Haiti: High- and low-tech disaster relief

The earthquake disaster that has hit Port-au-Prince is one of the most devastated locations on the planet. The urban search and rescue teams use little hi-tech themselves. Rather, they use dogs and listening devices along with the tools (concrete jackhammers, flashlights) of the trade.
Written by Doug Hanchard, Contributor

After earthquake image of Port-au-Prince Pier

After earthquake image of Port-au-Prince Pier

Port-au-Prince Pier Before Earthquake

Port-au-Prince Pier Before Earthquake

The earthquake disaster that has hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti is one of the most devastated locations on the planet. Satellite imagery showing before and after pictures tell a frightening story. You can find the images on Google's map site and download the KML file to see for yourself just what kind of carnage this 7.0 earthquake has done. One of the reasons this earthquake has been so destructive is the depth in which the epicenter was located, a mere 6.2 miles below the surface. In the pictures above, you can see the destructive power that can move and destroy a facility in seconds. Two more aftershocks hit 5.0 and 5.9, which further compressed and collapsed structures already buckled from the first one.

I have been involved in Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Relief (HA/DR) events previously (Banda Aceh, Katrina), having advised, trained and been a part of teams at disaster exercises and demonstrations such as Strong Angel III and STAR-TIDES, that prepare organizations to face the kinds of problems that are unforeseeable, what is new in technology and how to be careful depending on a lot of technology to keep them going. But nothing prepares you for each event or scenario as it unfolds, each one being significant in its own right.

The primary initial challenge is assessment. Government agencies locally and internationally have teams that review what event has occurred and then reconnaissance begins. This action occurred around the world after the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. The U.S. used satellite imagery, aircraft over flights, and began to prepare for the biggest disaster operation to hit the Caribbean. Teams from all over the world began to make preparations to begin the first phase of response -- search and rescue.

The urban search and rescue teams use little hi-tech themselves; instead, it was technology that got them there (texts pleading for help), and by using dogs and listening devices along with the tools (concrete jackhammers, flashlights) of the trade began extraction and then immediate medical attention. Rescue teams from Brazil, Venezuela, China, France, Belgium, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. have hit the ground running. There are more victims than there are teams. During this process, the rescue teams fan out and require little technology support. Hand-held radios facilitate most of their needs in coordination and working a section of the city. The only things they use in the field to support them are generators and fuel, which most teams brought with them. All are completely self sufficient, ensuring that they don't become a burden to others. Rechargable batteries and charging stations are one of the first things they setup at base camp. They also bring shelter, food and other supplies required for the entire team.

In parallel, field hospitals are setup, many capable of working in crude conditions, yet capable of handling most medical services required in earthquake disasters such as compression injuries and broken bones. Military field hospital units from more than 10 nations are being setup in the country. The USNS Comfort, a specialized hospital ship, should arrive in Port-au-Prince Wednesday. This will be its biggest operation since its commissioning in February of 1987 as a hospital ship. Comfort was originally built in 1976 as an oil tanker.

United States Naval Ship USNS Comfort

United States Naval Ship USNS Comfort

The hospital ship is three football fields long and one wide. It has 250 hospital beds, but can accommodate up to 1,000. The ship's 550-person medical team includes trauma surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, head and neck surgeons, eye surgeons and obstetricians and gynecologists. These folks are going to be busy and it's expected that they will be stationed there for several months. The USNS Comfort was in Haiti during a exercise during the summer of 2009 called Continuing Promise. During that 6 month sortie, visiting Antigua, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama, the medical team treated over 100,000 patients. They'll likely treat triple that figure over a condensed time period.

Telecommunications in the country is almost non-existent after the earthquake. The only thing that amazingly survived was wireless and it's depende,nt on diesel generators being replenished. Already on several occasions the system has gone offline for hours at a time and not all the city is covered. Full restoration will take some time. Internet service is also served via wireless technology. In some parts of the city, it's still operating. Determining how best to leverage the existing service points needs to be analyzed so that post disaster construction teams can use it to their advantage, helping the community rebuild. The scale of this disaster is immense. Comparisons to Banda Aceh (Indonesia) would not be an exaggeration. One kind of high tech that a lot of teams bring are BGAN terminals.

