Auburndale's Mike Wnek brings help to Haiti by sheer force of will
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Auburndale's Mike Wnek brings help to Haiti by sheer force of will

By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer

Monday, January 18, 2010 10:54pm


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — On Monday, Mike Wnek, from Auburndale, pulled off something rarely seen on the streets of Port-au-Prince since the earthquake. He got drinks and food to hundreds of people outside in Petionville.

"We have seen no one, no U.N., no U.S., not anybody with food and water for the people out here," said Calas Jean Guteau, a Petionville policeman, who helped with what he said was the first distribution in the area.

What Wnek did on the streets of Petionville — bankrolled by the First United Methodist Church of Auburndale, and helped by a team of 10 people from Calvary Chapel in the States and a couple of volunteers from Haiti — was something that the huge agencies concentrating on the rescue effort have yet to do.

In Jimani, a border town in the Dominican Republic, Wnek, part developer and part free-wheeling negotiator, wrangled a large flatbed truck that rents for $900 a day for $400. Next, he went to a bodega on a side street and talked the owner into selling him dozens of cases of water, juice, sodas, crackers and cookies at a discounted price. He also got the owner to donate used clothes and shoes.

About noon, a small pickup, an SUV (carrying the Calvary Chapel team) and the flatbed took off for Port-au-Prince. Wnek made the three-hour trip over gravel and pocked cement roads in the bed of the flatbed, standing on top of the supplies. By the time the team reached the fringes of the capital, he was bright red and his hair was thick with dust.

In some ways Port-au-Prince is just as it was last Tuesday morning before the earthquake. Too many people walk too rapidly on the streets. Men strip cane stalks on corners and women line the roads cooking over open fires in vast aluminum bowls. And, as always, walls are sprayed with graffiti that tells who to vote for and how to get security.

But along with the bustle, ingenuity and madness that is always this city, there are signs of tragedy on every block.

People wear surgical masks or wrap T-shirts around their faces because the smell of burning charcoal sometimes gives way to the smell of rotting bodies. In Petionville, known as the most elite address in all of Haiti, the occasional body lies on the side of the street, partially wrapped in ripped, black plastic. A face shows. A mouth is open. People step over it and keep going.

Sheets on every block are painted in blood-red letters with the same plea in English, Spanish and French: "We need food, water, medicine." Two- and three-story concrete buildings are a half-story, broken facades expose lives that were normal a week ago: hardback books on a wooden shelf, yellow sheets on an unmade double bed.

People sleep outside of closed luxury hotels and restaurants known for lobster Creole and rum drinks.

St. Pierre Park, across the street from where Wnek and the team will distribute their items from the flatbed, is crammed with hundreds of tents fashioned out of beach umbrellas, sheets and tarps. The truck stops in front of the Petionville police station, across from the park.

Within seconds, hundreds of people have gathered. In a few minutes there are about a thousand. Some form a line wrapping around the block. Others circle the truck, their hands outstretched. Police take off their belts, slapping at those who step out of line. No one rushes the truck. No one demands anything. The team passes out shoes, clothes and shampoo, orange juice and water along with everything else.

"Merci" is softly repeated over and over.

In less than an hour, all but a few cases of supplies are gone and the team heads out, with Wnek standing in the bed of the supply truck.

On the outskirts of town, the small convoy stops because the big truck is spewing steam from overheating. No one knows what the breakdown means, but Wnek doesn't care. People begin to gather and he pitches out — one by one — the bottles in the two remaining cases of juice.

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