When I first met “Baby Jenny” she was the picture of fragility. Buried in the rubble of the Haitian earthquake for seven days, the three-month old had a bad head injury and her arms were so wounded she could barely move them. A journalist who was covering the January 2010 earthquake discovered the baby, and a taxi cab driver named Jenny later delivered her to health care workers, who rushed her to Miami for emergency medical care.
On April 18, I saw that same child again at the Borinquen Health Center in Miami. At 2 years old, she is robust and cheerful, eagerly engaging those around her and far from fragile. The only sign of early trauma are scars on her forehead and arms that take nothing away from her sunny presence.
The aftermath of that earthquake was the first time I worked closely with the staff of the Administration for Children and Families. And it was a time when the division was engaged in the most complex emergency evacuation responses in recent U.S. history. The quake’s epicenter was just 16 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince (population 2.35 million) and was followed by more than 50 significant aftershocks in the following 10 days.
As the lead federal agency within the United States for all repatriation activities, ACF provided services to 28,000 people evacuated from Haiti over a 38-day period from Jan. 14 through February 2010.
The Department achieved this through a strong network of federal, state and local partners. Planes were taking off from Haiti and we often did not know where they were going to land and who was on them. But when the 835 flights did land, many Americans worked to comfort and meet the needs of these earthquake victims and welcome them with a hand of friendship. Florida, New Jersey, South Carolina and Maryland received evacuees.
Research about crisis situations has shown that most people want to help – they just don’t always know what to do. If someone in that crisis situation assumes leadership, though, and starts telling others what they can do to help, they do it. That’s why the role of the federal government is so critical in domestic and even, like the Haitian earthquake, international crises. We are in a position to call on the most partners to get the help needed.
The crisis in Haiti continues. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was also in Miami on April 18 after spending two days visiting Haiti. HHS has an ongoing program there to combat cholera and immunize that nation’s children.
As the nation of Haiti rebuilds, HHS is working with local and international partners to rebuild the childhood immunization infrastructure. One exciting development is the introduction of pentavalent vaccine — which is already being used by countries throughout the Americas, but is being administered for the first time in Haiti. This vaccine will protect children from five common diseases: tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria, hepatitis B and Hib infection.
No matter how big the problems we‘re addressing, though, sometimes we need a small reminder of why we’re working so hard. Seeing the healthy and bright-eyed “Baby Jenny” was that welcome reminder. The resilience of the Haitian people and the goodness of the American people are both reflected in the eyes of this cheerful, beautiful child.