Haitian Ministries finds devastation, pressing need in wake of earthquake

A young girl looks at her reflection while standing in front of her home as parishioners of the St. Jude church located in the Morne Hopital area in Haiti, attend a Sunday mass outside the church, damaged in the earthquake Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010.
A young girl looks at her reflection while standing in front of her home as parishioners of the St. Jude church located in the Morne Hopital area in Haiti, attend a Sunday mass outside the church, damaged in the earthquake Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Port-au-Prince, Haiti — A short walk away from the spot where the Norwich Mission House once stood, the view opens up to show a large swath of Port-au-Prince down below, the airport in the distance, the port and the mountains beyond. It must have been beautiful at one time.

Now, it is almost impossible to look off into the distance. Instead, a nearby hillside grabs the eye: a steep angle, squat concrete houses, one nearly touching the next — the neighborhood where a woman, Madame Sampson, had been feeding 70 children. Today it is a scene of houses swept downhill and others tumbled over, standing askew.

Around the corner, overlooking another hillside, a woman who has lost four children mills around the ruins of the concrete blocks that once housed families. People are sweeping floors exposed to the elements, carrying rubble away, or wandering, slowly, down the road.

Nearby is Jean Guy Hyppolite, who hasn't seen a doctor in the nearly three weeks since the earthquake struck Haiti, even though a bone near his left shoulder is clearly sticking up at an odd angle.

Hyppolite's wife was killed in the quake. Her body is trapped in the rubble of their house. Like many buildings around the city, Hyppolite's house is smoldering from the inside, a slow burn intended to cremate bodies that can't be retrieved.

A heavy scent of incense wafts from these buildings, a cloud of smoke drifts up from wreckage. Life moves on. People clean up. Hyppolite is expressionless. So is the mother of four.

A team from the Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich is here, in a town just outside the Port-au-Prince city limits, to assess the damage and to ask its local partners what help they need. The team members help their neighbors — a doctor with the group diagnoses Hyppolite with a broken clavicle and gives him a sling and painkillers — and others who stop them along the way.

For the Ministries' executive director, Emily Smack, who has traveled to Haiti dozens of times, her first impression of the neighborhood is shock. She walks most of the dusty road while in tears.

"Walking around our neighborhood was horrific," Smack would say later, back at the Ministries' offices in Connecticut.

The Ministries’ members knew those families, she said, they've walked and talked with them before, they've played with their children.

The nonprofit, for 25 years a charitable organization that helped prop up Haitian groups in their local efforts, now finds itself staring at a new role: rebuilding.

The group at first thought the rebuilding would start with the Mission House, but the destruction is everywhere, a part of every program and church the Ministries work with.

The recovery begins with tiny, halting movements. Moments after the shock of seeing the collapsed Mission House in person for the first time and the small, man-made hole from which two employees were dragged alive from the rubble, Smack, walking the roof, notices something: papers.

She bends down and picks up one crumpled piece of paper after another, calling to the Ministries team that checking account information was here, other bits of important paperwork there.

The day is exhausting. But Smack also comes home with the feeling that the Ministries is needed and wanted.

"It was gratifying for me to hear that people were looking forward to our return," Smack said later, "looking for that reassurance that you're gonna rebuild, you're gonna be back in the neighborhood. It says that we do have a purpose and a place and that we are needed in that neighborhood."

House was mostly empty
The Mission House was once a spacious, two-story concrete house surrounded by palm trees, cacti and a courtyard and fenced in on all sides. It was a centerpiece on a narrow dirt road atop a hill dotted by smaller concrete houses.

Normally, a dozen or so visitors would have been in the house at a little before 5 p.m. on a Tuesday in January, plus the entire staff of cooks and gardeners, housekeepers and managers. Local kids who receive scholarships to attend school through the Ministries' scholarship program would be dropping by.

But this year, January was quiet. For the first time in more than 15 years, a group of students from the University of Connecticut didn't make the trip. Smack wasn't there. Only three people were inside the house late in the day on Jan. 12: Americans Jillian Thorp and Chuck Dietsch and Haitian Lanitte Belledente, a cook.

Nearly three weeks after the earthquake, Smack stands in the driveway and looks around in disbelief. How had they, as an organization, as a team, escaped without any loss of life? How was it that the house was nearly empty, that Thorp and Dietsch stood in the only part of the house from which they could have lived through its collapse?

"It's (just) a building, but when you think of the fact that everybody could've been killed," Smack says. "And to think (that) they dug them out of that little tiny space; it's just so small. It's just awful."
Families and friends lost

Smack, along with Development Director Kyn Tolson and a volunteer member of the Ministries' medical team, Dr. Tom Gorin, have traveled to Port-au-Prince for five days at the beginning of February to assess the damage and to ask their local partners what help they need. Two journalists from The Day are accompanying them.

At each visit, the Ministries team grabs their Haitian partners in an embrace. The answer to the how-are-you's seem always to include a tally of the buildings destroyed, the family and friends lost.

At St. Jude parish in the mountain town of Morne Hopital, the Rev. Jean Edner Brene has lost his brother and never found the body. The church was unsafe, so Mass is being held outside.

At the Proximity House, an AIDS outreach center, Smack hugs Director Monique Dieudonne.

"How are things going?" Smack asks.

"Not so bad, not so good," Dieudonne replies. She lost her house, but her family is OK.

"We are out," Dieudonne says, gesturing to mean they are sleeping outside, like most Haitians. "We sleep anywhere."
At another orphanage for children infected with or affected by AIDS, the directors report that relief agencies are continually dropping off children and that they expect to have nearly 100 children within a week. The orphanage usually houses 35.

In the mountain town of Les Palmes, where roads were difficult to navigate before the earthquake, almost all homes are damaged or destroyed and the church is lost.

At each stop, the Ministries team adds another element to its relief plan.

More grants available
The attention span of the public is short, even after disasters.

"When the earthquake struck, somebody said you have seven days to make an impact," Smack said after her return last week.

Yet groups like the Haitian Ministries will need many years and extra funding to continue their work. The donations so far have been "fantastic," Smack says, allowing the Ministries to help their Haitian partners to feed people and pay salaries.

The window of opportunity to raise money has expanded beyond one week, says Smack, because of the magnitude of the disaster, extensive press coverage and Haiti's proximity to the United States.

Smack says grant opportunities have increased, too, because of the earthquake, whereas two months ago funding opportunities for Haiti were "miniscule."

"I think the world's attention is going to be on Haiti for a longer period of time," Smack says.

The Ministries, meanwhile, will likely refocus.

Smack says the Ministries has always paired one "twin" supporting parish or group in the United States to one Haitian group, but that number might increase.

"The needs were always overwhelming back then," she says of pre-earthquake Haiti. "They're even more so now. … It's definitely a time of reflection for us. I think there are many opportunities that are going to be made available to us that will help as we go forward in the next 25 years."

k.crompton@theday.com

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