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Longboat Key Wednesday, Mar. 17, 2010 7 years ago

LBK firefighter/paramedic visits Haiti

by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

When Longboat Key firefighter/paramedic Jeff Bullock crossed the border Feb. 28 into Haiti, after a six-hour ride across the Dominican Republic in a cramped minivan, he thought he knew what to expect.

Bullock had worked in disaster-relief efforts before, including Hurricane Andrew recovery in 1992. He and his family had been donating to Garden of Grace Ministries’ House of Grace Thrift Store, located in Riverview, where Bullock lives, for the past two years. When he received a memo about the organization’s Haiti trip in mid-February, he knew he could use his 30 years of emergency-management services to help.

He thought he would work alongside doctors and nurses in a “tent city” filled with refugees from the Jan. 12 earthquake. He would help out at a hospital. He would have a 40-foot container of supplies, including clean water, enough rice for 60,000 meals and supplies, including expired but usable medications, surplus fluids and old bandages that the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department had donated. He would then travel to the remote village of Belle-Fontaine, Haiti, where Garden of Grace Ministries is working to build a school and orphanage.

But when he arrived in the tent city in the outskirts of Port au Prince, Haiti, he knew that this effort would be unlike any past efforts — and unlike anything he expected. He quickly realized that the name “tent city” was a misnomer. The “tents” were actually bed sheets held up by sticks and canes. More than one month had passed since the earthquake had struck, but aid had yet to reach the approximately 4,000 residents of the makeshift town.

“I was in shock,” Bullock said. “The world response (to the earthquake) was so strong that I just never expected to find 4,000 people with nothing.”

Bullock also learned that the supply container, which was scheduled to arrive a week before his seven-member group, had been held up by red tape. He went to the U.S. embassy and asked for leftover supplies. Because search-and-rescue teams had demobilized, the group was able to obtain tarps, FEMA mats and three cases of medical supplies.

During his first day in the tent city, Bullock treated more than 300 people. Many were sick because they hadn’t had access to clean water since the earthquake. During that first day, Bullock was the volunteer with the most medical training in the tent city. The second day, a doctor from a local hospital joined him.

Because he didn’t have access to the supplies he had planned on, Bullock improvised with the supplies from the embassy, slicing adult medications into child-size dosages with a pocketknife and using surgical scrub to clean out infected wounds.

“It was very frustrating,” Bullock said. “But the people were so polite, so appreciative.”

The third day, group members went to Port au Prince in hope of getting the supplies container, but they weren’t able to retrieve it. As he drove through the outskirts of Port au Prince, he saw that tent cities like the one in which he was working were the norm.

After three days, Bullock and two other group members traveled to Belle-Fontaine, where they treated another 30 children and learned more about Garden of Grace’s plans for a school. The remaining group members stayed behind at the tent city and worked on getting the supply container, which finally arrived on the last day of the group’s mission. But, the group had already left to catch a flight in the Dominican Republic by the time the container arrived at dusk. They later learned from U.N. police and local leaders that more than 10,000 people lined up for the supplies.

When Bullock returned to Riverview, he felt as if he had been in Haiti for a month, even though the trip only lasted a week. But although the 12- to 14-hour days of treatment were tough, Bullock remembers the people he encountered in Haiti: a woman in the tent city who spoke no English but stood next to Bullock all day swatting flies away from the supplies; a boy in Belle-Fontaine who was so excited to see the group arrive with supplies that he ran for four miles barefoot alongside the minivan; and the people in the tent city who displayed great joy when the group arrived with tarps.

Bullock said that he eventually hopes to return to Haiti.

“I would go back because of the people,” Bullock said. “But I would like to be more involved with the logistics.”

On The Web

To learn more about Garden of Grace Ministries, visit

Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].

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