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Today, January 12, 2015 marks the five year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that occurred in Port-au-Prince, leaving thousands dead, more wounded and millions without homes. Since that day, millions of dollars have come into the country in the form of aid, most of it to provide relief for the immediate needs of the population after the earthquake. Rebuilding has occurred in some areas of the country but thousands of people still live in tents or plywood shelters, rather than permanent concrete homes. The appearance of cholera several months after the earthquake only worsened the health status of the people and the epidemic persists, largely due to a lack of clean water and improved sanitation, especially in rural areas. Despite the devastation in Port-au-Prince, people’s lives have continued relatively unchanged. They set up their wares to sell by the side of the streets on top of the rubble, rather than on the sidewalk. Their houses are now covered with tin and tarps, rather than concrete, the kind that came crashing down on unsuspecting victims on that fateful day. Colorful tap-taps continue to provide them with local transportation and banks, offices and businesses are filled with clients clamoring for their services.

Haiti is changed, but unchanged. No one’s life was unaffected by the events of that day five years ago. But, lives have gone on, some for better, some for worse. The rich have gotten richer in the re-building efforts, but the poor seem to have gotten poorer as very little aid has trickled down to them. This is Haiti as it always has been – the very rich and the very poor, with very little in between. These are the people we at Friends for Health in Haiti are here to serve and we count it a privilege to live among them and to share in their struggles with them.

I encourage you to take a moment today to reflect, not on the tragedy that occurred that day five years ago, but on the resilience of the Haitian people, their patience and persistence in the face of insurmountable problems and their faith and belief in the God who created them.

January 12, 2011, the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that occurred in Haiti, is a national day of mourning in the country.  Over 200,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were injured that day.  1.5 million were left homeless, the majority of whom are still living in temporary shelters and tents in Port-au-Prince and its environs.  Lives lost, lives changed, a capital city destroyed, all in the space of 40 seconds.  We join with our Haitian brothers and sisters today in prayer for this country and its suffering people and we invite you to add your prayers and thoughts to ours.

There have been many articles in the press recently questioning the use of funds that were donated in the aftermath of the earthquake.  As one looks around Port-au-Prince, there are a few improvements evident to the casual observer.  Most of the buildings in the city have been evaluated by engineers, but only a few of the ones that were condemned have been razed.  Some rubble has been cleared and a few buildings repaired.  Temporary wooden shelters have replaced a few of the tents in tent camps and water and sanitation facilities have been provided to those living in the camps.  Government ministries and departments have been relocated to temporary quarters and many of the destroyed government buildings have been razed and the rubble cleared out.  The presidential palace has been left as it was immediately after the earthquake – a testimony to the tragedy that claimed so many lives, young and old.

In the area which Friends for Health in Haiti serves, there was not the physical destruction that there was in Port-au-Prince.  But our patients still mourn the loss of children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.  Their lives will never be the same and they still speak of that day, January 12th, 2010 with sadness in their voices.  Our clinic overflows with patients each time we are there, many of whom were previously living in Port-au-Prince and have now returned to their rural homes.  We’ve contributed seeds and agricultural assistance to the communities around us and are helping them organize themselves for further development projects.  We are finalizing construction plans for a permanent clinic building that we expect to start in a few months and this will allow us to significantly expand our services, save many more lives and provide employment for skilled and unskilled workers.  The funds that have been contributed to us are being used for long-term solutions in our area – prevention and treatment of illness, agricultural development, water and sanitation and employment.  We strive to be sustainable, appropriate and responsible.  Thank you for assisting us in achieving our goals.  The Lord is at work!

I recently returned to Jérémie, Haiti after spending several weeks in the US.  Here are some highlights of my visit there:

1.  The second annual Hope for Haiti fund-raising banquet was held at the Wisconsin Club in Milwaukee on April 17, 2010.  Over 250 people attended and it was an enjoyable evening for all, with silent and oral auctions, Haitian market, wonderful food and great company.  Much thanks to all the volunteers, banquet sponsors and participants.  Our fantastic volunteer planning committee, headed by Barbara Tyler and Carla VonRoenn, is already planning next year’s banquet!

2.  Health Occupation Students of America (HOSA) has chapters in 41 high schools throughout Wisconsin and they chose Friends for Health in Haiti as their state-wide service project this past year.  They held a final recognition dinner in the Wisconsin Dells on Monday, April 26, 2010 which was attended by myself, Dr. Gregory VonRoenn (FHH Vice President) and college student Becca Mahn.  We were presented with 299 backpacks for school children in Haiti, replete with school supplies, hygiene supplies, tennis shoes, socks and underwear.  In addition, the HOSA students raised money for shipping the backpacks to Haiti and for conducting school exams for the participating school students (checking for anemia, giving vitamins and treating for parasites).  The backpacks were packed in 55-gallon plastic drums and taken in a truck to New York, where they will be put on a shipping container.  It will take a couple of months for them to get to Port-au-Prince and be cleared from customs, after which they will be taken on a truck out to Jérémie and distributed to schools around our clinic site in Gatineau.  There will soon be 299 very happy Haitian students and their parents!

