In January of 2010, I was sitting in my room in the Hotel Caribe, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti sipping on a Coke. Haiti hadn’t experienced an earthquake in over 50 years, and all the risk assessments my team had done prior to our arrival had indicated that the greatest danger to us was from street crime or riots. My team had personal cell phones, a satellite phone, and an Embassy-issued radio on the net operated by Post One. I won’t go into details concerning the quake, as a Google search can provide you with that information, but I would like to share several things I learned:
Complacency can get you killed. Have a plan, practice it as much as you can, and don’t count on someone coming to save you. Emergency services in a catastrophic event (those that aren’t affected by the event) will be focused on the most severe injuries or most severely damaged areas. My team was required to submit a mission plan that included procedures for what to do in an emergency. Quite frankly, I did a crap job of sitting down and thinking about what could happen. I blame it on personal complacency. By this point, I had completed 2.5 years of mobile training teams on 5 continents. Nothing had ever happened, and I was in the mindset that nothing ever would. My plan for everything was the same: call the Embassy. When the earthquake hit, the initial panic and injuries among personnel (both permanent party and TDY) resulted in Post One having to assume control of the net and regulating traffic. If you weren’t severely injured, you weren’t getting through. We had a vehicle, but didn’t know how to get to the Embassy (all our driving was done by a hired driver), and we didn’t have a map. We also had no weapons. You don’t necessarily wander around certain parts of Haiti during normal daylight hours, much less when all security and social services just disappeared.
Know your equipment and how to use it. This is one reason I’m a huge fan of the Operator Band Practice Kit. All the equipment in the world won’t help you if you’re looking at it for the first time in the moment you need to use it. My team was issued a medical kit from Adventure Medical Kits, designed to treat everything from a hot spot to a gunshot wound. Nobody on my team, myself included, had ever opened the kit to actually see what was in it, or read the field medicine guide that it contained. My team also had Ultimate Survival Kits in a bottle. Like the medical kit, we had never opened those kits, and we found ourselves digging through them in the dark trying to find the batteries to put in our flashlights. Our satellite phone required a password to use, and we had rarely used it outside of checking to see if the battery was charged. Under stress, the password was forgotten, and we ended up locking the phone out.
Be prepared for a total communications failure. Due to the massive damage to the infrastructure, all cell phone service was lost. We locked out our satellite phone in the chaos, and the radio network was jammed with people needing assistance. The military teaches you to plan for up to four different methods of communications. We lost all three that we had available in a matter of minutes. During another natural disaster, Hurricane Rita, I was in Houston for the evacuation. As over 3 million people attempted to leave the city, all cell phone communication went down. The only comms that would go through were burst comms such as text or the old Sprint push-to-talk phones. And this happened before the hurricane even came ashore.
Stay calm. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, because you’ve been told this a thousand times. I can tell you that it is imperative, and a lot harder than it sounds. Once the world stopped shaking, the only thing I could think about was getting us out of the hotel. There were two exits from the hallway, one into the lobby, and one into a stairwell. The exit into the lobby was partially blocked by fallen debris, including what appeared to be electrical wiring. The exit toward the stairs was only slightly better. I was preparing to head down the hall toward the stairs when one of my guys pointed out that we were only on the second floor, each room had a balcony, and there was a landscaping feature that reduced our drop from the balcony to less than 5 feet. That little fact made our exit significantly safer, not to mention easier. After we realized that we weren’t trapped, it made it a little easier to calm down, which allowed us to prioritize the equipment we needed to take with us. We initially escaped with our med kit, survival kits, water, some snacks, and our sat phone. As the evening wore on, we eventually had to go back to get some clothing to share with other hotel guests, but our initial evacuation left the three of us pretty equipped to make it through at least the night.
They say that without self-reflection and critique, you can never make progress. Well, what you’ve just read represents a stinging critique of my mindset and preparation at the time. A lot of it may be old hat to the guys on here that have multiple combat tours under their belt, but hopefully this will be useful to someone, and my mistakes can help you be more prepared.
All photos were taken the next morning, after we had gone back in to get the last of our personal gear before being evacuated to the Dominican Republic.
About the author:
Woody is an 11 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.