Cover Story
Associated Press/Photo by Gerald Herbert

Aftershock

Caregivers predict a second wave of death, as Haitians find moments of deliverance amid days of devastation from one of the modern world's worst natural disasters

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE-Myerline Guillaume was preparing to walk to an evening worship service when she felt the earth move in her two-story home in Port-au-Prince. When she looked up, the sight was horrifying: "The ceiling was coming down on me."

Three hours later, neighbors plucked Guillaume from the rubble in the dark. Her leg was crushed, and so was her spirit: Of 29 family members living in the house, 16 were at home when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck on Jan. 12. Nine were dead, including three sisters.

Twelve days later, in Job-like fashion, Guillaume was preparing to worship again. On a thin mattress over concrete in the makeshift clinic of a small church in the nearby town of Cabaret, Guillaume tended to what was left of her amputated leg and her family. Surrounded by her three young children-all suffering from severe leg breaks or open wounds-she clutched a tattered New Testament in her thin hand. Waiting for a morning worship service to begin just outside, she explained: "It's the only thing that brings me comfort."

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Alongside shelter, food, water, and medical care, comfort also is in short supply in the shattered streets of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, despite valiant efforts of hard-working groups to provide aid rapidly under chaotic conditions.

The estimated numbers alone are ghastly:


The dead: 200,000 people (est.).
The injured: 194,000.
The homeless: 1 million.
People living in makeshift camps: 800,000.
People needing food aid: 2 million.
Structures destroyed: 70 percent in the capital; 90 percent in towns close to the epicenter.

The numbers may be hard to grasp, but the sights, sounds, and especially smells of Port-au-Prince give them a stomach-churning reality: Death's odor clings to piles of rubble on roadsides as Haitians pick through the ruins for supplies they could use, discovering also body parts of victims left in the debris. On a busy street near downtown, people crammed along the length of the broken median, setting up camp for the night. Nearby, a stack of partially covered bodies lay waiting for pickup by UN workers.

In the city's once-prized central plaza, the Champs de Mars just across the street from the collapsed Presidential Palace, thousands of Haitians mesh into a squalid tent city, subsisting on food rations from the UN and other aid groups. Not every family makes it to the front of the food lines before the supplies run out or the crowds grow restless and the truck pulls away. Similar scenes unfold in tent cities around the capital and in the countryside, with the overpowering stench of human waste deepening worries that a new health crisis looms if sanitation woes and a lack of latrines persist.

A health crisis also looms for the thousands of Haitians suffering from amputated limbs, serious bone breaks, and severe flesh wounds. Doctors worry that without the proper care, infection and blood clots could usher in a massive second wave of death. Though volunteer doctors have flooded the area, in many places medical supplies run short and hospitals remain overcrowded, forced to turn away patients in need of critical care.

All the while, aid groups clamor to assess the best way to help, as the UN tries to organize a massive but piecemeal relief effort alongside a paralyzed government infamous for its pre-earthquake corruption and ineffectiveness. Haitians remain remarkably calm for the moment, but leaders know that the historically volatile country could quickly turn violent if conditions don't improve.

For now, some of the best immediate help may come from groups working closely with church leaders attuned to their communities' woes and committed to providing both material and spiritual care that Haitians desperately need.

For some large relief groups like Samaritan's Purse, connecting with local churches is central to their strategy for delivering aid. South of the capital in the mountain town of Fermathe, the Boone, N.C.-based group has helped supply relief and doctors to Baptist Haiti Mission, a 60-year-old Christian ministry with a functioning hospital that is providing critical care for hundreds of patients since the quake.

Workers from Samaritan's Purse arrived in Port-au-Prince the day after the quake and began working with a network of church contacts to help with distribution of aid to particularly vulnerable populations.

Few populations are more vulnerable than the thousands of Haitians living in Cité Soleil, one of the largest slums in the capital. The sprawling shantytown has long been notorious for its filthy conditions and dangerous gang wars. The earthquake only deepened the misery, sending thousands into packed tent cities in the baking heat with few resources. Pigs wallow in a nearby riverbed overflowing with rotting trash, and children splash through open sewage.

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