Earthquake in Haiti—Faith and Love in Action
On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, at 4:53 p.m., Evelyn heard a rumbling like the sound of a huge airplane rising from below, and the ground began to shake. Nearby, concrete beams cracked loudly, and buildings collapsed. When the shaking stopped, Evelyn climbed to a higher vantage point and surveyed the scene. All around she heard people wailing. A cloud of cement dust rose from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
IN SECONDS, homes, government buildings, banks, hospitals, and schools fell. People from all walks of life died—more than 220,000. Some 300,000 were injured.
Many survivors sat numb and silent by the remains of their homes. Others frantically dug through rubble with bare hands to rescue relatives and neighbors. Electrical power failed, and darkness fell quickly, obliging rescuers to work by flashlight and candlelight.
In the city of Jacmel, Ralphendy, 11 years of age, lay trapped under a partially collapsed building. For hours, a city rescue team worked feverishly to release him. Repeated aftershocks forced them to abandon their efforts because of fear that the fractured upper floors would crash down on them. Philippe, a missionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, refused to give up, explaining, “I could not bear to leave Ralphendy there to die.”
Philippe and three others squeezed through a narrow space under the broken building and inched their way forward to where Ralphendy lay, his feet held fast by fallen debris. From midnight on, they cautiously chipped away. With every tremor, they heard the concrete overhead shift and crack. At 5:00 a.m., more than 12 hours after the quake, they pulled Ralphendy out to safety.
Sadly, not all such efforts ended in success. In the hard-hit city of Léogâne, Roger and his older son, Clid, escaped their collapsing home. His younger son, Clarence, was killed. Roger’s wife, Clana, was alive and able to speak, but her head was pinned under the fallen ceiling. Roger and a friend labored to free her. “Hurry!” she urged from beneath the ruins. “I’m weakening! I’m losing my breath!” Three hours later, a rescue team arrived. But when they lifted her out, she was dead.
Wednesday, January 13, Day 2
The light of dawn revealed the scale of destruction. Much of Port-au-Prince lay in ruins. As news of the devastation filtered out, relief organizations and many selfless individuals around the world mobilized to help. Volunteers at the Dominican Republic office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, about a 200-mile (about 300 km) drive away, had also felt the quake. Learning that the epicenter was near densely populated Port-au-Prince, home to nearly a third of Haiti’s population of nine million, the Dominican Witnesses immediately began planning relief.
It had been 150 years since Haiti’s last great quake. Haiti had therefore largely left off constructing buildings that resisted earthquakes in favor of those that protected the population from hurricanes and floods. Hence, most of the block walls and heavy concrete roofs were no match for the magnitude 7.0 tremor. However, the Haiti office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, completed in 1987, was designed in accord with accepted seismic construction standards. Although located near the eastern edge of Port-au-Prince, it suffered virtually no damage.
Overnight, the office in Haiti turned into a bustling relief center. Since international telephone and e-mail communication had become unreliable, staff members drove to the border of the Dominican Republic twice to send out reports. Meanwhile, hundreds of victims, many seriously injured, were streaming into the property of the Haiti office. Many others were taken to the few functioning hospitals in the area, quickly overwhelming them.
All around the hospitals, victims lay on the ground—bleeding and screaming. Lying among them was Marla, who had been buried under the rubble of a collapsed building for eight hours. She could not feel or move her legs. Neighbors had dug her out and taken her to a hospital, but which one? Evan, a Witness doctor who had arrived earlier from the Dominican Republic, set out to find her, knowing only her name.
By then, more than 24 hours had passed since the quake, and night had again fallen. Stepping over the dead bodies lying outside one hospital, Evan silently prayed and kept calling Marla’s name. Finally, he heard someone answer, “Yes!” Marla was looking up at him with a radiant smile. Stunned, Evan asked, “Why are you smiling?” She replied, “Because now I am with my spiritual brother.” Evan could not hold back his tears.
