Haiti, January 12, 2010

by Donna Thiessen 

On January 12, 2010, at 5:45pm I was in a vehicle driving through Port Au Prince, Haiti, when one of  the most devastating earthquakes, of all time, occurred. With three others, I was on my way to the town of Fermathe, a little south of the capital city, to volunteer at the Baptist Haiti Mission.

Proverbs 16:9  In his heart, a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps

I was asked to do the book-keeping for the Canadian branch of the mission 15 years ago  & did that for the nine years. During this time, the mission was made aware that I was a lab technologist, and I was invited to Haiti to install a small chemistry analyzer in the hospital laboratory & teach the Haitian lab tech how to use it. I was very impressed with the work being done at the mission & was moved to get involved by sponsoring children  attending the mission schools.  The following year, Jake accompanied me, and we were there for two weeks. Jake was involved with maintenance & I followed through with work in the lab as well as child sponsorship correspondence.

This trip, in January, had a different plan. My friend, Alyson Stephenson , and I were going to teach the women to crochet plastic mats. This project has been taken on by many churches & schools,  to make these mats & send them to third world countries. Many people who have limited resources, live in homes with dirt floors. These mats supply a dry space to sleep & also keep away the bugs. They are simple to make but cumbersome to ship.

So, plans were made with the BHM board here in Canada & we were asked about traveling in January when a group was being organized to go. We were grouped with two men, Dan Doerksen & Bruce Foreman, who were going to the mission to do maintenance work, construction work & some radio & electrical work. We were asked to be ready for a trip in January & were scheduled to fly Air Canada from Toronto to Montreal then on to Port Au Prince, Haiti.

Dan was with us on the flight from Toronto to Haiti, but Bruce had driven his trailer down to Florida & was arriving on an earlier flight from Miami. Once outside the airport terminal, we set about finding our driver & also Bruce. The driver we found, but Bruce was nowhere. We called the mission on a cell phone to check if indeed he was still expected, and Dan went to try and get back into the terminal to find Bruce. After almost an hour, Bruce was located and the luggage & the four of us were loaded into the 4x4 style vehicle. There were also two other Haitian men that were hitching a ride with us to the mission. All four men were squished into the back seat while Alyson & I were installed together in the front bucket seat. It was now around 4:30pm.

Driving in Port Au Prince on a good day is quite harrowing…but we found that even here they have rush hour traffic. The streets were full of cars, buses & tap taps…and there are always many people walking. We were traveling very slowly when the Haitian passengers in the back began talking to the driver in Creole, sounding like they were telling him to take an alternate route. The driver did turn around and we again went past the airport & down another road. It was now about 4:45pm.

This road wasn’t much better & we were traveling quite slowly when it seemed to me like the vehicle trembled as though it had more than one flat tire. When the rumbling started to get more pronounced, the driver turned off the ignition. I was looking out the window & I remember being quite puzzled because I could not focus on anything, then everything in my view violently rose up in the air. You could see that the horizon also moved upwards. It appeared as though everyone outside had taken a giant leap in the air, but then, so did the trees, the buildings, everything arose.  No one in the vehicle spoke. There must’ve been some loud noises but to this day, I can not recall hearing a sound during the earthquake. We just stared out the window in silence and I suppose in shock, trying to make sense of what our eyes were seeing and the terrible jarring that we were feeling.

I found out later that the earthquake was only 37 seconds in duration. People were on the ground, plumes of dust arose just ahead of us on the road, where a building had gone down. We looked at each other in the vehicle and started talking at the same time. “ was that an earthquake…it must have been an earthquake” The driver started the vehicle quickly, in jerky movements and we got the impression of urgency to get us away from where we were. He turned around, we could not go ahead, heavily pressing the gas to get us away from what was ahead.  We started hearing the sounds of the people around us…some were screaming, wailing, some were just staring around, dazed and confused, some were still laying on the road. some put their hands in the air & you could hear them praising God for His safety…

We had no idea at that time, how devastating this catastrophe was. As we tried to find an open road out of the city, we saw buildings that we had passed earlier that were now sandwiched…we saw the street vendors with their wares laying about on the street…people were coming out of every standing building and flocking onto the streets. Other vehicles were doing like us & trying to get away from where we were. We would turn down a street to find it blocked with debris, some small stuff, some large. We would turn again to find another road but it was collapsed and there were great holes. We wove up and down, left & right until it began to get dark. There were no lights to be seen except for the headlights of the other vehicles. There was no power.

