The smell of death permeates the rubble. He can’t escape it, but the surrounding heartbreak pulls in Payson resident Randy Roberson. He needs to help.
Roberson arrived in Haiti to offer humanitarian aid just one week after the massive earthquake that nearly destroyed the already impoverished nation.
Before the quake, Haiti’s famine and slums ranked among the world’s worst.
Now, Roberson’s favorite word to describe the disaster is “heartbreak.”
“In Haiti, right now you could be consumed by the heartbreak,” he says.
A disaster junkie, Roberson, 51, has made a career out of responding to tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes around the world. He raises money through his non-profit, H.E.L.P., to bring telemedicine and water filtration systems — which he leaves in the communities — to disaster-struck areas.
“Certainly people in my line of work tend to be adrenaline junkies, but there is certainly a lot more to it than a rush.” Roberson pauses. “Although, it certainly is a rush.”
Roberson’s infatuation with disaster relief began under his mentorship with Dr. Larry Ward, who started the religious-based Food for the Hungry.
After Ward’s death, Roberson began his own non-profit. Roberson coordinates with local doctor Alan Michels to provide medical services in disaster-struck places through telemedicine. Satellite video allows Michels to guide Roberson as he helps injured people.
“It’s never a dull moment,” Roberson said.
One of the biggest threats to people post-disaster is the potential of dying from water-borne illnesses. Contaminated water can give drinkers diarrhea, which kills through dehydration.
The water purifiers Roberson uses can sanitize anywhere from 500 to 2,000 gallons of water per hour, depending on how dirty it is. They cost roughly $3,000, and when Roberson leaves, he gives the water purifier to a local organization already working on the ground.
“It’s a matter of putting resources in the hands of indigenous people and giving them a hand up versus a hand out.”
Roberson initially traveled to Haiti one week after the quake struck with another gentleman from the organization Knightsbridge International. He flew into the neighboring Dominican Republic before driving six hours into Haiti. Convoys have been shot at and robbed, but Roberson declines to carry a gun.
Roberson drove a rented truck filled with extra gas, beans and rice for the first round of supplies.
It’s not so much that supplies are short in Haiti — but nobody has money to pay. Gas prices after the disaster can rise to $100 per gallon, which is why Roberson trucked in his own from the Dominican Republic.
He camped out amidst the rubble of Haiti’s Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. Dust from the rubble coats the surroundings like flour in a kitchen.
Building codes in Haiti are nonexistent, which Roberson partly blames for the utter destruction.
“If you want to feel like a kung-fu master, these are the bricks to hit,” Roberson said. “You hit them and they disintegrate.”
Building more lasting buildings is important for the country to move forward, he added.
An ominous quiet fills the Haitian air, a silence emanating from respect for lost lives, bodies stuck under the rubble.
Roberson spoke of one woman he met while she waited and waited for her husband. The family had tried to escape from the hotel, the husband running with the couple’s baby in his arms. Only the wife had made it out alive.
She sat around the hotel’s ruins for days until rescuers found the bodies of her family. Then, she left.
“You build up defense mechanisms to deal with all of the death and suffering that you see,” said Roberson. The bodies trapped under the rubble create an unimaginable stench.
“It’s a very aromatic place to say the least,” Roberson said about the Hotel Montana. “It’s everywhere and you can’t get away from it.”
On that first trip, Roberson stayed roughly two weeks. He recently deployed again, this time alone.
When he first arrives, he must figure out which groups are already there, helping, and where the most need is.
Despite the turmoil, people are still technologically connected.
On the Web site Haiti.ushahidi.com, people submit reports. One reads, “Please, we are in Delmas 33, rue del la Victoire. We need water, food and tentes [sic] because the rainy season is approaching. Help us.”
Humanitarian workers can log onto the site and determine where their help is most needed. Roberson also follows Twitter, which is where he found an orphanage he helped with food and water purification.
Roberson says that mobile medicine and water purification address a disaster’s two primary problems.
“I’m constantly confronted with large numbers of people that have large medical needs and there’s nobody to help.
His solar-powered telemedicine satellite set-up allows him to connect to Dr. Michels in Payson, and help people hurt by falling debris, or those hurt when trying to exhume bodies or clean rubble. The threat of infection is serious, and supplies are imperative so people can avoid it.
“It’s never a dull moment,” Roberson said.
Roberson’s wife is supportive, though she thinks he’s crazy. She also puts up with his trips — sometimes two or three in year, although not at all during other years.
Raising money is a constant battle. “It’s always a matter of where does the next $10 come in.” Roberson has done everything from digging ditches in Star Valley to various media work to help his non-profit survive.
Roberson has chosen to forgo a secure life in favor of one that offers him meaning and fulfillment. He says he has offered life-saving assistance to well over 200,000 people.
But among the most financially impoverished, Roberson has found some of the world’s most joy-filled people.
“The wisest people I ever met live in grass huts in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “We don’t know how many tomorrows we have.”
But for this tomorrow, Roberson will continue his life-saving missions to the world’s most desperate places. And when the sun rises again, he’ll begin again.