Thursday, January 14, Day 3
The world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, located in the United States—along with the branches in Canada, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and elsewhere—coordinated relief efforts to make the best use of available materials, transportation, communication, funds, and manpower. In all, 78 medical professionals who are Jehovah’s Witnesses would come to help, along with many other volunteers. By 2:30 a.m., the first relief truck left the Dominican branch office for Haiti, loaded with about 15,000 pounds (about 6,804 kg) of food, water, medicine, and other materials.
When the shipment arrived later that morning, the Haiti branch office staff set about organizing the supplies for distribution. To dissuade thieves from stealing the food to sell it, the relief workers disguised the loads. Volunteers worked day and night repacking food and other supplies into small bags for families and individuals. During the following months, Jehovah’s Witnesses would ultimately distribute, free of charge, over 1,000,000 pounds (over 450,000 kg) of donated materials, including more than 400,000 meals.
Friday, January 15, Day 4
By midday, 19 Witness medical doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals from the Dominican Republic and Guadeloupe had arrived in Haiti. They quickly set up a first-aid clinic. Those treated there included the injured from among the scores of children at an orphanage. Moreover, the Witness staff provided the orphanage with food and tarpaulins for shelter. “I am very grateful to Jehovah’s Witnesses,” says Étienne, the orphanage director. “I don’t know what we would have done without them.”
Lost and Then Found
When the quake struck, seven-year-old Islande looked out of her home and saw power lines snapping and showers of sparks. Inside, the walls buckled and blocks cascaded down, breaking her leg and seriously injuring her. After she was lifted from the debris, her father, Johnny, drove Islande just across the Dominican border to a hospital. She was airlifted to a hospital in the country’s capital, Santo Domingo. But when Johnny later called the hospital, Islande was not there.
For two days Johnny searched everywhere for Islande, without result. She had been taken to a different hospital, where a hospital volunteer heard her praying to Jehovah. (Psalm 83:18) “Do you love Jehovah?” the volunteer asked. “Yes,” Islande replied through her tears. “Then don’t worry,” the volunteer reassured her. “Jehovah will help you.”
Johnny asked the Dominican Republic office of Jehovah’s Witnesses for help in finding Islande. A Witness named Melanie offered to search for her. As Melanie inquired at one hospital, the volunteer who had heard Islande praying overheard the conversation and pointed the little girl out. Soon, Islande was reunited with her family.
Operations and Rehabilitation
Many of the injured had received little or no treatment before arriving at the clinic set up at the Witnesses’ office in Haiti, and their wounded limbs had turned gangrenous. Too often, only amputation could save the patient’s life. In the first days after the quake, surgical equipment, medicines, and even anesthetics were in short supply. The situation was traumatic even for the doctors. One said, “There are images and sounds that I wish God would erase from my memory.”
The second week after the quake, Witness doctors from Europe who had the experience and the equipment to perform complex and urgently needed surgeries began to arrive. The medical team performed 53 operations and administered thousands of other medical treatments. Wideline, a 23-year-old Witness, had arrived in Port-au-Prince a day before the quake. When it struck, her right arm was crushed and had to be amputated in a local hospital. Relatives later took her to a hospital near their home in Port-de-Paix, seven hours away. But Wideline’s condition deteriorated, and the hospital staff there gave her up for dead.
Learning of her plight, a Witness medical team traveled from Port-au-Prince to treat Wideline and to bring her back for further care. When the other patients saw that her spiritual brothers had come for her, they applauded. With the help of her family and congregation, Wideline is now adjusting well to her new circumstances.
In the Dominican Republic, Jehovah’s Witnesses rented homes to serve as rehabilitation centers for patients sent there. The homes were staffed by rotating teams of Witness volunteers—doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and other caretakers. They cheerfully cared for the patients’ needs during recovery.
Sharing Faith, Hope, and Love
Only 6 of the 56 Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Haiti’s earthquake zone suffered significant damage. Most Witnesses displaced by the quake stayed at the undamaged halls or in other open areas. The Witnesses, already accustomed to gathering together, organized themselves as they would for one of their regular assemblies.
