LENDING A HAND TO SURVIVORS OF HAITI’S DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE
When a 7.2 magnitude quake rocked Haiti in the early evening hours of Jan. 12, 2010, it was the strongest temblor the country had undergone since the 16th century. The capital city, Port-Au-Prince, was nearly leveled, and Haiti’s government was devastated.
The country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere; most members of the population don’t have formal jobs and live on about two dollars a day. A humanitarian crisis followed. The hospitals left standing were overwhelmed. The airport in Port-Au-Prince, one of Haiti’s few with paved runways, was mostly unusable. It was difficult to fly in supplies and relief workers. Aid piled up with no good way to distribute it.
That was the situation on the ground when members of the University of San Diego community decided to help. The country was in chaos, but they did what they could to lend a hand and bring back some order.
An Emotional Tragedy
Brian Becker and his wife, Kelly, don’t have a television at home. So when they were asked by the International Church of the Nazarene to help with relief efforts in Haiti just days after the earthquake, they didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect. But nothing could have prepared them for the level of devastation they witnessed in Port-Au-Prince.
They saw flattened buildings alongside those that were still fully intact adjacent to neighborhoods where almost everything was completely destroyed. “It’s just a shocking thing to see buildings that were three or four stories tall, reduced to 10 feet or less,” he says. People in Haiti don’t trust living indoors anymore, Becker explains. They were sleeping on the streets under sheets and tarps.
“The emotional tragedy of the earthquake is at times invisible, but just as severe as the physical tragedy. And people were in a terrible state of shock,” he recalls.
On the ground, his job was to help the church’s local leadership put the organizational structures in place that would manage and support recovery efforts. Becker wrote job descriptions for post-earthquake hiring and researched Haitian labor laws to make sure the church was in compliance. He also did some translation work. His wife, who was already employed by Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, worked with a small congregation that had several professional counselors on its staff to help promote peer counseling.
The church had good reason to want Becker in Haiti. He’s the director of international ministries at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and a student in the Master of Arts in Nonprofit Leadership and Management program in USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. Additionally, he had a lot of organizational management experience and training, having previously spent two years in Kisangani in The Democratic Republic of Congo, a post-war zone, managing a Christian micro-finance agency. He also speaks French.
But they went to Haiti, Becker says, with a philosophy of empowering and supporting the local leaders, not replacing them: “The Nazarene church has local leadership that is strong, but they were generally rattled. They were in a state of shock themselves. When they would get together for staff meetings and strategy meetings, they would break down and weep and couldn’t really come up with plans.”
One of the biggest relief problems, at least initially, was getting food and other supplies into the country. The seaport was jammed with more than 400 aid ships that weren’t able to unload. Even when supplies made it to the city, many of the relief organizations didn’t have a good way to distribute them. The Nazarene church, however, had a network of nearly 600 congregations in Haiti. With Becker’s help, they managed to make arrangements for a jet packed with food to land; the goods were then distributed through local churches.
The Beckers stayed in Haiti for nearly three weeks. They were asked to stay longer and are eager to return, but obligations in San Diego have kept them stateside. Still, Becker keeps in touch with the local church leaders he met to offer support and guidance. He follows the countrywide recovery efforts as best he can, but it’s difficult because media coverage here has dwindled: “It’s amazing to me how quickly the story falls off the news here,” he says.
Now, more than ever, he understands how important the management skills he’s learning at USD and those he’s gained throughout his career are to lasting physical, economic and emotional recovery after a disaster.
“People think that post-tragedy response, post-earthquake response is mostly as simple as delivering a food ration or clean water or digging people out,” Becker says. “But the organizational leadership that is needed, the coordination capacity that’s needed and the ongoing project monitoring and reporting, those kind of things that help keep a response as effective as possible…those things are really helpful and essential in times like this.”
Adrenaline and the Grace of God
It was mid-February when Ann Taylor got an e-mail from Miami’s Project Medishare for Haiti, a nonprofit that had been helping with healthcare in the country for more than a decade. They were desperate for medical personnel after the earthquake, and Taylor was an experienced nurse who’d earned her master’s degree at USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science. So, little more than a month later, she found herself on a plane from her home in Hawaii, on the way to Port-Au-Prince.
She knew the conditions would be rugged, and expected that her time volunteering as a nurse in Tijuana prisons had prepared her well for harsh conditions. She was already used to working in facilities that didn’t have adequate supplies. She expected 100-degree temperatures, little food and less sleep. She anticipated the cold, short showers.
“You live in a tent. It’s dangerous. You’ve got 30 seconds to shower, 30 seconds to wash up. The food’s very limited. It’s not for everybody,” she says.
She wasn’t prepared, though, for the “shocking” devastation and suffering she saw. It was obvious even as she looked out the windows of her charter plane as they flew in.
One of the things that surprised Taylor most was the number of people who were left homeless after the earthquake and living on the streets, many of them in cardboard boxes. She took over 90 pounds of tents with her to Haiti and was able to move three families into them, including the family of a young man named Edva.
