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New Jersey base gets evacuees from Haiti on road home

by Staff Sgt. Danielle Johnson
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs

1/18/2010 - JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. (AFNS) -- A flight carrying 44 evacuees arrived here late Jan. 16 in a continuing effort to assist U.S. citizens in Haiti after the country was devastated by a 7.0-maginitude earthquake Tuesday.

Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst personnel, along with civilian agencies and individual volunteers, have assisted nearly 500 people evacuated from Haiti since receiving the first flight of evacuees early Jan. 15.

Customs officers screened passengers upon their arrival before they climbed onto a bus to the passenger terminal for further screening. Master at Arms 2nd Class Ashley Bidon, military working dog handler at Lakehurst, led MWD Bady through a search of the baggage. MA2 Bidon then signaled the all clear to Airmen of the 305th Aerial Port Squadron. The Airmen offloaded the suitcases and bags to a truck before transporting them to the passenger terminal. The bags were X-rayed and physically screened before returning them to the passengers.

Many evacuees shared stories of their experiences during and after the earthquake while processing at the terminal. One woman described the sleepless nights spent in their backyard for fear the house would collapse during one of the aftershocks. The worst, she said, was the first night after the earthquake, when the air was filled with the cries of those who had lost loved ones or who were injured.

Evacuees needing urgent medical attention were taken by ambulance to the emergency room off-base while the rest were taken to the McGuire Fitness Center. There, 87th Air Base Wing personnel, other support organizations and volunteers had set up a temporary shelter where evacuees could rest, eat and shower while they made arrangements for transportation to their homes or to stay with family and friends in the U.S.

The reception center at JB MDL was the only center in the U.S. until Jan. 16, when additional centers were set up at Orlando International Airport and Pope Air Force Base, N.C.

Joint base personnel had the fitness center ready to receive evacuees in about three hours after receiving the tasking, and took in the first flight of evacuees shortly after, said Capt. Doug Steinert, 87th Communications Squadron, who provided a welcome briefing to all evacuees explaining the rules of the center and what services are available. The center can handle approximately 300 people at a time. Volunteers and State Department personnel have been able to assist evacuees with travel arrangements within 24 hours of their arrival to the base, he said.

Evacuees signed in to the center and received a wrist band identifying them as guests of the center. They each received a cot and any other basic necessities they may need. Volunteers helped them sort through donated clothes, shoes, baby items such as diapers and wipes, and hygiene products to find exactly what they needed.

"It's horrible to know there are so many other families who are displaced and hurt and who have had to go through the devastation of the earthquake," said Capt. Jennifer Williams, a McGuire Civil Air Patrol Composite Squadron member whose husband and two children also volunteered to help at the center. "It brings us pleasure just to be able to support them, and it's wonderful to be able to do it as a family."

Other services at the center include interpreters for those who don't speak English, three meals a day, phones and computers for evacuees to contact their families and make travel arrangements. A bus schedule is also set up to take them to the Philadelphia and Newark airports.

Medical personnel are also on hand to treat minor injuries and illnesses, check blood sugar levels and provide prescription medicines to those who may not have been able to bring their medications with them. Though a few patients were taken to the emergency room for broken bones or other injuries incurred from fallen debris, most were treated for minor cuts or cold and flu symptoms.

Joint base chaplains are available to meet any spiritual needs the evacuees may have or even just provide counseling.

Nearly all evacuees settled in for a full night's rest before beginning their journey home to see their family and friends, many too exhausted to speak. For the volunteers and servicemembers working around the clock, the expressions of relief and gratitude on the families' faces made the effort worthwhile.

"I'm just thankful that these people are safe," said Captain Williams. "We are continuing to pray for those who are still in harm's way - still devastated - for restoration and for all the help they need to restore their country. Whatever else we can do to help - we are here for that."

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