Haiti lies in ruins. Its reconstruction will be long and difficult.
Already the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation, Haiti has been brought to its knees by Tuesday’s devastating earthquake. The catastrophic quake is believed to have killed thousands. It severely damaged key political and religious buildings in its capital, Port-au-Prince, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and the presidential palace.
The papal nuncio, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, confirmed the death of Port-au-Prince Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, 63. The archbishop reportedly was in his residence at the time of the 7.0-magnitude quake, the worst to hit Haiti in two centuries.
“The four floors of the archbishop’s house have been reduced to a pile of cement,” Archbishop Auza said.
Archbishop Auza said he visited the city’s major seminary, which was reduced to a heap of dust and debris.
“Thanks be to God, all except one of the instructors were able to get out from under the rubble but three or four seminarians are still missing, and nine have been confirmed dead,” he told Catholic News Service.
Archbishop Auza told Vatican Radio that the major churches in Port-au-Prince collapsed. Archbishop Auza also suggested that a large group of Montfort Fathers on retreat had been killed. But a spokesman said later they were not in Port-au-Prince at the time of the quake.
The situation on the ground remained chaotic. With the breakdown in communications across the island, few reports could be confirmed. News agencies posted reports from Twitter, and anxious relatives seeking information about loved ones followed suit. A Christian blogger on Twitter reported that throughout the long night following the earthquake, residents sang hymns together, straining to find solace amid the destruction.
Karel Zelenka, the Catholic Relief Services country representative in Haiti, posted a brief report confirming the absence of any organized rescue effort a day after the temblor hit the capital. One senior CRS administrator described the desperate scene on the city streets as a “human chain gang” of ordinary Haitians and visitors struggling to locate victims crying for help under collapsed buildings.
Given Port-au-Prince’s vital role in managing all aspects of the nation’s infrastructure, basic necessities — from food and fuel to medical supplies — are expected to dwindle quickly, and the shortages will soon affect other parts of the country.
Though the Port-au-Prince airport was not seriously damaged, as originally feared, it remained closed to air traffic, even as international agencies frantically organized relief shipments and rescue teams.
Foreign aid is said to account for 80% of Haiti’s gross domestic product, and that figure is likely to increase by the end of the year. President Obama announced today that the United States is making an initial $115 million in relief aid available to Haiti, AP reported.
The U.S. was sending 3,500 soldiers and 300 medical personnel to help with disaster relief and security in Port-au-Prince, Reuters reported today. The Pentagon was also dispatching an aircraft carrier and other ships.
‘Absolute Chaos, Devastation’
Catholic agencies and missions have a long history in Haiti and are well placed to receive and channel the outpouring of international support. Yet many such groups were discouraged by the overwhelming logistical challenges posed by the devastation of Haiti’s already marginal infrastructure.
CRS has worked in the country for 55 years and already manages a national staff of 340, with 150 based in the capital. John Rivera, the agency’s acting director of communications, reported that all of the CRS staff in Port-au-Prince “were accounted for.” Though the building across the street collapsed, the CRS offices were still intact.
“It’s absolute chaos, devastation, catastrophic,” said Rivera. “People are trapped in buildings all over town. The need for immediate relief is tremendous in a place that was already poor. They need food, water, bedding, basic hygiene supplies and cooking supplies.”
In recent years, Haiti had been hit by a series of hurricanes, and CRS already had stockpiled relief supplies “for about a thousand families or five thousand people.” More supplies are stored in the Dominican Republic.
CRS has pledged an initial investment of $5 million. Rivera expects that amount to rise fairly rapidly as the extent of the destruction becomes more evident. The agency has a hospital ship docked in Baltimore, and Rivera did not rule out the possibility that CRS might send it to Haiti; hospitals in the capital that survived the quake are already overflowing with the injured.
Rev. Dr. Joni Paterson, who manages development and administration for the Crudem Foundation, which funds the Hospital Sacre Coeur across the island from the capital, predicted that all of Haiti’s fragile social institutions, public and private, would be tested in the months ahead.
“It’s too early to tell how the country will function,” she said. “When you are in a country like Haiti, three or six months down the road is when you will feel the full impact of this disaster.”
Paterson also listed the most pressing issues already posed by the disaster: “Most government buildings have been destroyed, and that will have an impact on shipping new supplies into the country. Local producers of medical supplies may no longer exist.”
Haiti is in the midst of the rainy season, and that means a surge of airborne and waterborne diseases. Paterson is not only grieved at the loss of life; she worries about the public-health consequences of “a disaster killing so many people. That always presents a health issue, and how do you take care of that in a country like Haiti?”
