SCHROON LAKE - The earthquake devastation in Haiti has left Aimee Lavarnway speechless.
"I don't even know what to say," she remarked.
Lavarnway, a 1997 Schroon Lake Central School graduate, has worked in Haiti as part of the Engineers Without Borders program, helping local residents improve their water systems.
She was scheduled to return next month, but that trip is on hold indefinitely as Haiti deals with the aftermath of a 7.0-magnitude quake that rocked the impoverished nation on Jan. 12.
More than 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed.
"Some of us are still in regular contact with the Port-au-Prince-based guys that we've traveled with and I can't even begin to imagine what they're going through," Lavarnway said. "One of them said it's like they're living in a war zone. Another sent me a text message yesterday (Jan. 20) that said they had finally found his aunt and they had to bury her in her yard.
"People are just terrified," she continued. "There were two more aftershocks so far today - there have been more than 50 total, all with magnitudes of 4.2 or greater - and I get texts saying how everyone is freaking out every time. They're afraid to be inside. A hospital in Petion-Ville (a suburb of Port-au-Prince) has occasional posts on Facebook and they said that during the aftershocks, there is chaos while the patients all panic and their family members try to carry them outside.
"Our contact who works in Les Anglais and lives in Les Cayes said last week that he already knew that he had lost 40-45 friends and family members," Lavarnway said. "There are very few jobs in the provinces, so pretty much every family in the country has at least one member who had moved to Port-au-Prince to try to find work. A Haitian well driller based in Les Cayes emailed last Saturday and said that his parents were living in Port-au-Prince and that he still hadn't been able to contact them."
While most of the damage was in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, the aftermath is stressing rural areas as people flee the city.
"Other contacts in Les Cayes, probably about 100 miles from Port-au-Prince, said that people are walking there from the city," Lavarnway said. "Some people there are estimating that the population of their city will likely double as a result of the mass exodus from Port-au-Prince.
"The huge influx of people fleeing the city is going to have an enormous effect on all the smaller communities where water and food were already scarce," she said.
Lavarnway is a geotechnical engineer for Shannon & Wilson, Inc. in Portland, Ore. She specializes in subsurface investigations, foundation design, landslide mitigation, seismic hazard analysis, retaining wall design and construction monitoring. She has a bachelor's degrees in civic engineering in geology from Lafayette College and a master's in geological sciences from the University of Notre Dame.
She is the daughter of Mary and Kevin Lavarnway of Schroon Lake.
Through Engineers Without Borders Lavarnway worked in Les Anglais, about a 125-mile drive from Port-au-Prince, last June.
"Two spring-fed distribution systems were constructed in the mid-80s and were still functioning when we started," Lavarnway explained. "Our initial task is to provide water treatment for these systems because they are both contaminated with bacteria and people get sick. They then sustained damage during the series of four hurricanes that hit Haiti in 2008. A group went for a site assessment trip in February 2009, which ended up also including some substantial repairs to some of the damaged pipes.
"We had heard that there were still some portions of the larger system that were not functioning properly and that the flow of water from the spring to the reservoir was much slower than it had been before the hurricanes," she said. "Our main goals for that trip were to assist the plumbers in resuming full flow to the reservoir and install a chlorine tablet feeder on that system, as well as continue communicating with the community leaders on their goals and needs. We ended up getting the full flow restored, meeting with several community members, and beginning an assessment of the other distribution system."
Lavarnway was to go back to Haiti next month to finish the project. That trip is now in doubt.
"The primary objective of the trip we had planned for February was to install a chlorinator on the bigger reservoir and train the community on its use and maintenance," she said.
"Although we no longer have a concrete schedule for when we will be able to return, we are maintaining contact with our friends there and will reschedule the trip as soon as enough stability has returned that our trip support team will feel able to leave Port-au-Prince and is able to obtain the materials we will need," she said. "Ideally, we would like to travel before the hurricane season begins in July as the need for clean water in Les Anglais is only increasing."