On Tuesday, 12 January 2010 Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, resulting in 170,000 dead and 250,000 buildings flattened or severely damaged.
This article focuses on the Church of Scientology's Volunteer Ministers contribution to the relief effort that followed. The Volunteer Minister blog has an official account. It is of course presently unfinished. Like others in this series, it is intended to be informational rather than polemical.
The CoS had a small presence in Haiti in the form of a Global Pioneers branch, its Dianetics missionary program. Critical article on this : Scientology Targets Haiti For Slave Labor
A webpage claims that the Global Pioneers are active, but CoS coverage of the earthquake has not mentioned them at all.
VMs in Washington DC assisted at the Haitian Embassy from the start. The first CoS organised relief flight left JFK New York on 16 January, carrying VMs, 133 medical staff from the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad and paramedics from the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps. This became the norm for later flights, with the CoS offering a ride in to other groups. WPIX NY report with video from JFK airport.
On 14(?) January an Israeli medical team were the first to reach the General Hospital in the capital. A quote from their report (near bottom of webpage) shows how horrific the situation was:
The Israeli medical professionals of IsraAID - F.I.R.S.T., in conjunction with Latet, traveled to the main Port-au-prince Hospital to start treating patients, joining local physicians at the site of the collapsed central hospital, where thousands of wounded have gathered desperate for help.
"The scenes in the hospital were horrible; we saw people everywhere - on the floors in the building and outside; people with amputations and bone-deep wounds, hundreds of them. The size of the catastrophe is unbelievable. All of the injured were treated, until we came, by only one local doctor, and we were the first foreign backup team to operate in the hospital," said Nurse Sheva Cohen from Kibbutz Ein Yahav in the Negev.
When the team arrived at the hospital, they found most of the injured outside the building, lying in beds in the building's garden, probably out of fear of aftershocks and further collapse. The IsraAID team set up treatment rooms in four empty rooms, treating 60 patients with IV and administered medicine. While in the hospital, an infant with 60% burns died, and bodies that had not yet been removed for burial were piled up in back.
The VMs seem to have arrived on the 18th. At first they were reportedly turned away:
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - A small group of Scientologists in bright yellow T-shirts tried to get into the city's main General Hospital but were turned away by U.S. troops guarding the door.
The soldiers let in only family members bringing food to patients already inside.
The Church of Scientology, better known for claiming to cure distress by ridding people of parasitic ghosts called thetans, says it sent doctors and nurses to Haiti to help medical teams and "provide spiritual first aid."
The VM blog says that the VMs obtained permission from a Haitian official to enter the hospital, possibly the same day
By 18 January, the media had become confused. A declaration by scientologist John Travolta that he intended to organise flights to Haiti caused CoS organised efforts to be attributed to him. In fact the CoS and Travolta used different charter companies (which donated the planes), as Travolta later explained (see below).
Internet Media such as Gawker which had been previously critical of the VMs were hostile from the start.
In her January 22 piece for The Guardian Don't panic Haiti, the Scientologists are coming! Marina Hyde looked back at previous criticism of the VMs as detailed on other pages here.
The principal bottleneck for aid was that there was one runway and little parking space at Haiti's only airport. For a few days until a priority plan was in place planes were being queued up as they arrived. The media chose as its contrast Médecins Sans Frontières - and Scientology, as Channel 4 UK noted on 22 January.
A 22 January Press Release summarised progress.
Ellen, a VM on the first flight from Los Angeles, started a blog. She was assigned to the General Hospital.
An Agence France Presse report Scientologists 'heal' Haiti quake victims using touch on 22 January was picked up by a number of outlets.The Global Pioneers emergency webpage referred to above had a summary of Major Acheivements Jan 15 - Jan 22 which is worth reposting:
- We got the US Government to include us as part of the "Joint Command" of US and UN Military working with the 5 approved NGOs under the US Southern Command. This entitled us to land and operate a Command Post out of the airport in Port Au Prince.
- First Ever chartered Scientology flight.
- First ever combined collaboration project with VMs, Doctors, EMTs and other humanitarian groups working side by side to help Haiti, sponsored and coordinated by The Church of Scientology VMs.
- Over 300 DRs, EMTs, and VMs sent to Haiti in two chartered flights to Haiti with more coming.
- Over $100,000. worth of medical equipment sent to Haiti.
- Thousands of calls and emails from people wanting to help.
- Thousands of dollars worth of food and water sent.
- VMs put in charge of all Doctors and supplies that come in to the airport, registration and distribution.
- VM Base set up in Dominican Republic to coordinate and help furnish supplies, food, water, gas and VMs to and from Haiti. This base is in full time operation. Three Van loads of supplies and a team of Mexican VMs have been sent to Haiti so far as well as establishing a communication line to make it possible to communicate easily from Haiti to DR.
- The DR Governments Ministry of Public Health's agreement to work together to help with their difficulties, and to get supported by the VMs and our medical contacts and to unite resources.
- The key here now is to reach as many people as people with our tech and bringing more aid to victims so that they can get relief. Once this is under control, to start the rebuilding efforts. We have resources, contacts, people, ideas, groups and more support coming. We need to band together and give these people all the help they need. Everyone can make a difference. This is a time now where the whole world is getting involved and we are leading the way.
Lets give it all we have got.
Lives are counting on it.
President - Global Pioneers
The CoS also issued a Press Release summary 23 January.
On 24 January came a serious glitch. Press had been invited to JFK Airport to see the second CoS New York flight depart, but confusion apparently caused by a missing passenger list resulted in the plane leaving some aid workers behind.
On the Dr Phil show 26 January VMs were visible in the background during a report from the University of Miami's field hospital at the airport. An Al-Jazeera report 'faith factor in Haiti aid effort' the same day covered both the VMs and 'Operation Blessing', a Christian Baptist group. The latter claimed to be bringing in three planes per day.
On the night of 25/26 January John Travolta piloted his own 707 jet to Haiti. He had previously sent a smaller Gulfstream aircraft on which scientologist photographer Brad Krugler hitched a ride. This attracted much publicity, other Hollywood stars had visited Haiti but had not been noticed by the Press.David Letterman show 3 February as reported in the Daily Mail:
'I sent two planes down,' he said.
'One I flew down and an earlier one that a friend called and said he was going in that direction and could I find supplies and people to put on it.
'The first one was easy, I contacted my church and they had supplies and people to put on that. The second one was a little more difficult because my people had to go shopping for goods and also contact all the hospitals in Florida to donate goods. They all ended up donating about seven-tonnes of goods. The church contacted 22 doctors and we put them on the plane along with the supplies.'
Once in Haiti, Travolta said he stayed with the supplies and guarded them. He said: 'I had to make sure those supplies stayed with the doctors because that was the operative idea and there was a lot of dropping off goods and disappearing goods.
'I stuck around and made sure they were guarded so in the morning when the doctors woke up it was like a store and they could go shopping for surgical supplies, diapers for the orphans and milk, baby formula - whatever they needed to perform operations or feed the kids.
Like a lot of what Travolta says this is confused. By 26 January the US Army was guarding the 'Base Camps' of the NGOs around the airport including that of the VMs. As Krugler's photos show, there were plenty of soldiers and the entire VM team out to greet Travolta, and no one was going to steal anything. There were however a lot of photo op publicity pictures taken...
My suspicion is that Travolta was allowed in for the publicity (which his trip certainly received).
In reporting on this however most newspapers mixed in another AFP article filed the same day. This again had a disparaging tone, and the reprints cut out all positive points made in it.
The UK Independent had an highly critical article 27 January Scientology plants its flag in Haiti, to the extent of quoting L Ron Hubbard's admittedly appalling 'Casualty Contact' advice on visiting hospital beds to recruit members.An official VM video summary was posted on 28 January. It appears to show the first New York flight and the General Hospital, ending with stills of VM midwife Karen Farrell.
Back home the International Association of Scientologists (IAS) was soliciting donations from members:
The Volunteer Ministers have already become a stable point for the relief efforts in Haiti, assisting in organizing the new medical teams arriving as well as working in the local General Hospital to organize the lines and deliver assists to those in need.
On Thursday the second charter flight left to Haiti from Los Angeles with more Volunteer Ministers, additional Doctors and other specialists to expand the forces on the ground assisting in Haiti, and a third flight just arrived from JFK. We now have over 100 Volunteer Ministers on the ground.
It is vital that we have the continued assistance of all IAS members to keep these activities going. Sincerely,
On behalf of the IAS
The Volunteer Minister blog 29 January had another summary.
Karen Farrell was so far as I can tell the only VM with a medical qualification on the first flights. She worked as a midwife at the General Hospital for a week.
A Florida journalist included the VMs working with the Miami University team in his roundup report:
Critics have accused Scientologists of taking advantage of disasters as an opportunity to proselytize. Scientology recruiting questionnaires are known to seek out people's insecurities and vulnerabilities and disaster victims are at least temporarily full of those, critics say.
But Michael Kelley, an official at the University of Miami Medical School campus in Boca Raton, apparently saw none of that at the tent hospital.
"They are running the big supply tent here, which is a tough, thankless job," Kelley said. "You can think what you want about their beliefs, but they work their tails off in these situations."
The New York Times blog section ran a critical report on the VMs as well as a Baptist group who were allegedly kidnapping children for involuntary adoption in the USA.