DNR group volunteers to help Haiti

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- When Rusty Garrison and five fellow Department of Natural Resources officers arrived in Haiti last week, they were prepared to see death and massive destruction. What they weren't prepared for was the large-scale disorder that left hundreds of children without access to food or water.

"Everything is chaos -- from start to finish it is chaotic," Garrison said. "Communication is nonexistent, infrastructure is nonexistent, the government is nonfunctioning, at best."

Garrison is no stranger to third-world conditions. He is the assistant chief of game management based at the state DNR headquarters in Social Circle, where he has worked for 19 years. He took a six-year hiatus from 2001 to 2007, however, to join the foreign mission field.

Garrison and his wife, Sue, joined Operation Mobilization and lived and worked on OM's mission ship, Doulos. The Garrisons traveled to about 60 countries, sailing around Africa and in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea and the North Sea.

During their mission, Garrison served as the training coordinator and chief financial officer for the Doulos. The team provided support and training to Christian leaders throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as providing aid and relief to the people living there.

"We evangelized in the least evangelized places in the world," he said.

And when Garrison returned to the U.S., he joined the DNR's Search and Rescue Team, having mobilized a rescue team to respond in 2001 to an earthquake in India.

So when the 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, OM knew just who to call.

Garrison said he contacted the DNR Commissioner's Office to secure permission to recruit a team of six search-and-rescue volunteers. And while they all worked with DNR -- two of them retired from the Department -- they were not officially deployed as employees of DNR.

"They all took time off of work and we went through the auspices of OM," Garrison said.

The team was to arrive in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Monday evening, but 30 minutes prior to landing, the plane was diverted to the Dominican Republic. From there, the group, loaded down with search-and-rescue gear, found a truck to drive them to the border of Haiti. They then secured another ride -- this time strapped to the back of a Toyota pick-up truck -- for the three-and-a-half hour drive into Port-au-Prince.

"Our mission was several-fold," Garrison said. "We were working with three different orphanages that OM works with, and we heard that one of orphanages may be collapsed, so we thought we may have to do search and recovery, but we were not sure."

He said they were then to secure food, water and shelter for the orphans and do relief work.

Garrison said they located the three orphanages in Carrefour, Haiti, and found two of them were damaged, but no one was trapped. The team then visited a school that had collapsed -- "pancaked," Garrison called it -- and killed a number of people.

He said the team was surprised that about 350 orphans were now living in the three orphanages, along with 150 additional refugees who have made a temporary home in one of the orphanages.

"Some of those kids hadn't eaten since the first earthquake hit," Garrison said. "We made the decision quickly that we would change our mission and not do body recovery, but instead secure food, water and shelter for those orphans and refugees. We really focused on that."

Garrison's group teamed up with Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which had a warehouse full of food and water. He said workers with ADRA turned the warehouse over to Garrison's crew, who then organized the warehouse and managed the delivery of the supplies. They also teamed up with GlobalMedic to bring aquatabs and water purification filters back to the main orphanage.

"We purified 200,000 liters of water, and all that was on the first day," he said.

Garrison said they found a fourth orphanage in the area and worked to provide food and purified water to them, as well.

"There is a concern of rioting -- we saw vehicles traveling and people would jump up on the truck and steal supplies," he said. "If you don't have enough security then the supplies won't get to the people who need it. That's why we took smaller trucks and divided up our supplies so if one got robbed, we would not lose everything."

Garrison also worked with a nearby hospital to coordinate bringing the injured for medical treatment.

"On one of the water runs, we found a lady who had had surgery, but she received no follow-up care. Her incisions were swollen, her stitches were coming out -- she was in real bad shape," he said. "We coordinated with the hospital to bring her in. We were able to hook her up to IVs, and I believe that we saved her life."

While Garrison and his team provided food and water to hundreds of children, many of whom hadn't eaten in more than a week, he had hoped to deliver tents and shelters for everybody in the orphanages before they left Friday night.

The good news, he said, is that the tents were delivered Saturday.

What was frustrating, though, was to see tons of water and food and other supplies not being delivered to the residents in Haiti.

"The news reports (of stockpiled supplies) are right; it was very frustrating for me to get on that runway in Port-au-Prince Friday and see all that sitting there," Garrison said.

But now that the U.S. military has taken over operations, he said, things are beginning to move.

"What was only 20 airplanes a day going in and out of there is now 140 airplanes a day," he said. "Without them, it wouldn't get done."

Garrison intends to return to Haiti in the next couple of months. In fact, he and some members of his church, CrossRoads Baptist Church in Newton County, had previously scheduled a mission trip in March to Cap-Haitien.

CrossRoads Pastor Brandon Stanley, along with Youth Minister Edward Wilkerson, member Steve Steinhilber and Garrison, planned to team with Pastor Yves Blot who heads a Haitian school and church -- The Barbara Bostwick Education Center and Eglise Baptiste de la Louange.

Stanley said the CrossRoads team was going to visit the school and work toward establishing a sponsorship program here for the children in the school.

But now, he said, the group will also see what other needs they can serve.

"The building they're in is a three-story concrete building that has been damaged in the earthquake," Stanley said. "We want to see if there is any way to brace the building and build it back up."

He said they will also work to provide clean drinking water to the children there.

Stanley said Cap-Haitien has not only suffered from the earthquakes, but also flooding, which has driven a number of families from their homes to seek shelter in the school.

"It's just coming at them from every angle," he said.