3.  In order to fill in the spaces between the backpacks in the drums, I asked for donations of used clothing and shoes from people in my home church in NJ (Kingston Presbyterian Church).  Well, it is definitely true that you have to be careful what you ask for, because the outpouring of donations was incredible, so much so that we had to buy another 12 fiber drums in which to pack everything.  Members of the congregation stayed after church on May 2nd to help pack the additional drums and they also were taken to NY for shipping.  The clothing will be donated mostly to earthquake victims in Port-au-Prince. The backpack project and NJ clothing donation was featured in an article in the New Brunswick News on April 28, 2010.

4.  While in the US, I was able to share some updates about our work in Haiti with several groups from Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Elmbrook Church in Waukesha, the Center for International Health (affiliated with the Medical College of Wisconsin), Kingston Presbyterian Church and other churches in the New Brunswick Presbytery in NJ.  It’s always good to share with others what we’re doing here and encourage their continued participation with us.  In addition, I met with several individuals who are interested in our ministry.  Important contacts were made and we’ll see where the Lord will lead us all in the future.

5.  While I was in Port-au-Prince, I found out that the final paperwork was submitted for release of our new jeep from customs.  Hopefully, we will soon be able to bring it home!  Thanks for your prayers

When Cherlie and I returned to Jérémie after our help with the relief efforts in Port-au-Prince, we did a little survey among our patients to get an idea as to how many of them were, indeed, affected by the earthquake.  Out of 74 adult patients surveyed, 74% of them (55 patients) said they had family members who had died in the earthquake.  Many of these were close family members, such as children, brothers and sisters.  One woman tearfully told us about the deaths of her oldest son and daughter, who were university students in Port-au-Prince.  Her son was working a part-time job at the Hotel Montana, which collapsed, killing hundreds of people, and her daughter was killed while in a class at the university.  It is especially tragic when young people in Haiti die, because oftentimes, their families have sacrificed for years to provide them with an education.  To lose them just at the time their education is being completed, with the potential for helping the entire extended family, is very tragic.

69% of patients surveyed had family members from Port-au-Prince living in their homes out in the country.  Some of these were immediate family members, such as children, and others were cousins and more distant relatives.  I asked them how many people were living in their house at the present time and the responses varied from 5 to 18, with an average of 10 people per house.  Most of these country houses have 3 rooms – two bedrooms and a central living area.  So, one can only imagine what sleeping was like at night with 15-18 people in the house!  In addition, 38% of the people said their own homes had been damaged in the earthquake.  So, some of them were living in their outside kitchens, which are usually little structures made from coconut leaves and bark. When I asked how they were managing to support and feed so many extra people, every one of them shrugged and said, “We’re managing.  This is life.”  Adaptability and flexibility are the norm here.

Cherlie and I were especially concerned about the additional food needs of our patients and members of the communities around our clinic.  So, we held a large community meeting and announced that we would be distributing funds to 25 communities to be used to buy bean or corn seeds or yam plants to be given to those community members most in need of assistance.  In the past few weeks, each of the communities has organized a management committee to direct the seed distribution and will give us periodic updates as to the results of the harvest.  This is our second seed distribution program and we are pleased to see that many of the community leaders are beginning to grasp the idea of multiplication – requiring the return of part of the harvest to be used for another round of distribution at the next planting season.  In this way, an initial gift recycles, giving a continuous supply of seeds for distribution within communities.

“They’re back,” we heard.  “The doctors from Gatineau are back.”  “Miss Cherlie, Miss Cherlie – we’re glad to see you.”  Such were the comments we heard as we headed up the mountain from Jérémie to Gatineau last week.  Our absence was longer than expected, due to the earthquake and the time we spent helping with relief efforts in Port-au-Prince.  But, our patients were proud of the fact that we had been able to help in an area of need, even if it took us away from them and our own clinic.  They shook their heads in wonder as they looked at the photos we had taken in Port-au-Prince – the crumpled presidential palace, buildings in rubble, people wearing masks as they walked along the streets.  Very few country people in our area have even been to Port-au-Prince, so they were particularly fascinated by the photos, as they realized just how significant were the events of January 12th.

