One year later, Coast Guard still lending helping hand to Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - The Coast Guard Cutter Oak, homeported in Charleston, S.C., sits anchored in the harbor Dec. 5, 2010. The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Oak traveled to Port-au-Prince where they delivered a 41-foot utility boat, several items for the Haitian Coast Guard base medical clinic and assisted in teaching first aid, CPR, small arms training to the crew. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molleby Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molle

What would you do, if in less than a minute, everything you knew even your very livelihood just crumbled away? For the roughly 3.5 million people living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, this nightmare was real.

On Jan. 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake ripped through the heart of the city leaving nothing but a trail destruction in its wake.

Within 24-hours Coast Guard assets were the first to arrive on scene in support of the U.S. government’s unified response, ready and willing to help wherever crews were needed. Eleven months later, a multitude of Coast Guard assests have deployed to Haiti and Port-au-Prince has now become somewhat of a second home for many Coast Guard members. Such is the case for many of those onboard the Coast Guard Cutter Oak, a 225-foot buoy tender homeported in Charleston, S.C.

The Oak first arrived on scene Jan. 18. While their main missions were delivering medical supplies, food, and several tons of donated bottled water, two of their most crucial jobs were to ensure safe navigation routes for numerous ships into the port and servicing buoys in the harbor. It’s been almost a year since that fateful day and the rebuilding of Port-au-Prince is far from completion.

“We have a great partnership with the Haitian Coast Guard and recently, through that partnership, we were able to transport a refurbished 41-foot boat to their base in Port-au-Prince so that they can perform their daily missions,” said Lt. Cmdr. Peter Niles, commanding officer of the Oak. “We have the incredible unique ability to transport goods as well as hoisting large items onto our buoy deck with our crane.”

Niles explained that the Haitian Coast Guard has struggled with minimal assets that were in need of multiple repairs and basic supplies needed to properly run their boats have to be shipped in, which can take months.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Crewmembers from the Coast Guard Cutter Oak, homeported in Charleston, S.C., play a game of volleyball with members of the Haitian Coast Guard Dec. 5, 2010. The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Oak traveled to Port-au-Prince where they delivered a 41-foot utility boat, several items for the Haitian Coast Guard base medical clinic and assisted in teaching first aid, CPR, small arms training to the crew. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara MolleAlong with the revitalization of the Haitian’s fleet, the Oak helped repair the pier on the base.

“Their pier and 41-foot boat needed a lot of maintenance and we were able to go down and help fix them to make them functional again,” said Niles.

He explained that his crewmembers such as the damage controlmen and machinery technicians on board, were able to fix discrepancies on several things such as a faulty dewatering pump and a broken law enforcement blue light atop the 41-foot boat.

“As a result of the earthquake, supplies can be very hard to get in Haiti,” said Niles. “The Port-au-Prince harbor is extremely busy and now the Haitian Coast Guard will be able to go out and conduct their missions more safely. The U.S. Coast Guard wants to ensure the safety of all mariners.”

Coast Guard members from both countries stayed quite busy in the two-day period the Oak was present. While some Oak crew diligently worked on the numerous projects like the pier on base, and readying the 41-foot boat, other members went ashore to provide training sessions with the Haitian Coast Guard on weapons familiarization and medical training.

“We conducted small arms training, how to clean and maintain weapons and also conducted live-fire training,” said Petty Officer 1st Class John Ware, a gunners mate at Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team 91108 in St. Mary’s, Ga. “I think this training is very beneficial because as a law because as a law enforcement officer, and that’s what I see those guys as, they need to be able to protect their country as well as themselves.”

Ware explained in great detail the benefits of small arms training and how it is a valuable asset for the Haitian Coast Guard.

“It would make their situation a lot better if we, or other people could provide them with more training and more equipment,” said Ware

In addition to small arms training, Oak members provided health and wellness training, first aid training and CPR.

The benefits of teaching things as simple as first aid cannot be put into words. After the earthquake, many people from Port-au-Prince ran to the Haitian Coast Guard base for immediate assistance.

“We covered a lot of first aid for burns, lacerations, broken bones and countless other common medical emergencies,” said Petty Officer 2ndClass Christopher Hammock, a health services technician onboard the Oak. “They appeared rather knowledgeable but also eager to learn anything more we could teach them.”

Hammock explained that although they were able to perform basic medical operations, they are in dire need of several up-to-date medications. Most, if not all of their medications have expired. A Haitian Coast Guard member even brought Hammock into a spare room inside their clinic on base, which was filled with hundreds of expired boxes of Tylenol.

“There is a lot of emergency equipment that would be extremely beneficial for them to have and use,” said Hammock. “Any help and supplies that we can give them or bring to them would be a huge help for what they need to run the clinic.”

“With training, now they have more medically trained professionals that will be able to provide simple needs,” said Niles.

When all was said and done, the crewmembers from both countries were able to let their hair down with some much needed morale.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Crewmembers from the Coast Guard Cutter Oak, homeported in Charleston, S.C., play a game of volleyball with members of the Haitian Coast Guard Dec. 5, 2010. The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Oak traveled to Port-au-Prince where they delivered a 41-foot utility boat, several items for the Haitian Coast Guard base medical clinic and assisted in teaching first aid, CPR, small arms training to the crew. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molle“I think a highlight of the trip for the crew was the fact that we were able to have a volleyball game with the Haitian Coast Guard,” said Niles. “Volleyball seems like a very simple thing to some people. Because of the uprisings in their country, they weren’t able to leave their base for three weeks. By us having the ability to play a simple game with them, it gave them a moment to get away from their everyday stressors. Remember, every one of these people were affected by the earthquake and all we were there to do was to give them a little bit of fun and enjoy that time spent together.”

He explained how it was a great comradery builder for both crews and that it created positive international engagement.

When the games finished, everyone shook hands, gave each other high fives and smiles could be seen spreading like wildfire throughout the base. Children peeked through cracks in the base wall and people stood on their rooftops just to get a glimpse of the fun being had.

For the Haitian Coast Guard, a refurbished boat, a few training sessions and a one-hour volleyball game won’t erase the daily remnants of a tragedy that has ensued over the past year. For the crew of the Oak, it’s just another day helping those most in need.

“A majority of my crew was in Haiti after the earthquake at the base because they wanted to help save lives,” said Niles. “It was healing for them to go back to the base and see that there is a new leaf turned over and that the base and its people are trying to flourish again.”

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