Haiti Quake’s Death & Suffering: A Cry for Solidarity From the US
Father Louis Merosne, a Haitian Catholic priest who runs the nonprofit Mission to the Beloved, speaks to the Register about the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti.
Father Louis Merosne had just returned home from the United States and was driving on Haiti’s National Road to a wedding when the earthquake struck his country with more force than its 2010 predecessor. Future festivity gave way to national mourning as the catastrophic death toll rises for this deeply Catholic Caribbean nation.
In this interview, the Haitian pastor who also runs the nonprofit Mission to the Beloved, speaks about the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti and how the Church in the United States can provide support to the Haitian people in their hour of need and rebuild the country to greatly prevent destruction and loss of life from future natural disasters.
Father, where were you when the earthquake struck? What did you hear and see in those moments?
I was driving on the National Road, going to a wedding. I was rushing, because I was late and had just gotten back from the States the night before. So it wasn’t until a few minutes after [the earthquake] when I saw something look strange on the road. There was a truck stopped in the middle of the road and another one on the side, just waiting.
I rolled down my window to see what was going on. Some of the guys standing on the side were telling me, “Father, be really careful. We just had an earthquake, and we don’t know what happened.”
What was the aftermath of the destruction for your people?
My parish consists of the main town and also four villages with mission churches. In the town I would say at least certainly over 100 different homes have been either destroyed or greatly damaged. In the villages, most homes are either destroyed or damaged greatly. That’s the majority of homes. In terms of deaths from my particular parish, there’s one death reported in one of my villages and several wounded.
Other towns or parishes were less “lucky,” if I can use that term. In L’Asile, for example, they were hit pretty hard. Both the rectory and the church collapsed completely. Many homes were destroyed there, and they had many deaths. It sounds like maybe about 50 deaths so far, with many wounded in that [community]. It’s a similar situation for the town of Baraderes — the Church of St. Paul and St. Peter completely collapsed. The third town that is majorly hit as well is Lievre. The pastor had to be rescued from inside the rectory there.
Basically, every place is hit in our state.
Over to the state of Sud [South], particularly in the city of Les Cayes, the damage is major. The diocesan pastoral center is destroyed completely. The cardinal wasn’t there, but he was wounded. Many other homes are destroyed. And it sounds like there are still people under the rubble, as we speak. It’s a similar situation in Jérémie, which is part of the [state] of Grand’Anse.
Father, in what ways is this disaster similar and different from the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010?
They are similar magnitude. The 2010 quake was 7.0 [on the Richter scale]. This time, it was 7.2. So similar magnitude, and they both caused a lot of destruction. It’s different because the epicenter is located in a different location; a different fault line that caused this one. The one in Port-au-Prince [the capital] caused many more deaths, because of how concentrated [the population of] Port-au-Prince is. That caused a lot of deaths. This one has caused still a lot of deaths — even one is too many. Right now, we’re looking at the reported death toll, by today, is probably about 2,000. We think it’s going to keep going up as more deaths are reported.
How is the Church in Haiti trying to respond to this disaster?
The Church is always first to be there, because we’re already there in all those locations, and the people have a certain level of trust for the Church, to guide them and provide certain basic necessities, as we ask our friends and benefactors. For example, in my own town, we had a little reserve of some rice. And so we were able to visit about 120 different families yesterday to give out a little rice, just so they could have some food and could share with others. There’s Caritas, which is a pontifical charitable organization that’s in every country and diocese; they usually rise up to the challenge. Our Caritas has opened an account in U.S. dollars for benefactors who would like to assist, so they can receive that aid and distribute it to the different parishes. The Conference of Bishops is supposed to be meeting soon to discuss what happened, what they can do, and how they can have a coordinated action plan for assisting the people.
The Church usually is the first to get up and go to serve people indiscriminately: Whether they’re Catholic or not, we serve just whoever is in need. And, of course, we continue to provide the sacraments.
What are the main dangers right now to the Haitian people in the aftermath of this earthquake?
They’re exposed to the elements. If you can imagine, after an earthquake, no one wants to go and spend a night in their house, even if the house has not collapsed, because they’re afraid of the aftershocks. Those come pretty often. Every single day, they’re coming several times a day. So either the home is destroyed, or even if it was not destroyed, they’re afraid it might collapse if another shake comes. And so now, imagine that situation with everyone outside and then with a tropical storm coming our way.
That [storm] completely devastated everyone. It pummeled us last night; it was really terrible. People didn’t have a place to go to sleep … so many people screaming because the rain was coming down so hard. And the wind was so strong. That caused a lot of pain in my own heart.
What are the most immediate needs?
I divide the needs into maybe two or three categories. Firstly, the immediate need would be food, water and tents. That’s the most important. Food, because people are hungry. Water, because it’s hard to get good potable water in my particular town, and not just here — everywhere that we’ve been hit. And tents because they need to be protected from the elements, and they have nowhere to sleep. Tents would be a good place to help them out, so they can sleep, and they can stay near their old homes, on site, watching and waiting for what is to come.
The long-term thing is going to be willing to rebuild and rebuild right. We need to make a pact to never build poorly again. Of course, to build right requires money, which the people don’t have. … So this is going to be a major solidarity project where our brothers and sisters [in the U.S.] can come to the aid of their brothers and sisters in Haiti to help them rebuild.
It used to be, back in 2010-2012, $10,000 [was able] to give a nice little home to a family that’s stable and doable. But things have increased greatly in price. I would imagine now it would be $15,000 to $20,000 for a small home for a family. But at least we know that they’ll be safe, whether it’s a storm or an earthquake, those families will be safe for good. And that little home can stay for generations. That’s what we look for. So whatever aid we’re giving, we don’t want to give it cheaply. We want to give it for longevity and sustainably.
How can we respond in solidarity to the Church in Haiti’s lead on this crisis and long-term challenges?
There’s a lot that can be done, because we have sister churches in the U.S. There is a way that we can both benefit each other; it can be a mutual relationship, because the faith of Haitian people can be so strong in adversity. And that can be a beautiful model, for example, for our brothers and sisters in the U.S., and to see as well, the catholicity of the Church — a different way that the Church celebrates in Haiti and “dances” from the Lord, even in difficulty. Now, what the Church can do in the U.S., first of all, in the immediate moment, is to wait for the call of the bishops that is going to come. And then they can respond with whatever they can, with whatever the bishops are asking.
Reporter’s note: Catholics can give directly to support the work of Caritas in Haiti through Catholic Relief Services here. Catholics can also donate to support Mission to the Beloved here. Financial donations are considered critical and superior to providing direct physical goods, as financial donations allow the Church’s charities in Haiti to prioritize making in-country purchases of goods and services wherever possible that help support the economy and sustain jobs at this critical moment.