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Navy officers in Haiti relief operation

Sub Lieutenant Nick Forster on Op Hestia in Haiti. On bridge of HMC ATHABASKAN.

In the days following the devastating Haiti earthquake the Canadian Forces sent two HMC Ships ATHABASKAN and HALIFAX to Haiti to provide humanitarian relief.

Two RNZN officers, Sub Lieutenant Nick Foster and Ensign Kendra Titheridge, on an RNZN/CF exchange programme, were on board the two ships as they raced south to the disaster area.  Below are their personal accounts of the roles they played in helping to provide humanitarian assistance to Haiti. 

Right: Sub Lieutenant Nick Foster on the bridge of HMC ATHABASKAN during Haiti relief Operation Hestia.
Report by ENS Kendra Titheridge

It is 31 January 2010 and so far we’ve been at sea for sixteen days - with HALIFAX assigned to the area of Jacmel to the northeast of Port au Prince.

I joined the first working party ashore.  Initially there was a limited supply of malaria medication which meant alternating working days between the shore and ship. It was and still is, very hard work – particularly arriving to the humid, draining 48C heat of Haiti after having adjusted to the cold Canadian winter we had left behind.

We were all issued camelbaks, sunglasses, sunscreen and high-energy food.  After just fifteen minutes of clearing rubble, you’re exhausted, soaked with sweat, and red from the sun. 

Conditions in town were bad.  Aftershocks, some up to 5.9 continued to hit the area, so there was always the constant worry of the already unstable buildings collapsing further.  Understandably the aftershocks discouraged many people from going back inside buildings. Initially we concentrated on clearing roads and there was plenty of work to keep us busy.  Town was full of destroyed brick buildings, with no running water or electricity, and very little food.

Our days ashore were spent undertaking reconnaissance missions, shovelling rubble from the streets, and clearing areas for make-shift hospitals.  Everyone in HALFIAX’s work party worked really hard and well together.  We experienced every emotion from sincere gratitude to anger and aggression. 

Many of the local people seemed overwhelmed with the devastation the earthquake had caused, and just seemed to hopelessly wander and watch us at work.  We were assisted in our work by about ten local men in green bibs who were government-paid to help us clear the roads.  They worked hard and were a great help with knowing what needed to be done.

After a few days we had four teams capable of going ashore, which meant one day working ashore and three days working aboard.  Our focus has started to shift slightly towards helping the community restore some normalcy - although in reality this is easier said than done. Even before the earthquake hit Haiti it was an economically and socially depressed country. Many children didn’t receive schooling, healthcare was limited, and the country relied on aid from wealthier countries.

Our working parties were always accompanied by armed Force Protection Personnel – and often Haitian men and women will join in and work alongside us.  Despite the devastating after-effects of the earthquake it’s still surprises me to see happy and smiling children – interested in seeing and touching our belongings.  It’s equally heartening when the elderly wave and greet us as we file past them with our axes, chainsaws and shovels.

Our priorities for now are restoring the local hospital, chopping trees at the Jacmel Airport to allow larger aircraft to land, clearing land for makeshift first-aid facilities, investigating and analysing the structural integrity of the still-standing buildings, and helping at displaced persons camps and orphanages.  Building and digging latrines is a particularly important task, as many of the Haitians have no running water or toilets.  More hygienic sanitation will also help to prevent the spread of diseases like typhoid and cholera.

On board there has been ship-handling, boat transfers and flight operations to keep us all busy, as the ship patrols up and down the coastline. As part of my transfer across to HMCS ATHABASKAN I flew in a Sea-King, and was able to experience first-hand a birds-eye view of the beauty of the shoreline and rural areas. The water along the coast is beautiful, with clear turquoise water, and we flew low enough so you could see all the coral formations, and coconut trees lining the shore. Men, women and children were carrying bundles of sticks, fishing or just playing.  It’s a side of Haiti I hadn’t seen yet – the happy, life as normal side. 

It has been fantastic being part of an operation and really feeling a sense of achievement.  Being able to help provide some humanitarian assistance is both an eye-opening and positive experience, and I feel privileged to have been part of it.

Report by SLT Nick Foster

On Monday 11 January, ENS Kendra Titheridge and I were on board HMCS HALIFAX as the frigate departed Halifax Harbour to conduct work-ups in preparation for a four week anti-narcotics patrol in the Caribbean.

On Tuesday we received word that Haiti had been struck by an earthquake and HALIFAX was to return to port.  The Minister of Defence simultaneously announced that HALIFAX and HMCS ATHABASKAN were being dispatched to Haiti to help with the relief effort.  We arrived home late the next morning and commenced a mad 30-hour stores embarkation.

I returned to my home ship, ATHABASKAN (the ‘Atha B’).  The dockyard was bustling with containers, cranes and camera crews.  The ship’s company worked long into the night and at 1500 on Thursday the last of the stores came aboard, the brow was landed and the boatswains let go the lines. ATHABASKAN had been in the middle of a short maintenance period and the fact that she was able to fully store and fuel the ship and embark aid stores at short notice, is a credit to all her company.

The five day transit was conducted at 22 knots – in a 38 year-old gas turbine ship that meant high fuel consumption. While on passage, we began preparations, received briefs on the equipment the crew would take ashore (chainsaws, concrete cutters, generators and hand-tools) and on what they could expect on the ground in Haiti.  We also began taking malaria medication.

We rendezvoused with USNS BIG HORN to embark 500 cubes of F76, while on the port side the massive helicopter carrier USS BATAAN was also gassing up. Her decks were lined with helicopters, reminding us of the sheer scale of hardware the Americans were deploying.

ATHABASKAN was directed to send people ashore in the town of Legoane just east of Port au Prince near the epicentre of the quake.  As the sun rose on Tuesday 19 January the mountainous coast of Haiti became visible and a flotilla of small fishing vessels began to fill the bay – it was clear that contact avoidance was going to make this a busy forenoon watch.  ‘Big Dawg’ our Sea King helicopter lifted off on a reconnaissance mission while members of the boarding party and the other ‘away team’ closed up. Our helo identified an LZ and the ship’s boats set off for the shore with the first wave of personnel and equipment.

On Day One the objective was to establish ourselves ashore, make contact with the locals and identify areas where we could make a difference. Members of the away team helped clean up a school, set up security for a first aid centre, and provided light engineering. The crew who remained on board found themselves in frequent rotations, to cover for those who were ashore.

Reports back to the ship were positive, with our teams well-received by the locals, and no signs of the looting that had been reported in Port au Prince. The shore parties felt aftershocks all day, with one reported as 6.1.  Much to our surprise we could even feel the shocks while on the ship.

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