News / Americas

Cell Phones Become Lifeline for Haitian Survivors

Coast Guard volunteer Ryan Bank
Coast Guard volunteer Ryan Bank

Haitians struggling in the aftermath of last month's earthquake have been turning to cell phone text messages and Internet postings to reach out for help. The U.S. Coast Guard has been mining data from those sources to direct aid to those in need.

From a pair of computer screens in downtown Miami, Coast Guard volunteer Ryan Bank can survey the needs and the despair of Haitians in the wake of the January 12th earthquake.

"A school has 110 children trapped ... I have four children. My house is destroyed. I'm hungry. I'm asking you to help me please," he read some text messages. Those are just some of the 18,000 messages that have come into the offices of the Coast Guard's Haiti operation in Miami. Bank manages the tiny operation, scanning text messages and online services like Twitter and personal blogs.

In the days after the quake, Haitian cell phone users were unable to make phone calls, but they could send text messages and access some Internet services. As soon as those messages started coming in after the quake, Bank says he saw an opportunity. "The Coast Guard is here to save lives. And I was able to use this incredibly common and popular technologies to save lives and to help people," he said.

As a volunteer member of the Coast Guard, Bank does not get paid for the month of work he has put in so far. But he leads a growing operation that includes Haitian translators working from computers around the country, and a system to forward information to military and civilian aid crews in Haiti.

"We go through the State Department, USAID, and other agencies who are coordinating where aid goes. If it's an urban search and rescue team that needs to be dispatched, if it's MedEvac. There are a lot of resources we can call on," said Bank.

In the days after the quake, the United States also teamed with Haitian cell phone providers to dedicate a special number to receive text messages from Haitians in need. Haitians now can send a text to 4636 to ask for food and water, or to report the location of injured people.

As the recovery effort has evolved, reports of people trapped in rubble has dropped off, and more people are asking for relief supplies or reporting large groups of people in need.

In the past week, Bank received a puzzling series of text messages that suggested about 3,000 people had gathered in an area outside of Port-au-Prince. When the Haitian translators called some of the people, Bank said they confirmed the information and forwarded the details for aid crews to respond.

"These people said they were dying left and right of starvation, disease, other injuries. It's preliminary at this point, so we don't know all of the outcome [of relief efforts], but do know there is one," he said.

The traditional mission of the Coast Guard has been to find and rescue people in need, but the method Bank uses is only possible through the latest technology. Cell phones with text and Internet features are cheap and available to many Haitians. Internet tools allow Haitian translators to work from almost anywhere, processing information as quickly as possible. And rescuers can access online maps of Port-au-Prince to pinpoint the location of people in need.

Bank says the Coast Guard and aid agencies are still exploring ways to use the technology. "We're all trying to figure out what can we do with this. It's exciting to see where we go as it moves into a long-term recovery operation. And what can we do with this for the next disaster," he said.

He says one possibility is to begin processing other reports from Haitians to pass on to aid groups and other non-governmental organizations working on relief operations.

You May Like

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

Video Kenyans Lament Al-Shabab's Recruitment of Youths

VOA travels to Isiolo, where residents share their fears, struggles to get loved ones back from Somalia-based militant group More

This US Epidemic Keeps Getting Worse

One in 4 Americans suffers from this condition More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensionsi
X
May 26, 2015 11:11 PM
When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Multimedia World Reacts to FIFA Indictments

While some applaud corruption charges, Russia calls on 'Washington to stop attempts to make justice far beyond its borders'
More

UN: World Hunger Declines, But More Effort Needed

Report finds large progress in some parts of Africa, but notes that sub-Saharan Africa still has the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world
More

Maduro Rules Out Dollarizing Venezuela's Economy

Businesses struggle to obtain dollars through current currency system, leaving them unable to import raw materials or replacement parts
More

Video Galapagos Volcano Eruption Threatens Pink Iguanas

Nearly 1.8 kilometer-high Wolf volcano on Isabela Island is home to world's only population of pink iguanas, as well as variety of plants, animals
More

Video Extreme Weather Wreaks Havoc in Texas, Mexico

More than 1,000 homes damaged or destroyed in Texas, thousands of residents displaced; Tornado cleanup continues near Mexico border
More

Colombia's FARC Says End of Ceasefire a 'Step Back' in Peace Talks

Speaking from Havana, Cuba, where talks have been taking place for two and a half years, FARC Marxist leadership says peace would be unattainable if offensives intensify
More