The cargo area at Las Americas Airport in Santo Domingo is hot at midday. The ocean breeze coming from the nearby coast drifts lazily over the warrens of warehousing units and affords little relief from the Caribbean sun which hangs high overhead. The air is choked with dust and exhaust from the multitudes of forklifts, trucks, motorcycles and big rigs that ply the narrow streets. Jam packed with air cargo containers and pallets of relief items the place is crawling with human forms that strain and sweat under the weight of the items they struggle to load.
I am visiting the site today with Karim El Hamraui who is seconded to the Logistics Cluster from his parent company TNT. Karim is young and sharp and easily flips through a repetoire of six languages. His Spanish is good and he has quickly become friends with WFP's talented customs specialist Sandra Torres who hails from WFP's Nicaragua office. Even though this is Karim's first humanitarian mission as part of the Logistics Emergency Teams (LET), an initiative between TNT, UPS and Agility, it is clear that Karim was made for this type of work. The talents he brings with him from his logistics job at the TNT headquarters in Liege, Belgium are proving invaluable and odds are you'll be seeing him on other LET missions in the not too distant future.
As we stand amidst the noise and chaos of the loading bays a silver compact rental car turns the nearby corner and pulls to a stop. The two men inside, both deeply tanned and built like Pit Bulls step out from the cramped interior. Sporting boots, cargo pants and bush hats they look like they just loaded a couple dozen trucks on their own and the beads of sweat are the only indication that punishing heat and strenuous work taxes them at all.
The two men cross the street and immediately start calling the shots with the men they have come to know well. They are John Vera and Bill Torres and they're UPS' contribution to the LET team. Both are fluent in Spanish and clearly at ease in the world of logistics. They've known each other for over a decade and this isn't the first time they have willingly left their jobs at the UPS operations center in Miami, Florida to help the people of Haiti. During the devestating hurricane season of 2008, John and Bill were dispatched to the region and spent weeks on helicopters dropping food on mountaintops across Haiti. The work they are doing now is much different but they still love it just the same.
The fourth member of the LET contingent is a hard working Dutchman named Michael Kalkman who is also seconded from TNT. At any time of the day you will see him hunched over a laptop and stacks of paperwork with mobile phones held to each ear. He talks on them so much that he leaves them prepetually plugged in and has to crane his neck to accomodate the tiny little cords. He rarely moves from the seat he has occupied since long before Karim's arrival. During emergencies time is measured in hours and Michael has spent more hours in that chair, talking on the phone and tracking incoming air cargo than I care to imagine. Michael is a family man and you'll sometimes see him taking a quick break to look at pictures of his kids that you can tell he misses dearly and who are waiting for him back in Holland.
All of these men, and the companies they work for, have made great sacrifices to backstop the Logistics Cluster and help the Haitian people at the request of WFP, the Logistics Cluster lead agency. By bringing their specialized expertise in air operations, fleet management and other areas of logistics, they have added considerable force to the Logistics Cluster's actions. The convoys of trucks carrying lifesaving materials that are streaming over the border into Haiti are due, in part, their efforts as are the air freight shipments flying out of La Isabela Airport.
Without the professional commitment from their parent companies, WFP and the Logistics Cluster would be forced to redeploy assets from other ongoing operations. As a testament to their effectiveness, the Logistics Cluster has called upon LET for even more personnel to join their teammates in the field and take part in what is becoming one of the most important humanitarian operations in recent memory.