Offloading of the MREs from Mexeflote in Anse-a-Veau, Haiti.
Copyright: WFP/Jonathan Thompson
I wake up every night at about 3am. At least I have been since Monday. I don't think the adrenaline has subsided. I am still thinking about the delivery and how it went after we left.
I was only supposed to observe the discharge of food in Anse-a-Veau but ended up managing the logistics, along with my fellow WFP staff member Neima Ahmed, over a four day period. That is the reality of aid work in the field - you are often asked to handle tasks other than your own. The experience is still with me.
As I wrote in my last piece, Anse-a-Veau is a small town on the coast of Haiti situated about 60 miles west of Port-au-Prince. It has been in desperate need of food since recent flooding raised the water level at the nearby river crossing from its normally passable 1m height to 8m, making it impossible for supply trucks to cross. As a result, food convoys that WFP had sent into the region were forced to turn back at the river's edge approximately 6km west of town.
The British naval vessel RFA Largs Bay, which had been made available to the UN by the British government's Department for International Development (DFID), offered to take on the task of moving the goods by sea and then ferrying them ashore by means of a shallow draft raft system, otherwise known as a Mexeflote. The ship had been in the region for several weeks and, although it had assisted with moving food from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives, its crew was looking for some land-side action.
We left Saturday night after the loading was completed. In the hull of ship sat 24,749 MREs, 630 bags of rice (50kg), 126 bags of beans (50kg), 210 bags of CSB (25kg), 190 cartons full of bottles of oil, 11 bags of salt (50kg). It was a massive amount of cargo that had taken the crew three days to load with the help of heavy lift vehicles. We would soon find out that those vehicles would be all but useless in Anse-a-Veau and that human power was going to be the only means possible by which to bring the food ashore.
Early Sunday morning, after arriving off the coast of Anse-a-Veau, we were alerted to the fact that small wooden canoes were coming alongside the boat. Inside on of the canoes was Pere David Fontaine who had seen our light at 4am and was desperately awaiting our arrival. He climbed the rope ladder that had been dropped down the side, he was then escorted to the Captain's Ian Johnson's cabin where the Captain, Neima, Jamie Secker W01 with the Royal Logistics Corps and I met with him to discuss how best to get the food ashore. After working out a plan, Pere David headed for the beach to prepare the community for the arrival of the food.
As the winds were strong on Sunday the crew was unable to operate the Mexeflote so the diving team on board used the opportunity to check depths in the harbor. Two teams set off for the beach and arrived several hours later with a detailed chart of depths and navigational hazards. Based on this information the loading commenced the following morning, the winds having died down overnight.
Over the next three days we offloaded the bulk of the MREs, rice, beans, CSB, salt and oil. The raft made a total of seven runs from the ship to the shore between Monday and Wednesday. It took between 100 and 300 people passing the boxes and bags hand to hand over 1.5 hours to unload each large barge. By Wednesday the crowd had thinned considerably as the unloading took its toll on everyone involved. Some of the community members would walk 6km each way every day just to assist with the offloading.
It was an incredible event with nearly the entire contingent of Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Army Royal Logistics Corps (led by Captain Chris Heyworth) and Royal Marine personnel taking part in the unloading. Every day a new set of volunteers would arrive from the ship and stand knee deep in the brackish water for hours on end and assist the community with passing the boxes of food ashore. Naval personnel also assisted with repairing Pere David's generator and solar water distillation unit which he was using to produce clean water for the community and refugees recently arrived from Port-au-Prince. One group from the ship even collected pens, paper, and supplies from the stores onboard and donated them to the local school.
In addition to moving MREs and oil ashore onboard the Mexeflote, a smaller landing craft was used to ferry the bags of rice, beans, CSB and salt to a shallow beach area approximately 40m upriver. The community was energized by the arrival of the bulk material and volunteers helping with the unloading even asked to carry two 50kg bags instead of one.
The energy of the crowd was very positive and there was never any sense of insecurity. The local police were present to assist and proved very helpful. Men and women of all ages helped with transferring food from the barge and loading the trucks which cycled continuously between the beach and warehouses.
By Wednesday most of the ship had been unloaded and it was necessary for us to return to Port-au-Prince. The ship's crew was set to offload the last delivery Thursday morning. We said our goodbyes after a quick and wonderful lunch at Pere David's home and then hustled to the landing zone for a helicopter pick-up. We flew back to Port-au-Prince sunburned, exhausted and happy that we had succeeded in unloading the vessel.