At 4:53 p.m. local time on Tuesday, January 12, a cloud of thick gray dust covered Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, in a deathly shroud.
As the grimy air cleared, the extent of the disaster became visible: hundreds of buildings had collapsed, thousands of people were trapped in the rubble, and tens of thousands were already dead or dying.
Haiti’s most cataclysmic earthquake in 200 years plunged the poorest nation in the western hemisphere into total shock.
Within 30 minutes of the 7.0-magnitude quake, reports began trickling in to relief agencies in the United States. Because most Internet and phone lines were down in Port-au-Prince, many organizations stateside had a difficult time getting in touch with their Haiti field offices. When Baltimore-based World Relief finally got through to its country director, Dr. Hubert Morquette, in Port-au-Prince, he uttered two words: “devastating” and “grave.”
Morquette, a 59-year-old physician with extensive relief and development experience, had encountered hurricanes, deadly floods and hunger riots in his native Haiti—but nothing like this.
As darkness fell, the eerie wails of the grief-stricken penetrated the shocked silence that had engulfed the city of 2 million people.
Even before Jan. 12, Haiti was a nation in turmoil. Just two hours by air from Miami, Port-au-Prince is a city exuding desperation. Unemployment tops 80 percent, one in every 10 children is a domestic slave and many teenage girls are lured into sexual relationships in return for shelter and food.
During the food crisis of 2008, frustrated Haitians took to the streets of Port-au-Prince to protest their dire situation. People in the city’s sprawling slums were eating mud cakes—consisting of baked dirt with a little flour and water—to stave off hunger pangs.
This month’s earthquake is the latest and cruelest blow to the Caribbean nation and its people—many of whom have given up hope that their fortunes will ever change.
“We are a people in survival mode,” Morquette observed. “For Haitians, the outside world is paradise; Haiti is hell.”
Haitians, though, have developed tremendous resilience in the face of extreme adversity. Their gut-determination will be essential in the aftermath of this latest hammer-blow—a catastrophe that left aid agencies facing a logistical nightmare.
Two days after the quake, as rescue teams and relief aid began pouring into the country from around the world, the enormity of the challenges facing aid workers became apparent. Port-au-Prince’s shipping port was closed due to severe damage; its international airport—also crippled—struggled to handle incoming aid flights; roads in the capital were clogged; and most of the city’s medical facilities lay in ruins.
“It’s chaos,” a United Nations spokesperson told The Associated Press.
U.S. aid agencies were inundated with offers from volunteers eager to hop on the next flight to Port-au-Prince and lend a hand. With commercial flights to Haiti suspended, many aid groups were having a hard enough time simply getting their own staff deployed on the ground in Port-au-Prince.
World Relief posted a notice on its website, thanking volunteers for their willingness to help in the disaster zone, but explaining that logistical challenges made it impossible for the organization to deploy non-specialized volunteers in the immediate aftermath.
Meanwhile, in Port-au-Prince, quake survivors were growing desperate. Many had gone 48 hours without any food and with just a few mouthfuls of water.
On Friday morning—approximately 60 hours after the quake hit—World Relief and a local church set up a feeding center at King’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince, where Morquette and his small team were treating the injured around the clock.
“We have treated hundreds of injuries as well as countless open and closed fractures,” Morquette reported. “We work all day and late into the night as patients continue to flock to our facility. We go above and beyond trying to save lives, but at times they succumb to their injuries.
“Our patients experience both physical and psychological trauma. My fellow countrymen and women now live on the streets or in their yards, myself included, as we all fear that aftershocks may destroy our homes. We pray that this fear quickly dissipates.”
Over the weekend, World Relief and its church partners expanded the number of feeding centers, serving hot meals of rice, beans and porridge every day to 1,400 quake victims—many of whom had received no other aid. Manned by Haitian church volunteers, the feeding centers continue to sustain hundreds of the most vulnerable in Port-au-Prince at this still-critical time.
World Relief also set up three operating theaters at King’s Hospital, staffed by surgeons, doctors and nurses from the U.S. and Haiti. Plans are under way this week to drill a bore hole to provide clean water for patients and hospital staff.
In a few weeks, the wave of emergency relief will transition into the recovery phase, leading to the rebuilding of homes, schools, hospitals, livelihoods and vital infrastructure—development that will likely continue for years.
Ultimately, the long-term fate of Haiti rests with its own people—not outside interventions. That’s why it’s vital to invest in Haiti’s people and empower them to lead their country out of its persistent state of despair.
Haitians seem to have a built-in fortitude that helps them ride out disaster after disaster—an inner strength that enables them to sing in the midst of tragedy.
Arriving in the shattered capital hours after the quake, Stephan Bauman, World Relief’s senior vice president of programs, noted: “There are dead bodies lying in the street … but late last night I fell asleep to the sound of children singing outside my window. So there is a sense of calm … and yet, at the same time, dire need and suffering.”
Six months from now—even one month from now—the Haiti quake will be a faint memory, or a forgotten one, for many in America and elsewhere. But Haiti’s people must endure. They must somehow claw their way back and press on.
Others might forget. But the Church must not. We dare not forsake the Haitian people. Not now. Not ever. This could be the Church’s finest hour.