Haitians in Utah eager to get home

Homeland » They're arraigning flights to aid in the relief effort.
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He's not sure how he'll get to Haiti, or precisely what he'll do when he gets there.

But Leopold Montes of Orem isn't about to let a few uncertainties keep him from embracing friends and family in this, his impoverished homeland's most "desperate hour."

"They could use my skills," said the former Mormon missionary and a construction management graduate of Utah Valley University (UVU) who is pursuing further studies there. "We're so blessed to have governments rushing to our aid. But the Haitian people here in the states need to step up."

Even as worry over loved ones fills their hours, Haitian-born Utahns on Thursday set about arranging flights home to aid in the relief effort. A tight-knit group of 30 -- Utah County college students and young professionals with ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- convened at UVU to pray, console each other and talk logistics.

Some plan to depart as soon as this weekend. But others urged patience, heeding the advice of religious leaders who warn that travel to Haiti may not be safe, or practical, two days after an earthquake reduced much of the capital to rubble.

Rough estimates by the Red Cross peg the death toll at 45,000 to 50,000. Power and telecommunications aren't functioning, and roads are choked with debris.

"Haiti is essentially without a functioning government," said Salt Lake City resident Thomas Panuzio, a former FEMA official under the first President George Bush and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Global Security Capital Group, which consults governments on homeland security.

Growing tension and urgency in Haiti are ripe for political unrest, said Panuzio, who suspects the growing presence of peacekeeping troops will help. But the delivery of food, water and medical supplies has been slow, and until aid arrives, private citizens can't do much good, he said.

Montes understands the obstacles. But he said, "it's hard because the people and places that you knew, people who you loved, one day they are just gone. I can't just sit here and do nothing."

After a sleepless 24 hours, Montes finally reached his brother by phone Wednesday night and learned his two sisters are safe. His cousin Jeralda Montes was killed when her office building collapsed.

Stephanie Betteridge booked a Tuesday flight to Port-au-Prince after learning her mom, dad and immediate family are safe. She intends to bring her three children, ages 4, 3 and 7 months.

"I heard from my Mom again today. I could hear people yelling for help and chaos in the background," said Betteridge. "But she says people are united, it's safe."

Haitians aren't alone in their haste.

In two days, about $35,000 in cash donations poured into Utah Red Cross chapters Thursday, said spokeswoman Susan Thomas.

Today, Real Salt Lake midfielders Andy Williams and Raphael Cox will join with the Red Cross for a daylong Haiti Relief Telethon broadcast on KUTV Channel 2.

Elsewhere at a Salt Lake City warehouse, a United Methodist mission team -- still reeling from news that three of their national colleagues were in the now-flattened Montana Hotel -- will assemble 20,000 hygiene kits.

Utah Latinos will announce a relief effort today at a news conference at Centro Civico Mexicano, 155 S. 600 West in Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, aid groups and medical professionals are scrambling to secure flights.

Utah physician Jeff Randle, founder of Healing Hands for Haiti, said he has been inundated with donations. He's trying to find an organization willing to ship three large containers of medical supplies and land a spot himself on a plane chartered by the LDS Church.

Assuming he reaches Haiti this weekend, he expects to focus on triage. But as disease spreads, infection will become a huge risk.

"Pain medication and antibiotics are probably most vital apart from food and water," said Randle. "There are dead bodies piling in the streets and it doesn't look like there's any plan to remove them. It's so hot in Haiti. There's going to be dysentery and disease that just spreads."

Randle received mixed news about his charitable clinic, which provides braces, prosthetics and rehabilitative therapy to Haitians with disabilities. Banks in Haiti are closed, and the clinic's manager has reportedly run out of money. Some buildings on the charity's six-acre compound are still standing, but likely unsafe, while others were leveled.

"I am overwhelmed. So many dead children in the streets," wrote a colleague in Haiti. "We have tried to help everywhere we can, but did not have enough supplies. Please share this e-mail with others!"


How to help

ITTV Channel 2, is partnering with the American Red Cross to host a daylong telethon to benefit victims of the earthquake in Haiti. For more information visit http://connect2utah.com.

Other charities

Healing Hands for Haiti, www.healinghandsforhaiti.org.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, http://give.lds.org/emergencyresponse.

Red Cross, www.redcross.org. Donors can also text "HAITI" to "90999" and a donation of $10 will automatically go toward relief efforts.

Doctors Without Borders, http://doctorswithoutborders.org.

International Relief Teams, www.irteams.org/index.htm.

World Hope International, www.worldhope.org.

Oxfam, www.oxfamamerica.org.