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Keeping Haiti in their hearts

The entrance to Hospital Bernard Mevs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where employees of an Albuquerque company recently helped install a large rooftop solar system.  (COURTESY OF UNIRAC)
The entrance to Hospital Bernard Mevs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where employees of an Albuquerque company recently helped install a large rooftop solar system. (COURTESY OF UNIRAC)
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Employees of Unirac, from left, CEO Peter Lorenz, Andy Davidson, Greg Barnes and Keith Hardy. The four recently volunteered in Haiti and said the experience persuaded them to continue to work in the earthquake-torn nation. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Employees of Unirac, from left, CEO Peter Lorenz, Andy Davidson, Greg Barnes and Keith Hardy. The four recently volunteered in Haiti and said the experience persuaded them to continue to work in the earthquake-torn nation. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The earthquake that devastated Haiti struck just outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, on Jan. 10, 2010, killing nearly a quarter of a million people, injuring hundreds of thousands more and leaving millions of Haitians homeless.

The damage was so great, the photographs of mountains of rubble, teeming tent cities and throngs of amputees so affecting, that billions of dollars in aid poured in to the island nation and flights were filled with medical and relief workers.

This January, on the third anniversary of the disaster, many news organizations revisited Haiti to look at the effects of relief efforts. Despite an outpouring of aid, the progress report was grim: Hundreds of thousands of people were still living in tent camps. Tropical storms had severely damaged food crops and added to hunger. More than a third of the hospitals were still not functioning. And a cholera epidemic had killed several thousand and further taxed a medical system in crisis.

Many of the reports spoke of “donor fatigue” – an international aid community that was tapped out or worn out trying to help Haiti rebuild.

So it was all the more interesting to visit the offices of Unirac, an Albuquerque company that manufactures and installs components used to mount solar arrays.

Andy Davidson, one of four Unirac employees who made the trip to Haiti, tightens a solar panel on a mounting bracket atop Hospital Bernard Mevs. The array will save the hospital on electricity costs and ensure uninterrupted power. (COURTESY OF UNIRAC)

Andy Davidson, one of four Unirac employees who made the trip to Haiti, tightens a solar panel on a mounting bracket atop Hospital Bernard Mevs. The array will save the hospital on electricity costs and ensure uninterrupted power. (COURTESY OF UNIRAC)

Unirac, a firm of about 30 people tucked into an industrial strip off Broadway and Mountain, is new to helping Haiti. Its CEO and three employees recently returned from a trip to Port-au-Prince, where they spent several days sweating on the roof of Haiti’s only trauma care and rehabilitation hospital helping to install 440 solar modules. Unirac donated its mounting systems and employees’ time. They came back energized, not fatigued, despite the overwhelming need they encountered there.

Unirac CEO Peter Lorenz and three senior employees in sales and service – Greg Barnes, Andy Davidson and Keith Hardy – sat down to tell me about their Haiti work and what it meant to them, and they told me they got a taste of Haiti’s unpredictable electrical grid as soon as they landed at Port-au-Prince in mid March.

“Right there in the airport,” Davidson said.

“The baggage carousel stopped twice,” Hardy said.

After that, the three-day trip turned more promising. Although they witnessed poverty that appeared more widespread and desperate than anything they had seen before, the men came back convinced that solar energy can make a huge impact on daily life in Haiti.

“It’s considered a great solution for the unique challenges they have,” Lorenz said, “which is electricity is expensive and it’s unreliable.”

Unirac had become familiar with Haiti last year when it designed and sold a mounting system to NRG Energy Inc., a major electrical utility, for a solar installation NRG was donating to a Haitian orphanage. Unirac designed the rooftop mounting system to withstand hurricane-force winds, delivered it to NRG and had no more involvement in the project, except to get an email two months later reporting that the system had stood up to Hurricane Isaac.

When NRG decided to do more charity work in Haiti this year and was looking for mounting for the solar system at Hospital Bernard Mevs, Lorenz said he decided to help on a larger scale – by donating the system and bringing along employees to help put it in.

They were in the country for only three days and spent most of the time on the hospital’s roof, where the temperature was in the 90s, the relative humidity was 75 percent and the safety officer demonstrating how to handle the heat fainted from heatstroke.

Like many volunteers and NGO members, they were accompanied by armed guards when they left the hospital, a precaution because kidnappings are common. On their travels around the city, they saw amputees and tent encampments and aggressive begging and selling.

“There seemed like a level of desperation there you don’t see elsewhere,” Davidson said. “When you look in their eyes, you feel a desperation. It is really overwhelming.”

“You see they need so much help, and you wonder where it’s going to come from,” Barnes said.

They also found that their product – solar power – had an immediate and lasting impact.

The cost of electricity in Haiti is four times what it is in the United States, even though Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. The nation’s electrical grid is primitive, and power goes out frequently and stays out for hours.

Imagine trying to run a country’s only critical care and trauma hospital with expensive electricity that blacks out for hours at a time. The effect of the few days Unirac and NRG employees spent in Port-au-Prince and the solar equipment they donated will make a huge difference at the hospital.

The system is big – 440 modules that each produce 275 kilowatt-hours – and comes with battery backup for three days. It means that Bernard Mevs can spend what it saves on its electricity budget on medical care and that it will never lose power.

Lorenz said Unirac is committed to doing more projects in Haiti with NRG and plans to bring a larger group of employees on the next trip.

“The level of poverty there, the desperation in the eyes. No matter who you are or where you come from in life, you reconnect with humanity at a very different level afterwards,” Lorenz said. “You can’t just go back to normal.”

One of the sites Lorenz looked at for a possible future project was next to a slum called Cité Soleil, an impoverished tent city with no electricity, no running water and no police, where half a million people live.

Seeing such need and the impact they could make in just a few days helped to cement the decision to continue to focus Unirac’s charity efforts on Haiti.

“Haiti’s taken a spot in the heart of the organization,” Hardy said. “The benefit is so significant over there.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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