BGAN stands for Broadband Global Area Network. Satellite based with coverage to over 90% of the world, BGAN is a useful tool in remote areas for field work. These terminals are incredibly easy to use: simply point to the sky on an angle, hook up an Ethernet cable or enable its local Wi-Fi radio (on some models), and it's capable of supporting several laptops easily. It also has ISDN termination; simply hook up a digital phone and you can have telephone service (with a dedicated phone number) and internet access simultaneously. The drawback to these units is the limited bandwidth of just under 500 Kbps. For field work and use by one or two person teams, they are sufficient for email and chat and even video on occasion. Where there are thousands of people on the ground needing access that becomes a problem since satellite bandwidth costs can easily skyrocket in a hurry. They have been successfully used by Non-Government Organizations (NGO's) around the world, including Afghanistan, Sudan, and the jungles of the Southeast Asia.

Another option is Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), a two-way satellite ground station with a dish antenna that is smaller than 3 meters. Most VSAT antennas range from 75 cm to 1.2 m. These communications systems are well suited for higher speeds required and systems are capable of 5, 10 and 50 MB/s. The problems, however, are significant during the first stages of a disaster such as this one. They take time to engineer, install and setup, and require significant network infrastructure to be usable by a wide audience.

Currently a lot of embassies in Port-au-Prince are using VSATs for communications. The bandwidth they are using is running at maximum capacity and generator power is becoming a concern. Fuel is not widely available throughout Haiti and in particular Port-au-Prince, it's being rationed. Some embassies are better equipped than others.

If you're wondering why it is taking so long to help the people in Haiti, there are issues complicating efforts. The airport only has a single runway, and a small aircraft parking area to stage aircraft operations and prepare convoy of the materials. In fact, I'm amazed at how well they are doing given the conditions. The control tower is demolished and air operations are temporarily being managed by qualified U.S. personnel. Electronic navigation aids at the airport are operating, as is runway lighting. Operations are now running there 7/24. The logistics pipeline is slowly opening up and increasing its delivery capabilities by the hour.

Information sharing is a key component during a major disaster and Haiti's disaster is no exception. Not only do emergency efforts have to be coordinated internationally, but also locally and nationally in each country trying to help. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is the lead organization for Haitian support services funded by the United States. USAID is also getting plenty of support from its most important logistics partner, the U.S. military. US SOUTHCOM (Southern Command) based in Miami is the headquarters staging all U.S. military efforts in support of USAID efforts in Haiti. One of the technologies being used is GeoChat designed by Instedd.org, which can facilitate valuable information sharing across a wide variety of parties and organizations.

The military, volunteers, NGO's and organizations from all over the United States are using a web portal operated as APAN - All Partners Access Network -- to integrate, share and disperse information to help support efforts needed. All the resources integrate and funnel information about assets, problems on the ground and services available to decision makers who are in the same building to collectively determine actions required. Cooperation at this level was unheard of in 2004 when the Tsunami hit Banda Aceh. In real time, chats integrate specialists from the military and other federal agencies with other teams to get opportunities reviewed and acted upon. All the organizations are working around the clock and doing truly inspiring work, particularly the staff of U.S. SOUTHCOM.

You can help too. Visit the Center for International Disaster Information and USAID on ways you can help. People all over the world have been moved by this story. Using their cell phones, they have text donated over $22 Million. Haiti is going to need every dime.


Doug Hanchard has used BGAN and VSAT services and products in the past, including Telnor, Hughes, Inmarsat, Honeywell, Thrane, and Telesat. He is also providing telecommunications advisory services to U.S. Southern Command (at no charge) for use in Haiti. He also was an Executive Committee and Telecommunications advisor at Strong Angel III in 2006, and works with teams in STAR-TIDES.

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