au-Prince. She is now in surgery."

Fifteen local students had applied to work with the Rehabilitation Aide Training Program, according to Gulas' website, and they expected to have six or seven. Marty Parkes, associate vice president of marketing and communications with the school, says no Maryville students are currently there.

Gulas had planned on returning on Jan. 17, but now has no idea when he'll come home.

Update on Hopital Sacre Coeur in Milot, Haiti

Thursday Hopital Sacre Coeur in Milot, Haiti, threw its doors open wide to team up with two aid agencies to provide emergency care for injured earthquake survivors airlifted to the mountainous north from ravaged Port-au-Prince. The hospital has a strong connection to St. Louis, with a number of area doctors regularly volunteering there.

The facility, the largest hospital in the north of Haiti, experienced some tremors, but structural damage to the hospital was minor. A team of volunteer medical specialists is at the hospital this week and several others are flying in the coming weeks. A number of the hospital's resident Haitian staff have learned that that family members in Port-au-Prince have died.

"Hopital Sacre Coeur will be a triage site for Project Hope, and the U.S. Navy may also be sending us patients in the coming days," said Denise Kelly of the Boston area, the executive director of the Center for the Rural Development of Milot Foundation Inc. "We are doing all in our power to respond to this unprecedented tragedy." (From Patricia Rice)

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