Earthquake battered Haitian Episcopalians assess damage as ministry partners prepare to help

A man removes debris from a house the day after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck in Les Cayes, Haiti, Aug. 14, 2021. Photo: Estailove St-Val/REUTERS

[Episcopal News Service] Haitian Episcopalians have spent the hours since the Aug. 14, 7.2 magnitude earthquake searching for family and friends while assessing the damage to their churches, schools and communities as their ministry partners across The Episcopal Church have anxiously awaited their news.

The death toll from the earthquake stood at close to 1,300 the evening of Aug. 15, Haiti’s Civil Protection agency said via Twitter. Amid the devastation, Tropical Storm Grace, now downgraded to a tropical depression, was expected to bring heavy rainfall over the island on Aug. 16, potentially causing flash flooding and mudslides into Aug.17.

After the quake “the streets are filled with screaming,” the Rev. Abiade Lozama, archdeacon at Saint Sauveur Episcopal Church in Les Cayes near the quake’s epicenter, told the New York Times Aug. 14. “People are searching, for loved ones or resources, medical help, water.”

He and others were welcoming teachers and parents on Saturday morning to discuss plans to return to school when the earthquake occurred. Everyone ran outside, looking for an open space free of trees or buildings that could collapse. Lozama said he walked from the school to the town center and saw only a handful of houses that did not have damage.

The quake struck at 8:29 a.m. Eastern time 5 miles from the town of Petit Trou de Nippes on the country’s southwest peninsula, and 78 miles west of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Shocks were felt as far away as 200 miles in Jamaica, according to the United States Geological Survey.

“People are sitting around waiting for word, and there is no word — no word from their family, no word on who will help them,” Lozama told the Times. “When such a catastrophe happens, people wait for word or some sort of confidence from the state. But there’s nothing. No help.”

“We know that lives have been lost and many buildings destroyed,” Elizabeth Lowell, a member of the board of St. Vincent’s Center for Children with Disabilities in Haiti, wrote to supporters on Aug. 14. “Episcopal clergy in the affected area are safe, but shaken.”

Among those shaken clergy members, Lowell told Episcopal News Service, is the Rev. Kesner Ajax, known to many Episcopal congregations and schools as the coordinator of the diocese’s partnership efforts with Episcopalians elsewhere in the church. Ajax lives in Les Cayes. ENS received an email from him on Aug. 15 promising details of his experience as soon as possible.

The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is numerically the church’s largest diocese with 92,651 members as of 2019, the latest year for which parochial report statistics are available. The diocese grew nearly 11 percent between 2009 and 2019.

Episcopalians are preparing to help in Haiti as best they can.

“We are deeply saddened by the reports coming from our friends and partners in Haiti,” said Abagail Nelson, executive vice president of Episcopal Relief & Development, said in a statement posted on the organization’s website. “We pray for their safety as Tropical Storm Grace approaches the country. We are currently mobilizing to work with an array of development partners to meet the immediate and long-term needs of affected communities.”

Donations to Episcopal Relief & Development’s Haiti Fund will support the organization’s continued emergency response efforts in Haiti.

“Our hearts break for our brothers and sisters in Haiti. So many of us have visited Haiti and been blessed by her faith and resilience,” Atlanta Bishop Robert C. Wright, said in an Aug. 15 press release. He also acknowledged that many Georgia Episcopalians have long-standing personal and ministry relationships with the people of Haiti. “We pray God‘s grace and mercy on her now as she faces the tremendous trials of another earthquake and continued political upheaval. May God have mercy on the nation and people of Haiti.”

New Jersey Bishop William H. “Chip” Stokes called on the diocese, which has a Haitian Ministry, to offer special prayers on Aug. 15 for the Haitian people. “Pray for those who have died.  Pray for those who have been injured.  Pray for those who have lost their homes and shelter.  Pray for those whose loved ones have been killed or injured.  Pray for our brothers and sisters of the Diocese of Haiti which is part of our own Province II,” Stokes wrote in his call for prayer.

News from other Episcopal organizations and partners in the quake-struck part of the country is trickling out to partners in the United States. The Global Birthing Home Foundation, based in Kansas, reported Aug. 14 that the perimeter wall at Maison de Naissance had collapsed, taking down the power lines from its generator building. However, its solar power system appeared to be intact. The foundation of the main building is badly damaged, and the interior cannot be assessed due to the danger of collapse. The diocese and St. Vincent’s Center are among Global Birthing Home Foundation’s partners.

The fate of the diocese’s Bishop Tharp Business and Technology Institute in Les Cayes is not yet known. However, it does not bode well that a nearby hotel has been shown in news photos as completely collapsed.

Dr. Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners In Health, said Aug. 14 that Zanmi Lasante, based in Cange in the central plateau and Haiti’s largest health care provider outside the government, “will be able to muster both hospital beds and outreach teams, and already has a cracker-jack trauma team.”

Zanmi Lasante has Episcopal Church roots. The Rev. Fritz Lafontant, 94, a veritable icon of the diocese who succumbed to COVID-19 on June 28, was another founding member of Partners in Health and Zanmi Lasante’s founding director.

Farmer noted that after the devastating 2010 earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, Zanmi Lasante had teams within the quake zone within 24-48 hours. “They can do more, and faster, than back then, and will be counting on all of us for the pragmatic solidarity they deserve,” Farmer wrote. “That will be, as usual, in the form of staff, stuff, space, and support, since we now have Haiti’s biggest and strongest health system, much of it mobile when needed. Of course, they are already dealing with COVID and political disruption, but we have the US Coordination team on standby too.”

Haiti, plagued by decades of poverty and political violence, has not fully recovered from the 2010 magnitude 7 earthquake that struck 10 miles southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Somewhere between 220,000 and 300,000 people were killed. About 3 million people lived in the capital at the time and 1.6 million people in the city and elsewhere were left homeless on streets filled with the rubble of 80,000 destroyed buildings.

The latest earthquake hit a country suffering from an uptick in COVID-19 cases, ever-increasing gang violence and the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The Times reported that the gangs that control the highway linking the southern peninsula to the rest of Haiti declared a truce for humanitarian reasons the evening of Aug. 14, allowing aid to flow to devastated areas and alleviating concerns that trucks delivering the supplies would be held up and looted.

The country had seemingly avoided the worst of the pandemic until recently. Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker shows 20,507 confirmed cases and 576 deaths as of Aug. 16. However, health experts say that those numbers are major undercounts. Haiti received its first vaccine shipment on July 14.

In addition to LaFontant, the Rev. Lucien Bernard and the Rev. Robert Joseph, the rector and vice-rector of the Episcopal University of Haiti, respectively, both died of COVID-19 days apart in early June.

The country’s violence and the pandemic have prevented the diocese from electing a new bishop to succeed Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin, who retired March 1, 2019. The Very Rev. Joseph Kerwin Delicat, dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, was elected bishop coadjutor in June 2018; however, the validity of the election was challenged. Delicat eventually failed to receive the necessary consents from The Episcopal Church’s dioceses and bishops.

Bishop Todd Ousley, who heads the church’s Office of Pastoral Development that assists dioceses with bishop searches, told ENS in July that Haiti has not been able to schedule a new election because of the pandemic, government instability and civil unrest, and the challenges of power outages and lack of reliable internet or other communication mechanisms.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in July 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.

Source: Episcopal News