“We maintained the congregation’s regular routine of spiritual programs,” explained Jean-Claude, a local overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses, “providing a vital element of stability for young and old alike.” With what result? “I’m so glad to see Jehovah’s Witnesses still going around preaching,” one man said. “If we didn’t see you, we would feel that things were much more serious.”
The Witnesses brought people comfort. “Nearly everyone we meet believes that the quake was a punishment from God,” explained one Witness. “We assure them that the earthquake was a natural disaster and not God’s doing. We show them Genesis 18:25. There Abraham declares it unthinkable that God would destroy good people along with the bad. We also show them Luke 21:11. There Jesus foretold great earthquakes for this time, and we explain that he will soon resurrect dead loved ones and remove all suffering. Many people express profound gratitude for this knowledge.”*
Still, challenges remain. “We had the first disaster, the earthquake. Now we must deal with the aftermath,” noted Jean-Emmanuel, a Witness physician. “Apart from the threat of multiple diseases breaking out in crowded, unsanitary, and rain-soaked camps, there is emotional trauma that has been suppressed but is not going away.”
Weeks after the quake, a Witness came to the clinic complaining of relentless headaches and sleeplessness, common postdisaster complaints. “Did something hit your head?” a Witness nurse asked. “No,” he replied stoically. “My wife of 17 years was killed. But we expected such things to occur. Jesus said they would.”
Discerning the possible root of the problem, the nurse said: “But you lost your life partner. That’s terrible! It’s all right to grieve, to cry. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.” At that, the stricken man burst into tears.
Of the more than 10,000 Witnesses in the area, 154 died as a result of the quake. Over 92 percent of Port-au-Prince residents are estimated to have lost one or more loved ones in the disaster. To help those mourning ones, Jehovah’s Witnesses have made repeated visits on people who were physically and emotionally traumatized, giving them the opportunity to pour out their feelings to someone they could trust. The mourning Witnesses already knew the Bible’s promise of a resurrection and a paradise earth, but they also needed to express their feelings to empathetic fellow Christians and to hear compassionate words of encouragement.
Facing the Present and the Future
The apostle Paul wrote: “There remain faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Those qualities are enabling the many Haitian Witnesses to bear up under present circumstances, to encourage others, and to look to the future without fear. True faith, unity, and warmth are obviously behind the ongoing international relief effort. “I have never before experienced such an outpouring of love,” said Petra, a Witness doctor who came from Germany to help. “I have cried so much, but more from joy than from pain.”
The Wall Street Journal called the Haiti earthquake of 2010 “the most destructive natural disaster that a single country has experienced, by some measures.” Yet, since that event, the world has seen further tragic disasters, natural and man-made. Will there ever be an end to them? Jehovah’s Witnesses in Haiti and around the world are confident that the day will soon come when God will fulfill the Bible’s promise: “He will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.”—Revelation 21:4.
See chapter 11, “Why Does God Allow Suffering?,” in the book What Does the Bible Really Teach? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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“I could not bear to leave Ralphendy there to die”
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“I’m so glad to see Jehovah’s Witnesses still going around preaching”
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PROVIDING HOMES FOR VICTIMS
Within a month after the quake, Witness civil engineers began verifying which homes were safe for families to move back into. Many who lost their homes needed transitional housing to tide them over until they could find more-permanent dwellings.
“Drawing on the experience of international relief organizations, we designed an inexpensive, easy-to-assemble dwelling, similar in size to the homes many had been living in,” explains John, a staff member at the branch office in Haiti. “It provides protection from the rain and wind, without threatening to crush the family in case of further tremors.” Only three weeks after the quake, a crew of Haitian and international volunteers began building temporary homes.
People on the streets cheered as trucks passed through carrying the prefabricated sections of these homes. One Haitian customs official, while approving the importation of the construction materials, commented: “Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first ones who came across the border to get help for people. They don’t just talk about helping, they really do it.” In the first few months following the quake, 1,500 homes had already been built by the Witnesses for those who had lost theirs.
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A group of Haitian Jehovah’s Witnesses heading out to bring comfort to the victims of the disaster
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A doctor treating a boy at the clinic set up by Jehovah’s Witnesses