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News / Clark County News

Haiti earthquake: Aftershocks still felt by volunteers

One year later, local aid workers share experiences in devastated nation

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published: January 12, 2011, 12:00am
7 Photos
Dr. Allen Gabriel, right, and Dr.
Dr. Allen Gabriel, right, and Dr. Alex Soroceanu, an orthopedic resident from Montreal, wash a wound with a high-pressure sprayer to prepare for surgery at Hopital Adventiste in June. Photo Gallery

o The 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, killed an estimated 222,570 people in Haiti and injured 300,000 people, according to a review published this week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When people saw the scenes of devastation on their TV screens, it didn’t take long for many of them to respond to the earthquake in Haiti.

But even before the television coverage notified the world of the disaster on Jan. 12, 2010, two Clark County families were intimately involved in it.

Washougal resident Walt Ratterman was trapped and killed when the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince was shaken to pieces.

o The 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, killed an estimated 222,570 people in Haiti and injured 300,000 people, according to a review published this week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At another jumble of broken concrete, Vancouver native Chris Rolling helped save a girl who’d been trapped in the ruins.

Rolling, who runs a nonprofit in Haiti, was finishing up some errands in the capital when the quake hit late that afternoon. When the shaking stopped, Rolling heard people crying from the pancaked ruins of what had been a three-story school for girls.

“People in the first two floors were dead,” Rolling said last month while visiting his family in Vancouver.

“Some were still alive on the third floor, and I got in under the roof,” Rolling said on a videotaped presentation he created to support his nonprofit organization, Clean Water for Haiti.

Rolling burrowed toward a trapped girl, clearing his way by passing back pieces of rubble to another man. When a solid piece of concrete barred his way, “A guy brought a hammer, and we broke it up. I pulled on one of the pieces while she pushed” and they got the girl out.

They tried to reach another girl — she told him her name was Jacqueline — but it got too dark to work, Rolling recounted. “I told Jacqueline I’d have to come back with more help.”

The next morning, Rolling and the workers at his water-filter plant loaded their tools into a couple of trucks and drove back to Port-au-Prince.

“Jacqueline and another girl were dead.”

But with their tools, they were able to dig through the roof and reach other trapped students.

“We pulled out six more girls alive,” he said. And they also helped at other rescue sites. “We were able to send three trucks full of patients to the hospital.”

More help was on the way, in what has become a year-long campaign. It started with disaster response from people like Vancouver firefighter-paramedic Joe Schrater. Dr. Allen Gabriel, a surgeon at Southwest Washington Medical Center, was part of a subsequent wave of medical care, followed by developmental support from nonprofits like Vancouver-based Forward Edge International.

When Schrater arrived on Jan. 15, damaged buildings were still shedding rubble.

“Concrete would fall randomly all day,” said Schrater, a member of a federal International Medical Surgical Response Team. The medical center resembled a military operation, with some quake victims arriving in helicopters.

“A Black Hawk would circle twice and we’d know a patient was coming in,” he said. “It was almost like ‘MASH.’ We did 15 cases of surgery a day.”

Injuries included pelvic fractures. Some people had two broken legs.

“Here, they’d be in a trauma center operating room. There, people went a week with no care for their injuries, and the amount of suffering was horrific,” Schrater said.

“They had no idea when surgery would be done,” Schrater said, which added another inconvenience because patients aren’t supposed to eat before surgery. “I got an instant mashed potato packet and gave a spoon to each one. They were so grateful.”

Schrater also was sent to the Hotel Montana when bodies of American citizens were found in the rubble, and he took them to the U.S. embassy. Walt Ratterman, a 57-year-old solar energy expert, was among those missing in the ruins of the hotel.

“I knew Walt was in big trouble if he couldn’t call me by the third day after the quake,” Jeanne Ratterman said. “By then, at least, he would have found a way to contact me.”

She was able to visit the quake site three weeks later, and it “was the sort of scene that Walt walked into more than once as a member of a disaster relief group. He has seen his share of dead bodies,” Jeanne Ratterman said. “Now I was having this experience.”

Her husband’s body was recovered on Feb. 7, almost four weeks after the quake.

Jeanne Ratterman said she hopes to spend some time today with their daughter, Briana. “Just to be together,” she said. And tonight, Jeanne Ratterman plans to watch the videotape of a documentary — “Beyond the Call” — that highlights her husband’s work on humanitarian aid projects around the world.

Gabriel, a Vancouver plastic surgeon, made three weeklong trips to Haiti in May, June and November. He was accompanied on all three trips by his wife, anesthesiologist Dr. Cassie Gabriel, his medical assistant, Shelby Gialich, and Matt Schoolfield, a Vancouver photographer who works for Southwest Medical Group.

Three months after the quake, people were still dealing with major wounds.

“It was so devastating,” he said.

At Hôpital Adventiste, a medical center in Port-au-Prince, “There were patients everywhere,” he said. “All three times I was there, I slept in a cot in a hallway.”

Their work focused on cleaning old wounds and covering exposed wounds with skin grafts.

“We didn’t want to leave,” Gabriel said. “We committed to come back the following month.”

He and his wife had scheduled a June vacation in Mexico, Gabriel said. “We canceled and went back to Haiti. We had six people on the second trip, and 14 on the third trip, in November.”

“We did over 150 operations on all three trips,” Gabriel said.

Schrater, the Vancouver Fire Department paramedic-firefighter, also made a return trip to Haiti and was joined by his wife. Amy Schrater is a nurse in the emergency department at Southwest Washington Medical Center.

They were part of a nine-person medical team dispatched in March by Forward Edge International.

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“The second time, I didn’t see a lot of quake effects,” Joe Schrater said. “There were a lot of sick, dehydrated kids; malaria; people hit by cars; and a lot of burns. House fires are so common.”

While Forward Edge International sent 45 health care professionals to Haiti in the past year, the Vancouver-based humanitarian organization primarily does developmental work. Almost 500 volunteers have helped build shelters, repair two churches and rebuild a school.

Weighing immediate needs against long-term benefits is tough, said founder and president Joe Anfuso. As part of a Forward Edge team that visited Haiti shortly after the quake, he was struck by the need for tarps that could provide shelter.

But if they spent all their money filling that need, “We’d be out of resources, and it’s all over,” Anfuso said. “We have to focus on long-term responses.”

Forward Edge is joining with an organization in Haiti to build a model community and start a chicken-breeding operation. In addition to serving as a handy source of protein — “Haiti imports a million eggs a day from the Dominican Republic” — it can provide small-business opportunities, Anfuso said.

Some gains have been made, Jeanne Ratterman noted. Her husband was in Haiti to help set up a solar energy project at a rural medical center. In the last year, engineers from the organization he founded, SunEnergy Power International, took it over, she said: “The project he was working on while he died is completed.”

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter