Over the past year, faculty from the University of Florida Health Science Center have spent quite a bit of time in Haiti, preparing to implement several health promotion programs at two elementary schools in Christianville, 20 miles outside of Port-au-Prince. But shortly before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, their projects were put on hold when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck, leaving the schools in shambles, says clinical psychologist Michael G. Perri, PhD, dean of UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions.

“Luckily, the earthquake happened after school hours, but we were very concerned about the folks we had been working with,” Perri says.

Not only was the UF team worried about the medical and mental health needs of these shattered communities, but they were also unsure whether the area would receive needed food, he says. A day after the earthquake, Perri says, the team received a call for help from American medical personnel working in Christianville, and they immediately began trying to travel to the country. After three days of failed attempts to fly out, the 10-person team of UF physicians, nurses and public health professionals flew to a hospital in the Dominican Republic.

When they arrived, Perri organized them into two groups — a “medical” team to offer care for the injured and a “public health” team that included Perri to travel to the schools and help manage food distribution and supplies. En route to the schools in Christianville, the team drove through Port-au-Prince and witnessed the area’s massive destruction, Perri says.

“In many places, the smell of death was unmistakable,” he says. Buildings in Christianville also suffered major structural damage, and while the area had not yet experienced a food shortage, local officials projected that a shortfall would begin two to three weeks later. To help mitigate this concern, UF volunteers traveled to a nearby community to secure additional supplies for leaders to distribute if supplies ran low.

Perri also met with Haitian leaders to assess the rebuilding process. The group plans to have at least one of the schools up and running by September, he says.

Despite their success in securing short-term help, Perri is worried about the long-term effects of the disaster, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, particularly among children.

“There were [aftershock] tremors almost every night, and following them you would hear screaming and wailing and sobbing for 15 minutes,” Perri recalls.

—A. Novotney