REDMOND, Wash. — Feb. 9, 2010 — As James Cooper and his brother circled above a tiny earthquake-damaged airstrip in Haiti the Friday before last, they knew they were taking a calculated risk.
Cooper, an employee at Microsoft, and his brother John were bringing emergency supplies to a community increasingly desperate for help. In addition to the airstrip being damaged, the pair had received reports that it wasn't safe to be on the ground.
James Cooper’s brother John unloading the plane in Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti.
The brothers wanted to get a closer look at the Cap-Haitien airstrip before they committed to landing their family's Piper Seneca airplane. In the end, they decided to land—feeling it was too important to get the equipment they were transporting, especially the medical supplies, to the people who needed it.
"One flight isn't going to save Haiti, but it did save a few lives," Cooper said.
Adding to the peril of their approach, no air traffic control tower was available to guide them in. Cap-Haitien is a remote town in northern Haiti—the reason the brothers flew there was because the airstrip was too small to land larger planes.
To get the lay of the land, pilots in the area radioed each other as they approached, announcing air speed and elevation and estimating spacing for takeoffs and landings, Cooper said. They also discussed the situation on the ground, which was becoming desperate. Since the earthquake struck more than three weeks ago, basic supplies had only trickled into areas outside Port-au-Prince.
Cooper and his brother landed with $200,000 worth of medical supplies for Hôpital Sacré Coeur, the only private hospital in northern Haiti. Cooper's brother and father had flown supplies in the week before, among a handful of pilots who have volunteered to bring aid to hard-hit, hard-to-reach areas of Haiti.
The Coopers, who all live in or near New York City, felt they had to do something to help as soon as they learned the earthquake hit. "We learned on 9/11 that when catastrophic events happen, you want to do whatever you can to reach out and help people in need," said Cooper, a solution sales professional with Microsoft’s Enterprise Search Group.
Cooper’s flight was just one example of how Microsoft employees have been reaching out to help the people of Haiti. To date, more than 5,000 employees have donated $1.88 million (including matching Microsoft funds) to relief efforts, said Claire Bonilla, senior director of the company’s Disaster Management team.
Bonilla's team’s mission is to provide technology and support to help response agencies coordinate efforts and act quickly during a disaster. Two Microsoft employees have been on the ground in Haiti helping with rescue and recovery efforts, and dozens more across the company have planned fund-raisers and worked on technologies to assist with relief efforts.
James Cooper and his father Jack. The family's flights to Haiti came about through Bahamas Habitat, an organization that works with pilots to deliver critical items to isolated areas.
The Cooper family's flights to Haiti came about through Bahamas Habitat, an organization that works with pilots to deliver critical items to isolated areas. Shortly after the earthquake, the group issued a call for help, and Cooper's father and brother, both pilots for 15 years who had worked with the organization in the past, volunteered.
Bahamas Habitat was working to match planes with medical supplies, and it soon found a church in Rhode Island that had purchased a large quantity of antibiotics and baby formula.
For the first wave, James Cooper stayed in New York and handled logistics while his brother and father fetched the supplies, flew to Cap-Haitien and traveled to the hospital. Nurses awaited their arrival, pulled the medicine off the truck, and then returned immediately to surgery. The Coopers were told they had delivered enough antibiotics to save 100 babies ravaged with infection and enough formula to provide thousands of meals for infants, one of which was a 9-month-old baby who hadn't eaten for 10 days.
The supplies the Coopers delivered most recently also had an immediate impact. The Order of Malta, a charitable organization that provides assistance to the poor on five continents, had arranged for the Coopers to pick up additional antibiotics in Fort Lauderdale, which has become a staging ground for flights to Haiti. After landing in Cap-Haitien, James and his brother met representatives from Hôpital Sacré Coeur and worked quickly to unload in the muggy heat.
The medicine was then driven to the hospital, a 73-bed facility overwhelmed by more than 300 Haitians with critical injuries from the earthquake. After two weeks, injuries that had initially been relatively minor broken bones and open wounds were now life-threatening cases of infection and gangrene. Doctors at the hospital reported that the antibiotics the Coopers delivered immediately saved lives.
Before flying back to Fort Lauderdale, the Coopers picked up two doctors and two nurses who had volunteered at the hospital. Because of weight limitations, they had to leave behind everything but their passports, and crowded onto the floor of the plane as the seats had been removed to create more cargo space.
For the rest of the weekend, James Cooper ran logistics in Fort Lauderdale while his brother and his father made runs back and forth to Haiti. "Seeing a warehouse full of stacks and stacks of crutches and walkers for small children absolutely takes your breath away," Cooper said.
"A lot of people are hurting down there, but I want people to know there is hope," he said. "Even donating a small amount to places like the Red Cross or local churches can have an impact in people's lives. You don't need to build a house, but a small donation can make a real difference when someone gets the life-saving medication they need or eats for the first time in a week. Nothing goes unappreciated."