A Haiti disaster relief worker fights cholera and despair

Emmet Fitzgerald, like thousands of other global disaster relief nomads, is at work 24 hours a day amid the Haiti earthquake debris – in the fight against cholera and other forms of despair, he sometimes goes into his own wallet to solve immediate problems in the camp he manages.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Fighting cholera and despair, Emmett Fitzgerald manages the Terrain Acra camp that was built, impromptu, after the Haiti earthquake. Like thousands of disaster relief workers worldwide, he is faced daily with overwhelming need among the 26,000 Haitians in the camp. He says it "feels like being the mayor of a town" – with all the responsibility and none of the jurisdiction.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
This article is part of the cover story project on the state of global disaster relief a year after the Haiti earthquake. It appears in the Jan. 10, 2011 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine. Subscribe here:

On a recent afternoon, Emmett Fitzgerald rushed along the paths of Terrain Acra, a camp for displaced Haitians. The familiar smell of meat grilling on charcoal fires gave way to the stink of garbage and rot from the water-filled ditches. Pigs roamed freely, rooting in the trenches for anything edible. Residents greeted him with a cheery "bonsoir."

But Mr. Fitzgerald, who, as an employee of the Minnesota-based American Refugee Committee is the camp manager, was not cheery. He was thinking about the threat of cholera, and stopped outside a cholera clinic erected a few days earlier. Cholera had reached Port-au-Prince a few weeks earlier, and Fitzgerald was concerned that it could rip quickly through the camps. He'd dealt with the disease in Congo. There, a Cessna arrived weekly with supplies and an envelope of cash. "We dealt with the receipts at the end of the month," he says. But in Haiti, cash isn't readily available and scrutiny is constant. After residents tore down the first cholera clinic tents, he had to build new ones and needed $700 – quick.

"The request would have to go through the procurement department for oversight purposes," he explained. "In the end, our program director took $700 out of her wallet."

Raising his fingers to massage his forehead, his gaze fixed on a camp hillside, a sea of blue tarps so closely packed that no distinction could be seen between them. "The number of times I've gone into my own pocket and just tried to figure it out later...," he says, trailing off. "I feel like I'm fighting cholera with one hand tied behind my back."

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