Medical personnel have been in chronically short supply in Haiti, which has experienced a “brain drain” of the best and the brightest. The majority of the nation’s physicians live in the capital. It is too soon to say how many doctors and nurses survived the quake, but the damage to health services is expected to be catastrophic in a country struggling with malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and where hospitals are often closed and lack basic services available in more developed nations.
Founded in 1986 by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, Montreal Province, Hospital Sacre Coeur, a 73-bed facility in the North Haiti town of Milot, already filled to capacity, is likely to draw a large number of earthquake victims. Project Hope, which provides emergency medical relief and long-term health-care support around the world, has contacted the hospital about evacuating people there from Port-au-Prince. If the plan is approved, patients will be ferried by helicopters that will land at a nearby soccer field. It is likely that many other big relief agencies will be scouring the country, looking for safe, functioning institutions capable of receiving patients, or providing other services for the needy.
Like most privately funded Catholic institutions in Haiti, Sacre Coeur must raise additional money for its administrative costs. However, it receives significant support from the Order of Malta and attracts teams of visiting medical personnel — including some members of the order — who provide weekly training sessions for Haitian physicians and nurses and assist with advanced procedures.
Paterson expects the 12-member team of volunteers now on site to be replaced by a 25-member team that was hastily organized to address the mounting medical requirements in the aftermath of the quake.
“We have to keep the hospital running now even more than ever,” she said.
The same could be said for every surviving medical clinic, orphanage, school and church in the country. For example, St. Boniface Hospital in Fond-des-Blancs, about three hours southwest of the capital, has already begun taking patients.
Louis Merosne, program director of Movin’ With the Spirit Mission Haiti, a small Catholic missionary group that evangelizes and provides humanitarian aid in Miragoane, southwest of the capital, was overjoyed to learn that “our two full-time missionaries and two Haitian staff had suffered no injuries. However, the roads are impassable, and people in nearby towns have died.”
But if urgent medical needs and relief aid is the first priority, the Church in Haiti must soon prepare for the difficult task of reconstructing its social and religious institutions in the capital.
The Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States has established a special fund for long-term assistance for the Church in Haiti. These societies, which include the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and the Holy Childhood Association, back programs in 1,150 mission dioceses, including the dioceses of Haiti.
“Our concentration will be on the longer restoration and rebuilding of the Church’s infrastructure,” said Msgr. John Kozar, Pontifical Mission Societies’ national director. “There will be a huge evaluation of what to do, similar to assessments that were made after Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Asia. We will work with local Church authorities to build a realistic model for how the Church should rebuild its infrastructure.
“Haiti is a Catholic country, and that gives the Church a position of confidence with the poor,” he continued. “The Church has been at the forefront not only dealing with material poverty, but also confronting the plundering, civil unrest and disasters. In the short term, there will be tents for liturgies and for those who seek the solace of prayer and confession. There will also be military barracks-style liturgical outposts. You start humbly.”
Joan Frawley Desmond, a member of the Order of Malta, returned last week from Haiti, where she served as a volunteer on a medical mission at the Hospital Sacre Coeur.
Ways to Help The Massachusetts-based Crudem Foundation supports the Hospital Sacre Coeur. Crudem.org Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency, is accepting donations by phone at (800) 736-3467; online atcrs.org. The Salesians are accepting donations by phone at (914) 633-8344; online at salesianmissions.org. Caritas Internationalis is accepting donations for Haiti at www.caritas.org. Food for the Poor is also accepting donations at foodforthepoor.org. Catholic Medical Mission Board is accepting monetary donations by mail to CMMB, 10 W. 17th St., New York, NY 10011; by phone at (800) 678-5659; or online at http://support.cmmb.org/Haiti. Medicines and medical supplies may be donated by calling CMMB’s Kathy Tebbett at (212) 242 7757. Jesuit Refugee Service is accepting donations at www.jrsusa.org; click on “Donate Now” box on right of page. The Pontifical Mission Societies have established a long-term solidarity fund to help Haiti. Contributions may be directed to: Pontifical Mission Societies, Haitian Solidarity Fund, 70 W. 36th St., New York, NY 10018. Credit card donations can be made at www.onefamilyinmission.org. The Vincentians have set up an online donation forum at cammonline.org. Cross International is accepting donations at 1-800-391-8545 and online at crosscatholic.org/relief. Mission Haiti is accepting donations at http://www.mwts.org/missionhaiti/Home.html