We’ve increased our clinic days from two to three times a week in order to accommodate the increased patient load we are seeing due to people who have migrated out from Port-au-Prince.  Many of those we saw last week were students, sent to school in Port-au-Prince, now back living with their parents in the country.  Others were family members who had been working in the capital but who came back to the country when their houses were destroyed.  Each of them had a story to tell.  One woman was with her young infant and told us that the house she was in totally collapsed around her.  Miraculously, she and her baby were buried, but alive.  They spent two days in the darkness, not knowing day from night, until someone dug through a wall and freed them.  “It was truly a miracle,” she said.  “We had no broken bones or injuries at all, while many other people in the same house died.”

We heard from many people that their houses in the country have, indeed, been damaged from the earthquake.  And, many others are living with 5-10 additional family members in the house, putting a strain on their already-meager food supplies.  The seed project that we previously sponsored (see Hurricane Relief Grant) has helped many farmers with this present planting season, providing extra seeds to plant in their gardens.  In the weeks ahead, we will be discussing with the communities ways that we can expand this program and help even more farmers meet the increased food needs of their extended families.

Almost two weeks without internet connection has left me with a lot of catching up to do!  Cherlie and I were in Port-au-Prince again from February 6-17 registering with the UN, gathering supplies from various organizations and suppliers, packing up some of our personal belongings from Cherlie’s house and getting the big truck ready for the road trip to Jérémie.  Relief International is going to continue to use Cherlie’s house as a base camp for their clinic operations in the Carrefour area (epicenter of the earthquake) and we wanted to clear out as much extraneous “stuff” as we could.  It was a challenge, since they were acquiring medications and supplies of their own, stacking them on every available shelf and piece of furniture in the house.  So, it took some doing to dig through their things to clear out ours.  We finally got everything sorted and packed and made an uneventful 11-hour trip out to Jérémie on Wednesday, the 17th.  The road from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes had recently been paved, but the earthquake caused large fissures and areas of buckling in the pavement.  We saw first-hand the destruction of buildings in the hard-hit areas of Gressier and Leogane, towns located to the southwest of Port-au-Prince on the road to the southern peninsula.  From Ti Goave on to Les Cayes, however, there were very few buildings down and little evidence of the forceful earthquake that left so many families shattered and homeless.  Life in the country seemed pretty normal, at least on the surface.  When we spoke with people on our way, however, we realized that the devastation was not just physical – almost every family and every life had been touched by death and loss.  It was sobering to realize how interconnected the country is and how widespread the impact of the events of January 12, 2010.

February 12, 13 and 14 were declared as Haitian national days of mourning one month after the tragic earthquake.  Prayer services were held throughout the country and people raised their voices in praise and prayer for comfort and healing.  Businesses were closed and the streets were quiet, in eerie contrast to the normal hustle and bustle of life in the capital city.  It was good to take some time to reflect on the enormity of the disaster and to think about the role that the Lord wants each one of us to play in sustaining and rebuilding this country.  It is very evident that it will take a massive international effort to support the life and health of the Haitian people in the months to come and to begin to clear the debris and rebuild lives, livelihoods and homes here.  Hopefully, in the long run, the rebuilding will be done appropriately and the country will be better off than before.  But, it will be a long, difficult process.  There’s a Creole expression here similar to the “many hands make light work” proverb.  There will definitely need to be many hands here!

In the past few weeks we’ve heard many stories of miraculous rescues that have taken place long after the earthquake hit.  I do not vouch for their accuracy, but here are a few of them:

  • A group of 14 students were rescued from the rubble of a multi-story school that had collapsed.  A bulldozer was beginning to clear away rubble when the driver heard distant voices.  He began digging in the area of the voices and rescued the students who had been in the school’s cafeteria at the time of the earthquake.  They had survived by eating food and water that they found in the cafeteria.
  • A man was in a food store when the earthquake hit and was buried under the rubble of the building for more than two weeks.  He survived by drinking Coke and beer that was in the store aisle where he lay.
  • A five year-old boy was pulled from the rubble of a building 3 weeks after the earthquake.  He said that even though there were dead people around him, an old man with a long white beard held him in his lap and brought him food and water every day.  He felt comforted and well taken care of.

Does anyone believe in angels???

Did you know that you can claim donations made for Haiti earthquake relief on your 2009 taxes?  Donations made after Jan. 11 and before March 1, 2010 can be claimed.  See this link for more information.  Twelve days left to make your donation and claim it on your 2009 taxes!

New post-quake photos from Port-au-Prince posted on our website.  View them here.

Well, Cherlie and I are on the move again, back to Santo Domingo today and, hopefully, on to Port-au-Prince soon after that.  We spent the past few days in Florida, catching up on correspondence and paperwork, gathering meds and supplies and packing up to go back home to Jérémie.  First, we’ll be checking in with the Relief International team in Port-au-Prince.  They’ve been busy since we left, and have had several people leave and others come to take their places.  They continue to provide valuable medical care to those injured in the earthquake, as well as those who have become ill in its aftermath.  Many people who have chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, are unable to go to their regular physicians.  So, organizations like RI are providing valuable services to these people, in treating their underlying medical problems, as well as acute illnesses and injuries.

