Bay Area Family Tells Haiti Survivor Story

Sunday, Jan 17, 2010  |  Updated 10:00 AM PDT
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Dramatic Photos: Earthquake Aftermath in Haiti

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An Oakland civil rights attorney and his wife arrived back at home  this afternoon after surviving Tuesday's devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake  in Haiti.

     Walter Riley, 65, chair of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund in  Berkeley, landed at San Francisco International Airport early this afternoon  and arrived home in Oakland a short time later.      Riley, the father of well-known Bay Area hip-hop artist Boots  Riley, traveled to Haiti on Jan. 8 with his wife, Barbara Rhine, 65, and his  30-year-old stepdaughter Selena Rhine, who lives in New York.
     He said by phone from Oakland this afternoon that his family is  OK.
     "We are fine. We're physically fine, Barbara has a smashed  finger," an injury that occurred the day after the earthquake, Riley said.  "We're just angry with the slowness of the rescue efforts, the fact that  people are dying unnecessarily."
     It was Riley's first time in Haiti and he had been excited to get  to know the country and identify new ways his organization could help.  Established in 2004, the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund has provided support in  areas including education, sustainable agriculture and women's rights,  according to its Web site.
     Riley and his family were at a fellow activist's home in a  Port-au-Prince neighborhood behind the presidential palace when the  earthquake hit.  He described the temblor as "interminably long."
     "I was (in the Bay Area) in '89 and it was a lot longer than  that," he said. "I kept thinking we may not make it outside."
     The house shifted and cracked, but didn't collapse. When they went  outside, they were met with massive destruction, he said.
     "Imagine seeing everything around you falling down and crumbling,"  Riley said.
     Buildings had collapsed, with walls crushing parked cars, and a  hospital up the street "pancaked" on itself, he said.
     Riley, his family and his hosts eventually began to set up a  makeshift hospital in his hosts' yard. Over the next day and a half, wounded  people streamed into the yard with head wounds, deep cuts and broken bones,  he said. No one there had a medical background, and the group used whatever  they could find for supplies.
     "We had a number of bottles of peroxide, a few little dishwasher  soaps," he said.
     On Thursday, Riley and his family made their way to the U.S.  embassy.
     "We got there by driving and there was some concern because we  didn't have enough gas and resources were running out," he said. "Soldiers  and policemen were taking the gas."
     They made it, however, and camped out Thursday night. On Friday,  they were able to board a military C-130 cargo plane and were flown to New  Jersey.
     Now back home, Riley is left with jarring memories and a sense of  outrage over the lack of aid reaching the earthquake victims.
     "I don't know what the holdup is," he said.
     He had heard about the overcrowding on the runway at the  Port-au-Prince airport and the problems at the port, but said that is no  excuse.
     "Even if they're not the total package, you can put somebody out  there with clean bandages and alcohol," he said. "There's plenty of people  who want to do it."
     Riley likened the situation to Hurricane Katrina and pointed out  that the flat, fenced-off space in front of the presidential palace could be  used to land helicopters.
     "There's enough space in there for 20 helicopters, and that's  right in the center of everything," Riley said.
     Sister Maureen Duignan, executive director of the East Bay  Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley and co-chair of the Haiti Emergency Relief  Project, said she was relieved to learn Riley and his family had survived.
     "It was a matter of great concern to all of us," she said. "We're  just so grateful that they're OK."
     She said volunteers with the organization work with students at  several schools in Port-au-Prince, including in the shantytown of Cite  Soleil. She said she had heard through word of mouth that the students had  survived.
     Sister Duignan also works with Bay Area Haitians on immigration  issues and said at least a handful of them will benefit from President  Obama's decision to grant illegal Haitian immigrants "protected" status,  allowing them to live and work here for the next 18 months.
     One Haitian living in the Bay Area lost a niece and a nephew in  the earthquake; another is frantically trying to make contact with her mother  in Haiti, she said.
     Sister Duignan offered "deep condolences and solidarity" to the  people of Haiti.
     "We encourage anybody who can support them in this terrible  tragedy they've gone through so their country can be built up," she said.  "They're really resilient people, so I see how they can come through."
     To donate through the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, visit  www.haitiaction.net and click on the link on the upper left corner of the  screen. Checks can be made out to the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant at 2362  Bancroft Way, Berkeley, 94704. Donors should note that the check is intended  for the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund.
     The American Red Cross is accepting donations by phone at (800)  RED-CROSS, or (800) 257-7575; on its Web site at www.redcross.org; or by  text. Those wishing to donate $10 by text message can text "HAITI" to 90999.
 

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