New Orleans at the ready to help Haiti rebuild

Five years after Katrina devastated their city, New Orleanians are putting their knowledge and experience to use in Haiti.

By , / Correspondent

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    Empathy: Dr. Francesco Simeone of Tulane University in New Orleans treats an earthquake survivor in Jacmel, Haiti.
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Marie Jose Poux is a hospice nurse in New Orleans, but she was born in Haiti. Ms. Poux was in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 when the earthquake struck, and she spent the next two weeks lending what help she could to the ravaged city.

"My soul is not here [in New Orleans]. It remains doing what I was doing in Haiti," says Poux, who runs a charity, Hope for Haitian Children, from her home in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood. "I saw south Florida after it was hit by hurricane Andrew, and New Orleans after Katrina, and New York after 9/11. And this is like all three of those times 100."

Haiti's cataclysmic earthquake has struck home in New Orleans, which itself is still recovering from the 2005 hurricane and flood. For a time, the city's survival was in doubt, but with much aid, it's come a long way. Now, many New Orleanians want to put their knowledge and experience to use in Haiti, helping others in dire need.

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"We've learned some powerful lessons here about recovering from disaster, and we want the Haitian people to benefit from our experience," says Jacques Morial, a lawyer and community activist who has worked with residents in New Orleans' devastated Lower Ninth Ward. "We learned that after a disaster like this, people need the basics of food, shelter, and medical attention. But we also learned after Katrina that when the rebuilding begins, the stakeholders in a community need to be included in decisionmaking and self-governing."

Mr. Morial, son of former New Orleans mayor Ernest Morial and brother of National Urban League president and former mayor Marc Morial, joined 40 other local leaders from nonprofits and recovery organizations for a meeting one week after the earthquake. They strategized on how their expertise and resources could help Haiti on a range of issues, from emergency medical treatment to long-term housing.

The coalition's first effort is the Haiti Emergency Village Project. On Jan. 30, an eight-person team flew from New Orleans to Haiti to assist local hospitals and set up a base camp as part of a still-developing plan to build housing for earthquake survivors.

Backers of the project include the Make It Right foundation, the nonprofit founded by actor Brad Pitt, which is redeveloping parts of the Lower Ninth Ward.

Those working on the Haiti Emergency Village Project hope it can serve as a model for quickly building sustainable housing in the wake of disaster.

"We know what is involved in recovering from a disaster like this and hope to be a part of what we expect will be a large and ongoing response from New Orleans," says Flozell Daniels Jr., CEO of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. "There's an undeniable relationship between New Orleans and Haiti, and it makes sense for us to get involved."

Indeed, New Orleans shares more than a history of disaster with the troubled island nation. At one point in the early 1800s, half of the city's population was made up of French colonials and their African slaves, who fled to Louisiana from Haiti following a series of slave revolts that started in 1791. From architecture to voodoo, Haiti's French and African heritage has been felt in New Orleans ever since.

Immigrants from Haiti established the state's first newspaper, introduced opera to New Orleans, and played a part in creating carnival traditions and Creole cuisine.

When the Haiti Emergency Village Project left for the island, their luggage included more than 20 duffel bags packed with medical supplies requested by Charles Rene, a Haitian-born obstetrician-gynecologist who lives in New Orleans. Dr. Rene arrived in Haiti with a medical team a week after the disaster and is running a medical clinic near the city of Jacmel, which was hit hard by the earthquake.

Rene is no newcomer to this Haitian city: He's worked with the Hospital St. Joseph in Jacmel for more than 20 years.

Rene was joined in Jacmel by Yvens Laborde, also a native of Haiti, who is an internal-medicine physician at Ochsner Medical Center in the New Orleans area. In a blog for The Times-Picayune, he has made requests for medical supplies, more doctors, and further aid.

"Conditions remain deplorable and the need for basic supplies is tremendous," wrote Dr. Laborde, who has been treating 150 patients a day. "Practically all the beautiful things that I remember in Haiti are destroyed beyond recognition, as are the streets that I used to walk to school when I was a boy growing up."

Such stories strike a powerful chord in New Orleans. On Jan. 31, 24 local bands played a benefit for Doctors Without Borders. Restaurants have sponsored "nights out for Haiti," with 10 percent of sales donated to charity. Art galleries and museums are holding benefits and silent auctions for Haiti.

On a recent Saturday morning at the Community Book Center in the Fairgrounds neighborhood, 50 middle-school and college students boxed medical supplies, food, and clothing for Hope for Haitian Children.

"This is a great cause, and I'd do anything to help Marie Poux and her orphans," says bookstore owner Vera Warren-Williams, who is also a board member for the charity. "The roof of my store almost blew off during Katrina, and then it was flooded by three feet of water, and it took two years to reopen. So I know about dealing with disaster. We were blessed here by thousands of people who came to help afterwards, so now it's time for New Orleans to do its part for Haiti."

Many in the city, Morial says, feel an obligation to help the Haitian people. "People here have been watching the scenes from Haiti and have a lot of empathy," he says. "And it's our moral and spiritual obligation to help."

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