Physically, Danny Yates is home, but his mind, heart and spirit remain in Haiti.
A freshman at William & Mary, Yates flew into Richmond Sunday night from the earthquake-ravaged country and the people he holds so precious. Part of a five-member church mission group that was in Haiti when the disaster struck, Yates said he promised a friend there that he “would do everything he could” to bring relief to the people he left behind.
“And I’m going to make good on my promise,” he vowed.
Two other W&M students returned from Port-au-Prince last Thursday afternoon.
Graduate student Landon Yarrington and recent graduate Jonna Knappenberger, both in the country doing independent research, were sitting on a car on a Port-au-Prince street when the earthquake occurred. The home in which they were staying was flattened, and all of the possessions inside were destroyed. That included passports and all forms of identification.
Yarrington helped set up a makeshift triage unit that at one point was filled with more than 200 injured. Knappenberger accompanied a couple of Pakistani United Nations workers to a camp outside of the city where she was finally able to contact family and W&M officials that she and her partner were safe. Eventually, the two met a Miami doctor who had flown his private plane into the disaster area. He offered them a ride to Fort Lauderdale.
While the couple admits to having some guilty feelings about leaving behind so much suffering, Yates viewed his departure as the start of his personal relief effort.
“We were only another four mouths for them to feed,” he said. “People were pulling some strings for us, while other people were suffering terribly. I just felt like we needed to get out of there, and let them turn their attention where it belonged.”
Yates will participate in the start of second-semester classes at the College Wednesday through Friday before returning home to Richmond this weekend. He wants to visit churches in the capital, share his experience with them, beg them to open their hearts and their wallets.
As part of that effort, he has created a web site --http://hincherelief.wordpress.com -- that features news from his friends and clergy working feverishly, as well as a method of donating money.
Yates will attend Wednesday's campus meeting of the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship. The student-run meeting, which will include input from faculty and staff, will focus on creating and moving forward with a College-wide Haitian relief effort. The meeting starts at 5 p.m. on the second floor of Blow Hall.
“My effort -- and I would encourage them to make it their effort, too -- is not in the disaster zone,” Yates said Tuesday afternoon from home. “My effort is on the outlying areas, and helping people who have no way of helping themselves.
“The truth is that the death toll after the quake may far exceed the death toll from the quake itself.”
Yates’ group was 50 miles from Port-au-Prince, near the Dominican Republic border city of Hinche, at the time of the quake. It is Haiti’s second-largest city, with a population of 50,000.
“The quake there was estimated at about 4.0,” he said. “We felt it, but it was like being on a boat. There wasn’t even any structural damage. We went about our activities. No one knew what had happened in Port-au-Prince until that night, and that’s when it sunk in with people what had happened to their country.”
While other members of the group began working on how to get out of the country, Yates served as a French and Creole interpreter for a couple of priests who offered what aid they could.
Within 24 hours of the quake, truckloads of refugees entered Hinche.
“I spoke to someone (Tuesday) who told me that the population of Hinche had either doubled or tripled,” Yates said. “This is a city that normally doesn’t have enough food or water or electricity for its residents. The hospitals were overflowing.
“I compare it to Hurricane Katrina. People from New Orleans traveled to Houston and other cities. There, they at least found working hospitals. When you’ve been in something like this earthquake, and your only refuge is to go to a city poorer than Port-au-Prince, that’s when people become angry.”
Yates spoke Tuesday with a Haitian friend who operates a radio station in Hinche.
“He told me people were at his gate, banging to be let in, banging for food,” Yates said. “He has nothing to give them, and he has no gas to go out to look for any.”