Once we got further away from the centre of town towards the outskirts, we could move quicker. Even here the effects of the earthquake could be seen. There were hillsides of rubble where homes had been. We made it to the mission after a couple of hours, and then realized how tense we had been, as our shoulders relaxed, and we praised God & our driver for getting us safely home.  We had all  thought to be spending the night in that 4x4, packed together for the night.

The internet service tower for the mission was further up the mountain (the mission is at 4800 feet) & the staff was quite surprised to find that they had internet service. This was fantastic, as we were then able to get a message home to our families to tell them that we were safe.

During that first evening & night, and for days afterwards, there were significant after shocks that shook the buildings & knocked more dishes & things around. They were sever enough to wake us from a deep sleep & Alyson & I would each jump up in bed & look at each other in disbelief that it was happening again. As the days went on, the frequency and strength of these would diminish.

When morning came, we were assigned our duties for that first day after the earthquake. The full time missionaries would be busy taking stock of supplies, diesel fuel & supplying extra help in the hospital.  The Haitians that are hired by the mission did not show up for work, it was unknown for a couple of days whether they lived or died. The mission did lose one staff member but many of their workers were injured or had lost loved ones. Alyson & I would be cooks for two days. We were to cook enough food for the mission staff & some more for hospital staff as they would not have time to take breaks to prepare their own food. The inventory of the supplies showed that we had plenty of rice & beans in the store room, so that was the beginnings of most of our meals during our week there. The garden still had some lettuce & tomatoes, so we managed to have a small salad each day.

Food, fuel and water was monitored and rationed carefully. The market that was the missions main grocery supplier  was completely crushed. Water trucks that filled the cistern would not be coming & all fuel stations & businesses were going to be closed for an indefinite amount of time. We were told that we had to conserve water, which meant that showers were a no-no until further notice!

After two days, one of the Haitian cooks arrived to work. She came with the message that she had not eaten for two days, neither had her husband or children. The mission staff went about making a care package for her, rice, beans, wheat, corn meal…but she could not take them as she had no home to go to or fuel to cook them. She was sent home with peanut butter, bread & some prepared can food that she could open & eat. She was told to return when her family was fed.

Our next job was to sort and organized the hospital store room. It probably wasn’t too orderly to start but many of the stock supplies were on the floor. A very dusty job, but rewarding when we found some of the supplies that were required in the hospital.  From there, we were given jobs of delivering patient meals in the hospital, doing some book-keeping for staff that needed expenses recorded as money was spent quickly for supplies for the mission. One day was spent filling bags with corn meal, bulgar wheat & rice..then placing one of each in a pillow case for distribution to families. We also made hygiene bags, containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap & a wash cloth. Tarps were cut by Dan & Bruce and each family would get one along with food supplies.

The hospital at the mission was packed with patients with many more lined up in the streets. People were brought in on pieces on wood, doors & anything that could be used for transport. People walked for miles with their loved ones to reach a hospital or clinic that would help them. Wards were set up in hallways, board rooms and beds were put between beds. This 100 bed hospital quickly swelled to over 300 with many more able to be up, waiting outside for daily treatments. Days after the earthquake, patients were still arriving, the patients needing stitches could no longer be stitched as their wounds had been open too long, The two Haitian doctors were not able to do more than stabilize patients until more specialized surgeons would arrive. Three days after the quake, Samaritans Purse sent three surgeons, nurses and a plane load of medical supplies. The OR’s began to work & went from early morning till late evening

In the city, there were so many that perished in the earthquake , we heard that bodies were being left on the side of the roads and piled. People were getting desperate for water, food and medicine & riots began. When supplies ran out in the city, swarms of people made their way up the mountain. The mission staff were concerned for safety. Only trips for supplies, that started coming through at the airport, were taken down the mountain, and only the men were allowed to leave the mission.

While we were so busy at the mission, family at home worried about how we would get home. They heard that many that were in the city were being evacuated via military transport. People that were stranded in the city where  there was no power, food or water, were being evacuated promptly by their embassy’s. No building was considered safe, especially during the after shocks. No stores were open, nor banks, or places of business. The city had shut down. People were sleeping in the streets with any bit of shelter that could be found. We were safe at the mission, being fed & busy doing what we could for the relief effort, so we determined that we would stay until our week’s commitment was done.

