Food for the Hungry will distribute blankets, solar flashlights, water filters, and hygiene kits. But first, the organization had to assist its own staff members who were on the ground when the earthquake hit. Christianity Today online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey spoke by phone with Lindsay Branham, global communications coordinator for Food for the Hungry, who is in Port-au-Prince.
How did the earthquake affect your staff in Haiti?
It's hard to describe the devastation. Buildings and houses have completely collapsed. When we arrived on Friday, people were still in that shock phase. People were removing bodies, trucks were removing people from the streets. Now people are moving into recovery mode, so a lot of people have moved into impromptu displacement camps around the city. There are tons of people living under sheets and sticks in parks, yards or in the streets. People are scared to go back to their homes or they've lost their homes altogether. It's overwhelming to see the level of human pain and suffering.
We have 26 staff, and every single one of them was affected by the earthquake. One of our staff's two children were killed when their house collapsed. One of our staff's mother couldn't be located, and almost everybody's houses were destroyed or partially destroyed. All of them have started sleeping on the streets. You're talking about wanting to do emergency relief, but you have to start with your own staff. We're determining the greatest needs and have been involved in getting supplies shipped in. We're going to do our first distribution tomorrow. Basically, the help that has come to Haitians so far has been medical response. Emergency medical teams and search and rescue teams are on the ground running. Shelter, water, and food takes a little bit longer. That's the stage we're entering now.
What are some of the struggles you didn't anticipate?
Electricity has been out in the city, and because fuel is hard to find, running a generator is a challenge. The greatest challenge is organizing and executing as fast as possible. You know there are people still trapped in buildings or people waiting for surgeries that may or may not happen, so you're faced with that constant emergency. Earlier, we couldn't get shipments in to anybody. These are the kinds of things that make it hard to do relief quickly.
The director of our house programs, her father was killed when his house collapsed on him. Everyone was personally affected, so for them to show up at work and want to help other Haitians is beautiful. Yesterday everyone came to work, we went around the room and everyone shared their personal story of what happened. We sang "How Great Thou Art." We got right down to where does everyone live, we asked them for their ideas, and we hit the ground running. The first week, we couldn't even get through to anybody because the phone networks were down. It wasn't until yesterday that we knew all 26 were alive.
What do you think will be the unique challenges for Haiti to rebuild?
I lived in Thailand right after the tsunami, where it was a different type of damage. This is just Haiti, not 10-11 nations. But the width of the damage is pretty enormous. It's smaller than the radius of Pakistan's earthquake. The extent of it is so massive that it's hard to know where to start. You have just unbelievable amounts of rubble everywhere. The city still smells like dead bodies. It's a constant reminder of what happened and how in the world will you get this mess cleaned up? There is some heavy machinery that is working on removing the rubble, but a lot of it is being used right now for search and rescue. I haven't seen any attempt yet to start removing the rubble. It's more about whether there are people alive in the rubble, and if so let's find them. The Haitians pulled out so many survivors before rescuers came on the ground.
There's a supermarket here called the Caribbean Supermarket that completely collapsed. The day before yesterday, six people were rescued. Yesterday, two more people were rescued. They worked for eight hours straight to get a hole large enough to get two people water. Then they worked another 10 or so hours to get them out. There are people still alive under the rubble. That's the reality, so the time is not finished for finding survivors.
Are you seeing expressions of faith?
One of our staff members told me yesterday, "If I say that I survived and God loves me, it might seem that God didn't love people who died. I just look at it as grace; it is grace that I'm alive. Because I'm alive, I want to use my life for Jesus." That mentality has been strong for people who have faith. Some people are coming to faith for the first time. I heard a story of one man who walked out of his house, the earthquake happened, and his house collapsed. He told them that it was because of Jesus and his neighbors came to Jesus.
There have been a lot of media who are reporting that there's looting now, it's out of control, it's getting really violent. That might be happening in pockets. I haven't seen any of that. I've just seen people working really hard to figure out how to survive and helping each other do that.
Will you continue your work in Haiti?
We've had a program here for a couple of years, and we won't be closing that down.
We do relief and development. Our vision for Haiti is long-term, sustainable change in their hearts and their economic situation. What we're doing now is paired with our long-term vision. We're trying to work through local churches to do disaster response.
What long-term impact do you see?
You're talking about an orphan crisis that could come out of this. Another problem will be stability in the country, where there's a history of political upheaval. We're talking about a million to 3 million people displaced. We don't want to foster refugee camps or displacement camps, but they have to have somewhere safe to eat and drink.
We hope people won't just give $10 and then say, "I'm done." What Haiti needs is long-term partners. People are suffering in their own communities. You don't have to come all the way over here to see people who need help. A lot of people say, "I want to go to Haiti." That initial emotional response can help us see who's in need right around us.
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