Taylor had brought him a tent at a critical time for the family: Edva was taking care of his mom and two sisters — one of whom had just had a baby and one who was pregnant — after his father was killed in the earthquake. Weeks later, Taylor arranged for another volunteer nurse leaving for Haiti to bring the family a tarp, as well as a nursing fundamentals book, since Edva had shared his dream of one day becoming a nurse. Eventually, Taylor helped enroll him in high school (the equivalent of 11th grade) and is trying to find a way he can emigrate to either the United States or Canada to eventually study nursing.
“They’re people that wouldn’t normally be homeless,” she says. “They’re people like you and me, whose lives changed in one instant.”
Project Medishare for Haiti had set up a field hospital in tents right on the runway of the Port-Au-Prince airport. There were four units: one tent for adult patients; one tent dedicated to wound care; one tent that housed three operating rooms, a pediatric intensive care unit and a neonatal intensive care unit (the first of their kind, ever, in Haiti) and another as a place for the over 150 volunteer medical staffers to sleep. Taylor was assigned to the operating room, a place she last had real experience in as a nursing student in the late ’60s.
They performed a lot of amputations, she recalls, and saw a lot of infected wounds and burns. There were also a number of traumatic injuries from car accidents and even some complicated surgeries like craniotomies, in which a bone flap is removed from the skull to provide access to the brain. Being the best hospital in the country at the time, they received a constant stream of patients by helicopter and ambulance from outlying institutions. Taylor found herself working 17-hour days. She says she got through them on a lot of adrenaline and by the grace of God.
“I was amazed that I could actually do that. But, you’ve got a job to do, so you just do it.” It’s a job that still needs doing. Project Medishare, which moved out of its tents and into a building in early June, seems to have enough doctors and physical therapists, but there’s an often critical shortage of nurses. Taylor is working to set up a nursing assistant course for English-speaking Haitians through the University of Miami and Project Medishare Haiti. After her first trip, she returned to Haiti three more times, each time hauling as many tents as she could carry. While memories of some of the things she saw still haunt her, the trips have strengthened her faith in the resilience of people.
“It’s unbelievable. How do you go from a house to a cardboard box and still have hope that things are going to get better?” she asks.
Some Kind of Exodus
At first, when the ground started to rumble, Lu Louis thought a really big truck was passing on the road beside his parents’ house about 11 miles outside of Port-Au-Prince. Then the shaking became violent.
“It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt before,” Louis says. “The ground was shaking under me, not like I was on something that was shaking on the ground, but the ground was shaking. I was getting tossed up in the air like a rag doll. I remember looking over at my house swaying left and right.”
Louis, a 2006 graduate of USD’s theatre arts program who now lives in Los Angeles, was visiting Haiti when the earthquake, which he says lasted about 30 seconds, hit. It was the day before he was set to return stateside. He’d felt earthquakes as a student in California, so he understood what had happened. His friends and neighbors, however, didn’t.
“They came out and you could hear screaming and crying and praying and all that kind of stuff. A lot of them thought it was supernatural. I was like, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just an earthquake. It’s over, everything’s fine,'” he recalls.
Being so far outside the city, he wasn’t aware of how bad the damage was. Then someone called to say that the private elementary and high school that Louis’ father owned had collapsed. Louis didn’t believe it.
“My dad’s school was a four-story building made of concrete. It was sturdier than anything I knew. There was no way an earthquake brought that down,” he says.
The next day, when Louis and his parents finally made it down the mountain and back into the city, they found that the top two floors had completely collapsed. Louis felt as if he’d driven into a war zone. People were dead. Buildings were down. No one had anywhere to go.
“All around, there were people in the streets, so many people. It looked like _ I don’t know, some kind of exodus, just refugees everywhere. And there were so many white sheets covering bodies. I mean, a lot, a lot of sheets. A lot of people covered up.”
The earthquake hit in the early evening, so nearly everyone had left his father’s school for the day. However, there was one girl who’d still been in the building when it collapsed. She was alive, but hurt. They tried to rush her to a hospital, but that proved difficult.
“Every single hospital we went to that day, the ones we were able to actually get into, there were no doctors. When there were doctors, they were overwhelmed with hurt people,” he says.
With no way to get into or out of the country, the first response to the disaster was left to people like Louis and his family. They took food from their own pantry and vegetables from their garden to give to people from their church, as well as to families of children who attended the school.
“A lot of the locals, we were the ones rushing around trying to help people,” Louis explains. We were the first aid. We were the ones who were bringing help to people until help arrived from abroad.”
Since then, he’s been back to Haiti and not much has changed.
“You’ve still got a lot of people living out of tents. You’ve still got a lot of people who can’t get food all the time, who can’t get water. I think a lot of people here are under the impression that, ‘Hey, we sent all that aid money and now the country’s fine.’ A lot of that money hasn’t made it down there yet. A lot of people are still living in the same bad conditions they were living in right after the earthquake.” — Justin McLachlan