I didn't think we would go today. Someone told me last night that the forecast was for rain. As the sun rose this morning there was the usual mist and clouds hovering on the peaks that stand above Port-au-Prince but no sign of rain. I was on my way to the remote town of Anse-a-Veau with WFP Port Captain Mary Theresa O'Neil to assess the capacity of the port to handle a sizable shipment of food. Accompanying us would be three officers from the RFA Largs Bay, a British naval vessel that was currently anchored off Port-au-Prince. As we left the Sea Voyager, a ship which has become our floating home in Port-au-Prince harbor, and made our way into shore we could see the RFA Largs Bay standing off a fair distance. All night its lights had silently drifted past our windows as we swung at anchor.
The RFA Largs Bay is a massive Royal Navy 16,000-tonne Bay Class Landing Ship Dock (Auxiliary) which is currently assisting WFP with food distribution around Haiti. Its helm stands several stories above the waterline and its rear deck is the size the size of a football pitch. Inside, as Mary puts it, it is very "James Bondish" with a rear entry area that allows a Mexeflote motorized raft to effortlessly dock in her stern. In the midst of landing troops and equipment in various locations around the world for training purposes, the Largs Bay was redirected to Haiti to assist the UN with moving food and humanitarian relief supplies into shallow draft ports.
After arriving on the beach Mary and I met up with the Captain of the RFA Largs Bay, Ian Johnson and and British Army officers Capt Chris Heyworth and WO1 Jamie Secker. We proceeded immediately to the Log Base adjacent the international airport to catch our flight. A short while later we were airborne on board an UNHAS Mi-171 and preparing to head west toward the small coastal town of Anse-a-Veau. The plan is for the Largs Bay to offload approximately 400 pallets of food to feed the population of approximately 5,500 people. The RFA Largs Bay is a big ship and we were heading off to see if the tiny port could handle the distribution.
The helicopter was heavily loaded with 288 cartons, twelve individual packs in each carton, of Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MRE) which would provide enough nutrition to the several thousand beneficiaries in the region until Largs Bay could deliver the main shipment later in the week. The Mi-171 strained under the heavy load as the seasoned Ukrainian pilots hovered meters over the airstrip while checking the balance of the aircraft. Minutes later we were heading down the coast with fresh air flowing in through open windows.
Anse-a-Veau is a small city. Half of it is perched on a cliff above the sea and the remaining half is nestled in an area at the end of a small bay. Many of the structures are built of wood and plaster and they suffered light to moderate damage during the recent earthquake. Concrete structures fared the worst and a number of individuals were displaced - they are now staying with family members and in makeshift shelters.
After landing on a open, green field outside of town we were greeted by numerous children, some on horseback, and several members of the community. Father Casemel Enauld was also there to meet us and served as our liaison with the community. After loading several vehicles with the MRE's we set out for town. Anse-a-Veau is a beautiful town filled with incredibly nice people. As we drove through the streets people constantly waved and shouted greetings.
Our first stop was an overlook at the mouth of the small bay. The team dismounted and made its way through a vacant compound to the edge of a jungle clad cliff. After 15 minutes of discussion it was decided that it would be possible to approach the shore close enough to offload the goods and that there was not enough swell to cause concern. We reloaded the trucks and headed down to the head of the small bay.
As we passed through town we saw both timber frame structures coated in pastel colors and stone structures with ornate columns that have fallen into disrepair. The small group of fishermen that live at the harbor occupy several buildings that lie along the approach route. Piled between the structures and draped across lines strung from trees were white nets that were in the process of being repaired by their owners. Canoes dug out from what must have been massive trees were pulled up on shore and pigs routed through the conch shells, rubbish and chunks of coral that lay scattered on the ground.
As the naval team and the WFP Port captain scouted the location, WFP's Antoine Renard served as translator. Formally, a Program Officer and now with Private Donor Relations, Antoine helped to gather information about port access, available watercraft, personnel available to assist with unloading and many other issues that are critical to a successful waterborne operation. After 30 minutes of discussion the team finally felt confident that the delivery, while challenging, could be made. We loaded the vehicles and as we drove away a boy wearing blue over-sized boots, a marching band hat and carrying a machete snapped a casual salute.
En route to the airfield Father Enauld pleaded with us to stay for a lunch that his sister had already started preparing. Antoine was extremely apologetic but also explained that the helicopter needed to return to make additional trips and any delay would severely inconvenience others. We all would have loved to stay for lunch but unfortunately it was not an option. We continued to the field to board the helicopter and begin our journey home.
As the engines cranked up and we prepared to leave a group of policemen arrived with take away boxes full of food that were bundled in plastic bags. Air Logistics Officer Emmanuel Jarry dashed through the rotor wash and returned with the packages of food. We gave the crowd a thumbs up as and waved as we took off and then settled in to enjoy the food. We opened the boxes to find a wonderful meal of fried plantain, fish in sauce and fresh tomatoes. As we flew along the coastline we filled ourselves with a great meal courtesy of the kind people of Anse-a-Veau.
The mission was a success. As soon as we landed the team was placing calls to all the key people to commence operations and to prepare the Largs Bay for transit to the coast off Anse-a-Veau. Loading began a few hours later and continues as I write this. I will be covering the delivery and will post follow on stories in a few days time. Until now enjoy the pictures below and be sure to follow the RFA Largs Bay Haiti Diary.