Volunteers stranded in Haiti during quake

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 12 affected and continues to affect people across the world.  With estimates of 150,000 dead and more now homeless, there is an international effort to help rebuild and comfort a country that had previously been plagued by poverty and unemployment. In addition to the fundraising and support work done across the nation and the world, members of the RPI community have found ways to support the people of Haiti prior to and after the earthquake.

  A group of four RPI students and four volunteers, including a professor from RPI, were working in Haiti prior to the Earthquake on a solar powered computer classroom in the rural town of Lascahobas. Students Andrew Chung ’12, Gloria Yaroslava Condon ’12, Casey McEvoy ’11 and Alex Worcester ’11, of Engineers for a Sustainable World travelled with Professor Michael Jensen of the Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering Department, Tim Schmehl, Bill Daniel of the St. John’s Episcopal Church of Troy, and Jude Pierre of General Electric to work with the School of the Holy Spirit of Lascahobas, which is located roughly 30 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince. Schmehl is involved with both GE and St. John’s Episcopal Church and is also a board member of To Love a Child, which also contributed to the project.

The project involves the design and installation of a solar powered classroom for the School of the Holy Spirit of Lascahobas. Last spring Schmehl travelled to Haiti to install a small solar power system at the school and also to identify opportunities to provide more power to the school through a larger installation. Father Milor, who runs the school, expressed the idea of powering a computer lab, which led to the more recent work.

Working from January 5–12, the group installed a larger solar power system at the school, painted classrooms, and installed compact fluorescent lights in the classrooms. The 12 new solar panels, donated by GE, brought an additional 2.4 kilowatts to the system. The solar powered system can be used to charge laptop batteries and provide power for the desktops and printers already there.  Laptops, which were donated by RPI and One Laptop Per Child, help address the scarcity in educational material, since text books and other school supplies are limited and are also more suited to the intermittent power sources in the area.  About the trip, Jensen stated that, “Going to a place like Haiti really illustrates how fortunate we are in this country.”

In addition to providing the materials to improve the school, the group interacted with teachers and students to show how to use the computers. Chung, who joined ESW out of his interests in engineering and helping the community, helped install software and create shortcuts for the teachers and students. Worcester, an Electrical Engineering Major, navigated the English-Creole language barrier in order to work with a physics teacher while wiring the solar power system.

The students, Schmehl, Daniel, and Pierre were in Lascahobas at the time the earthquake hit on January 12.  Described as brief but terrifying by Worcester, the group survived unharmed. The impact of the earthquake was not clear to the group until they saw information online and the damage to the main airport that prevented their planned departure on Wednesday, January 12. Schmehl was able to arrange their return home, which required that the group drive to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in order to fly back to JFK on Saturday, January 16.

According to Jensen and Schmehl, the group anticipates a continued connection with Father Milor, and Schmehl looks to address issues relating to providing power and water to some of the more isolated communities around Lascahobas in addition to new challenges arising from the earthquake. In an e-mail to the RPI community on January 15, Jackson announced a fundraising effort by the Institute towards three charities: AmeriCares, Oxfam America, and Save the Children. Rensselaer had also donated to these charities in 2005 towards Tsunami Relief in South Asia. According to Chief of Staff and Associate Vice President for Policy and Planning Laban Coblentz, the president’s office felt that they had made an effort to feed, house, and give medical attention to those in need.  

In addition to donating $10,000 to each agency, RPI matched any donations contributed to the Rensselaer effort. The deadline for matching contributions has been extended to January 31 in order to allow more members of the Rensselaer community to participate. Laura Salvati, administrative coordinator for the vice president for finance, has been coordinating the receipt of donations. Coblentz stated that the Institute has been pleased with the strong response from the community, seeing that the amount raised, over $10,000, is already more than double that raised for the 2005 Tsunami Relief effort.