It was decided that we should go down to the embassy to register for evacuation. We had a driver take us Monday afternoon, almost a week after the quake. There were crowds of people trying to get the officials attention and hopefully a ride out of Haiti. The embassy was guarded with numerous soldiers carrying machine guns standing around the gate. We were able to get the information we needed & were told to report back to the gates at 8 the next morning. We would only be able to take along a small carry on suitcase and nothing more. We rode back up to the mission to have supper & pack what we could fit in one small case.

The next morning, we got our ride to the embassy arriving there before 8am. The line ups of the night before had multiplied ten fold & people were packed so close together, we had no idea how to report to the gate. Our driver & another Haitian woman that had accompanied us, took our cases. One went in front of me, the other behind Alyson who was behind me. The literally pushed us together, & almost lifted us as they pushed & yelled, & pushed & yelled to get us close to the front of the gate. The Haitians that had been lined up for days started yelling and shaking their fists at us as we were being propelled to the front gate. I was more than a little concerned for our safety at that moment. Once we got close to the front, the guards there on duty remembered us from the afternoon before & we were allowed to enter after our passports were checked. 

It took until 2pm, after registering with the embassy, and eating our lunch of peanut butter & jam sandwiches that the mission had sent with us, that we were put on buses to the airport. The buses were manned by those guards with machine guns & UN guard vehicles front & back of the bus. We were dropped off at the tarmac where we stood under tarps, with armed guards around us, for another couple of hours. We then found out that we would be able to come home on a WestJet flight that had come down with World Vision workers and medical supplies. This was a luxury as we had heard that those that were evacuated via military transport, had to sit in cargo planes on the floor for the 5 hour flight to Montreal. All evacuees were to be dropped off in Montreal for security & customs checks but we found out that the WestJet plane was carrying on to Toronto empty, We asked about going further with them but were told it was not possible, we had to get out in Montreal for security reasons. Alyson & I prayed about it & another steward came by our seats & said that he would try again. We ended up being able to stay on the flight all the way to Toronto & arrived within the hour of the time that our original flight would have brought us home.

We were so thankful for the internet that was working at the mission. I wrote a letter home each day to my husband, children and our pastor. They forwarded on my letters to relatives, friends and our church family…who also passed them along to their friends and family etc As a result, we received daily e-mails from across the country, even overseas. My son posted my letters on FaceBook,  he knew my password. I also found out that my letters had been forwarded to the St. Catharines Standard, and I was quoted in the newspaper a few times. To be able to communicate to our families…and receive such encouraging mail in return was our main source of joy each morning & evening. One of the missionaries had Skype on her computer & we were also able to call our husbands one night, how surprised they were to hear from us in person. When I got home, I copied & pasted all the FaceBook comments & e-mail greetings that we received while in Haiti & also shortly after returning home. It made a 50 page document…that I had to edit some & then made a journal of the entries. 

Some verses that were sent to us by a number of friends:
Jeremiah 29:11  For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Psalms 46:1-3 God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though it’s waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging. 
At the end of the same psalm, Be still & know that I am God.
Joshua 1:9  Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous, Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

One month after the earthquake, the president of Haiti, declared a 3 day fast for prayer & thanksgiving for his nation. This comes less than six years after a previous president dedicated the country to satan. People again flocked to the streets, filled churches  to overflowing…where there were no churches, parks & other places were used for worship. The president attended services outside his ruined palace. Thousands came to know & trust the Lord as a result of this weekend. God is working in the hearts of the Haitian people. They still need your prayers & support.

God’s hand was on every movement that we made, He gave us strength to do whatever task that was required of us. He gave us rest each night, we slept well, He gave us the peace of heart that we were exactly where we were meant to be. He protected us by directly our path each day. If we had stayed on that original route from the airport to the mission, we would have been going through the most devastated area of the capital, and would have most definitely been injured or worse. He supplied our physical needs, we had food, even though it was mostly rice & beans, we had lodging with a roof. God made a way for us to return all the way home to Toronto instead of leaving us in Montreal to find our way the next day.

From this tragedy of Haiti’s earthquake, has come many stories of miraculous recoveries, miraculous survival  and miraculous change of heart amongst so many people.

Be open to opportunities to be a part of His miracles. God can use anyone who is humble and willing, and He will guard & keep you until the day He calls you home. Keep praying for the people in Haiti & I would covet your prayers as well as I will be returning to Haiti in January.