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For Lexington aid worker, Haiti disaster is unimaginable in scope

Lexington native Sara Coppler is no stranger to disaster.

The University of Kentucky graduate has led response efforts in some of the poorest and hardest-hit parts of the planet, including Africa, Afghanistan and other parts of Asia.

But even with her experience as head of Habitat for Humanity's tsunami response team in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, the scope of effort necessary to rebuild Haiti is daunting.

"First of all, it's an urban disaster. It's an incredibly dense population. Next, it's difficult terrain. People forget Haiti is mountainous. It's a hillside, urban environment. Then there's the amount of devastation," Coppler said, ticking off the problems facing those who are helping the 1.5 million people left homeless by the devastating earthquake in January.

It's a reality she's facing head-on as director of operations for Habitat's Haiti Disaster Response program.

Coppler is one of many Kentuckians who felt called to help a nation in need, either through church mission trips to repair schools or through ongoing relief efforts of groups such as Richmond-based Christian Flights International.

Habitat has set a goal of serving 50,000 families, whether with home repairs or new shelters.

The 7.0-magnitude quake affected all sectors of the country, from the poorest residents in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to the presidential palace and the United Nations headquarters. Habitat's headquarters also was destroyed.

When Coppler moved from Lexington to Haiti in February, Habitat and other aid groups focused on the immediate needs of a population literally living in the streets. They provided what's known as transitional housing, meant to provide shelter but to last a short time at best.

For Habitat, since housing is at the heart of its mission, "transitional isn't enough," Coppler said. "Our transitional shelter is becoming more upgradable."

Habitat also has developed its "core house," a simple block building that has a permanent foundation and can be expanded as the family's resources allow.

Habitat has been working in Haiti for 26 years, but efforts since the quake have spread. A new resource center has been set up in Léogâne, in addition to the existing ones in Cap-Haïtien, Gonaïves and Cabaret. More are planned for Jacmel, Carrefour and Croix-des-Bouquets.

Coppler said that so far Habitat has helped Haitian families build more than 3,000 transitional shelters, and the group is continuing to improve the design.

"Everybody is very focused on 'building back better,'" Coppler said.

Now that the rainy season has come, Haiti is facing new challenges.

"We're still talking about rubble," she said. "And when the rains come, everything that's staked on the side of the road just gets washed back in."

Thousands of Haitians still live in tent cities, and that's who Coppler says she thinks about at night, when the rains come.

"You've got to imagine the families standing up, holding their babies, because the water's coming up underneath. That's their night, just standing up, holding their children," she said.

Despite that, she said, she's struck by the fortitude of the Haitian people.

In the camps just as in Lexington, parents are getting their kids ready for school, sending them out in clean, tidy school uniforms, no small feat when you're living in a tent.

"It's an incredible kind of resilience," Coppler said, "an incredible strength of character in Haiti, and a strong sense of pride."