OTTAWA – Canada is poised to send helicopters, ships and a disaster response team to help Haitians left without food, water, shelter and medical services after Tuesday’s devastating earthquake.
Cabinet ministers outlined the government’s efforts today and said at least one Canadian suffered minor injuries in the quake, while another was trapped in a collapsed building. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the government received a text message from the trapped man, but had no other details.
Ottawa will send an immediate $5 million to the Haitian government to provide initial help, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said. She indicated more aid could flow following the assessment of a Canadian military reconnaissance team which is to arrive in Haiti today aboard a C-130 military transport plane.
Oda said Canada has stockpiles of mosquito nets, basic household goods, tents and sanitation packages that are ready to go as soon as it’s clear what precisely is needed. Despite the urgency of the situation, she said it’s important to take time to co-ordinate relief efforts.
Cannon said the reconnaissance team will provide guidance for the deployment of Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), a military quick-reaction force for humanitarian aid. The military’s massive C-17 transport plane and two search-and-rescue helicopters are standing by to help with relief efforts.
“More equipment is to be deployed based on the needs assessment,” Cannon said in Ottawa.
While casualties from the quake remain unclear, reports indicate extensive and heavy damage in the impoverished country.
Thousands of buildings have been flattened. The United Nations said its headquarters in Haiti collapsed, killing five people inside. More than 100 UN workers are missing, including the chief of the UN mission. The International Red Cross said three million people may have been affected one way or another.
There are 707 Canadians registered with the Canadian Embassy in Haiti but some 6,000 Canadians are believed in the Caribbean country.
Among them are seven corrections officials, five Canadian Forces personnel and more than 80 Canadian police officers.
RCMP Sgt. Julie Gagnon said 82 Canadian officers from forces across the country are in Haiti as part of a UN mission to train and mentor local police. Two of the police officers were unaccounted for.
Gagnon would not say which police forces the unaccounted officers work for, or whether they have heard from all of the RCMP’s 13 officers on the ground.
A spokeswoman for Montreal police said all of their 42 officers in Haiti are safe. Quebec Provincial Police said they have more than 20 police officers in Haiti and all have been accounted for.
Lt.-Col. Chris Lemay said from Ottawa that the five Canadians attached to the UN mission in Haiti survived the quake.
Cannon said he spoke with the Canadian ambassador in Haiti and the situation in the country was reported to be very chaotic, the damage extensive.
The Canadian Embassy building has been evacuated as a precaution. Canadian citizens were taking refuge in the embassy compound, where tents, food, water and medical assistance were available on site, Cannon said.
More than 750 calls have been received at the emergency operations centre at the Foreign Affairs department in Ottawa.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke today to Nathalie Gissel-Menos, Haiti’s head of mission in Canada, to assure her that Canada will deploy “all necessary assistance.”
A spokesman for Harper said the prime minister emphasized that Haiti is “a very close friend of Canada” and that Haitians can “count on our solidarity” during this time of need,
As images of collapsed buildings and bloodied bodies lying in the streets of Port-au-Prince rolled in, Haitian-Canadians were on the phone, frantically trying to reach their relatives.
But phone lines were down, making it difficult for anyone outside the country to learn if their friends and families had survived the largest earthquake to hit the area in more than 200 years.
“It’s frustrating. The lines are either busy or ringing without answer,” said Fabienne Colas, a Montreal resident of Haitian descent who was desperately trying to reach her family.
“I think tonight almost all the Haitian people (in Montreal) are going to stay up trying to reach our people and hopefully find them.”
It is the hope of more than 100,000 Haitian-Canadians living in Canada, most of them in Quebec.
The 7.0-magnitude quake struck at 4:53 p.m. ET Tuesday, centred 15 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of eight kilometres.
Carine Guidicelli has no family in the Caribbean nation, but she was working the phone trying to find out if her 150 colleagues who had travelled to Port-au-Prince from across Haiti on Tuesday for a meeting were OK.
Guidicelli, a fundraising director with The Canadian Centre for Studies and International Co-operation, said her group works with the poorest living in Haiti’s slums. The group’s offices are located in the capital’s Petionville suburb.
“We’re very worried about them,” Guidicelli said in an interview.
She said a Haitian project director was still waiting to hear about his son, who had been at school when the quake struck.
“When you’re looking at the Presidential House and also the ministerial houses and everything collapsed, you can imagine what happened in the slums,” she said.
Jean-Claude Icart was one of a few in Montreal who managed to talk to his family.
“There’s panic in the streets. People are afraid to go back to their homes because of the aftershocks,” said Icart, whose relatives have had their houses damaged, but no one was hurt.
Communities across Canada that had members volunteering in the island nation struggled to find out about their fate.
A group of 56 people from central Ontario, on a church-sponsored mission to Haiti, were reported to be fine Tuesday night.
The volunteers, including Gwen Gilbert, mayor of South Bruce Peninsula, arrived in the country a week ago to help a local mission operate a school, church, orphanage and medical clinic in Aubry, just north of the capital.
A number of Canadians government agencies as well as the Department of National Defence, the RCMP and Montreal police have a presence in Haiti.
Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, who is of Haitian origin, said the natural disaster has hit “a country with an extremely fragile infrastructure, where many buildings are already unstable.”
“I would like all Haitians to know that they are not alone and that the people of Canada will respond to this emergency.”
“We’re hoping that there’s no loss of life,” she said in a statement.
Jeff Adams, director of communications at Samaritan’s Purse Canada, an international Christian relief and development organization based in Calgary, said they are already sending help.
He said they were flying in a disaster team to look at what’s needed but expects that food, clean water and supplies to build shelters will be needed immediately.
Most of Haiti’s nine million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards.
The country is the largest recipient of Canadian long-term development assistance in the Americas and the second largest in the world.
Cannon said friends and family of Canadians in Haiti can call emergency operations centre in Ottawa at 1-800-387-3124 for assistance. They can also check the Foreign Affairs website www.international.gc.ca.