We are anxious to get back to our home in Jérémie and to our patients in Gatineau.  We’ve been in touch by telephone with several of our patients and they understand why we aren’t there with them, but they’re anxious to have us back again.  We will try to obtain some medications and supplies from the UN and other organizations in Port-au-Prince, so that we can better meet the increased patient load we expect to find.  It is predicted that an additional 30,000 people will make their way to the Jérémie area and settle in with extended family living in the rural areas around town.  So, the burden on health care organizations, such as Friends for Health in Haiti, will be significant.  One of the ways we hope to meet these increased needs is to start work as soon as possible on construction of a permanent clinic building.  This will provide jobs for many local people, both during construction and after we are fully functioning, and it will allow us to expand our hours and the services we provide.

Cherlie and I have been asked many times for our reaction to the devastation and injuries we witnessed in Haiti after the earthquake.  The only word that comes to mind is “overwhelming” – overwhelming destruction and loss of life and an overwhelming task ahead to clean up and rebuild homes, businesses, government and lives.  Friends for Health in Haiti is in this for the long haul and we’ll do whatever we can to meet physical, spiritual and medical needs of the people we serve.  We appreciate your prayers for safety and wisdom in the days ahead and your support for our ministry to thousands in need.

After a whirlwind 12 days in Port-au-Prince, Cherlie and I arrived back in Florida on Friday morning, having “hitch-hiked” on another helicopter from Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo and then getting a plane flight to Miami.  We felt a mixture of sadness and relief as we left the country we now call home – a country that had very little infrastructure one month ago, and now has none, a country where almost every person’s life has been recently touched by death.  The major structures of government lie in a shambles, piles of rubble where once were offices and computers and records.  The gleaming white palace is now lopsided, walls caved in, windows broken and roofs lying at awkward angles.  State university buildings are demolished and schools across the country have closed, causing students to lose a precious year of their education.  One of the few functioning departments is the National Police Department, and even their employees don’t know if they will ever get paid.

The streets of Port-au-Prince are more congested than ever, but rather than colorful tap-taps and taxis, the cars and trucks wear the decals of the UN and NGO’s – all there to help Haiti through this time of suffering and destruction.  In every open area and park throughout the city are “displaced persons”, those without homes, living in temporary shelters made from bed sheets held up by wooden poles.  And in the residential areas, even when homes are standing, no one is sleeping inside them.  At night, whole neighborhoods spread out their sheets and mattresses along the side of the road to sleep.  They live in fear of another earthquake, made more real by the frequent aftershocks and smaller quakes that continue to shake the ground under them.  These rumblings have been felt by all of us, and make us wary of standing or driving on narrow streets where buildings could crash down on us at any time.  Palpitations and anxiety are common among the patients we saw, and we could only say “I know what you’re feeling, because I feel it too.”

A lot has been written and said about the delay in supplies and medical care reaching the people of Port-au-Prince.  I can only say that the logistics of this relief operation are massive.  The streets of Port-au-Prince were poor to begin with and now many are blocked by rubble, making access very difficult.  There appeared to have been massive rescue operations in areas where large buildings collapsed and people were known to have been inside.  Many, many people were pulled out of the rubble by family members and friends, some of them several days after the initial earthquake.  We saw several areas where food and water were being distributed, always accompanied by armed UN troops to maintain order.  Security is a huge issue for medical relief groups, since any type of mobile clinic needs to be set up in such a way as to insure that masses of people seeking care can be controlled.

If there was one thing that impressed me during our time in Port-au-Prince, it was the normalcy of life there.  On our initial survey trip throughout the city, exactly one week after the earthquake, people were walking along the streets as always, buying food in their local open-air markets, talking and arguing as they always do.  The only thing that seemed out of place were the masks that many wore, to protect from the stench of dead bodies that were buried in the piles of rubble.

Haitians are a resilient people; they have proven this throughout history.  They will rebuild from this disaster and, hopefully, with the help of others, will become a better country for it.  Their grieving is over, they’ve picked up the pieces and their lives go on, no matter how difficult they are.  And, in a few days, we’ll be back there beside them, helping them through the long process of reconstruction.  Thousands of people have fled from Port-au-Prince to their homes in the Jeremie area and we will soon be taking care of their medical and health needs.  We are anxious to get started on construction of a permanent clinic building so we can expand our services to those in need.  We thank our generous donors for their assistance in making this construction a reality.