After relief mission to Haiti, former Redskin Ken Harvey describes the pain

Former Redskin Ken Harvey finds a smile in what he calls
Former Redskin Ken Harvey finds a smile in what he calls "a sea of helplessness" in Haiti. (Karen Ballard For The Washington Post)
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By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Former Redskins linebacker Ken Harvey was scheduled to return home from Haiti Tuesday night, his relief work finished for the time being and all of his senses attempting to recover from what they'd experienced the previous two days.

The visual images, he said, are much like what Americans have seen on television and in news photographs, a horrific slideshow of rubble, bodies and destruction. The full devastation can't be captured with a camera, though.

"It's hard to describe the smell," said Harvey, an NFL linebacker for 11 seasons who played in Washington from 1994 to '98. "It's a unique smell. You can smell it coming. It's death. It's bodies decaying. You want to put on your mask, but then you feel guilty because you realize that there are people that are going to have to deal with this all every day. They can't just put on a mask and pretend it doesn't exist. Even if I wanted to turn away, I can't turn away. I'm only here for a short time. But this is their life.

"You walk by, and you see a body. Well, they see one of their relatives. That smell is a reminder of everything that's happened."

Harvey was among a group of 12 that distributed about 50,000 pounds of food, clothing and medical kits to the area that was devastated by last week's earthquake. Using Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's jet, the group flew into Haiti Sunday night on a relief trip sponsored by the Redskins and Diageo, a leading beer and liquor distributor.

With a death toll that could be as high as 200,000 -- and with thousands more Haitians seeking food and shelter -- Harvey conceded in a telephone interview Tuesday that the group's efforts were modest in relation to the enormity of the need in Haiti right now.

"You don't know what to say or really what to do. It's a sea of helplessness," he said via satellite phone. "You feel like you're looking out and, man, it's just so vast."

The group arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, late Sunday night and pitched tents near the airport, alongside other relief groups from all over the world. On Monday, Harvey and his group made deliveries with the help of the United Nations World Food Programme. In addition, the Salvation Army made sure food found its way to displaced Haitians.

The group also provided medical kits to the State University Hospital in Port-au-Prince, the country's largest, and the Haiti Community Hospital. At both places, Harvey said doctors are working around the clock and dealing with an endless line of patients seeking help for injuries suffered in the earthquake.

"You realize that they're there, and they'll get their amputations," Harvey said, "and when they leave, they'll be further handicapped in a situation that's already handicapped."

Harvey said he also met with members of the military, stationed at the airport and around Port-au-Prince, who are trying to maintain order as a nation takes stock of its losses and decides how it will move forward.

Whether Harvey was talking to doctors, troops or Haitians in need of aid, the themes were similar: Everyone's looking for hope in a situation that feels increasingly hopeless.

"You're walking down the street, you see nothing but rubble. People walking around, they don't really have any place to go. You talk to people, and they're afraid to go back in their homes because things aren't structurally sound," said Harvey. "You start to realize the magnitude."

While the nation has been tossed into a state of confusion, Harvey said he hasn't witnessed mass looting; the people's shared uncertainty overshadows any chaos.

"I'm sure there's been some areas, but where I've been to, you see neighbors digging out rocks, trying to find people," he said. "You see a lot of people helping out other people."

While it was the first such trip for Harvey, through its Spirit of Americas program, Diageo has made similar disaster relief missions in the past. The Redskins also have participated in similar efforts in the past, sending aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 attacks and the Sri Lanka tsunami, among other disasters.

In addition to lending use of the jet to transport the volunteers, the Redskins also donated clothing to the mission, including gear that featured the team's name and logo, plus T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts.

"We're not a relief organization but there are times when our resources allow us to step in and make a difference, if only a small one," Snyder said in a prepared statement last week.

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