When the news of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti reached the rest of the world, it prompted an overwhelming show of support and kicked off what promises to be a long, difficult rebuilding process. 

The earthquake, the largest of its kind to hit the Caribbean nation in two centuries, left immense damage when it struck just outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince Jan. 12. Early estimates indicated that the deaths numbered well into the tens of thousands. 

“No one — not the Haitian government, the United Nations, the U.S. government — no one can put a figure on the level of destruction now or the number of dead,” said Tom Price, senior communications manager for Catholic Relief Services. Reports did confirm, however, the collapse of Notre Dame Cathedral in the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince and the death of Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, another piece of devastating news for the predominantly Catholic country. 

CRS was among the first international aid organizations to become involved in the relief effort, joining local partners Caritas Haiti and other groups in helping to dig survivors out of the rubble and to distribute food, water and basic medical and hygiene kits in the days after the disaster. After an initial commitment of $5 million to the relief effort, CRS raised more than $13 million in pledged donations and upped its commitment to $25 million. 

The most immediate need, Price said, has been finding enough food for both survivors and rescue workers. 

Troubled past 

While an earthquake of this magnitude is something not seen in Haiti’s recent history, the country has experienced its share of disaster. From violent tropical storms — including damaging hurricanes in 2008 — to political and economic turmoil, the people of Haiti have struggled to overcome extreme difficulty. 

Father Marc Boisvert, a U.S. priest who has spent the last 12 years running a program for poor and orphaned children in southern Haiti, told Our Sunday Visitor that this disaster could be the breaking point for the beleaguered Haitians. 

“This earthquake is absolutely devastating to the fragile hope that has existed of late,” he said. “Having barely recovered from the mud slides that killed hundreds this year and thousands the year before, from political unrest that turned violent during the last president’s administration, from the extreme poverty that forced people to eat mud cakes … this new disaster may be too much to overcome.” 

Father Boisvert added that he expects there to be a reversal of the trend of Haitians migrating to the city in the hope of finding a better life, as individuals who have lost homes and loved ones will start moving back to villages in other parts of the country. 

“They will need medical care, food, shelter and financial assistance. We need to be prepared for this,” he said, adding that the United Nations has contacted his organization, Theo’s Work, to ask how many orphans and vulnerable children they can accommodate. 

CRS is also very familiar with the conditions that have made Haiti one of the poorest nations on earth. The organization has been stationed in Haiti for 55 years, operating a program that addresses economic and health concerns as well as emergency response issues. 

At the time of the earthquake, CRS had 313 staff workers stationed in Haiti, all of whom had been accounted for after the disaster. They were also able to tap into a stock of crucial supplies stored at warehouse facilities both in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

CRS also sent in a team of additional workers, including former Haiti country representative Bill Canny, who helped to lead the previous hurricane relief effort and developed strategies to analyze and mitigate the effects of natural disasters in the country. With their experience, the CRS workers were well prepared for the current catastrophe, Price said. 

“This is the same team that in 2008 literally dug Haiti out of the mud from the four hurricanes that went through that year,” he said. “This is a different type of disaster, the devastation is more extreme, but you couldn’t pick a better team to lead the emergency response for the Church in Haiti.” 

‘Build back better’ 

Although the millions affected by the earthquake’s destruction have been left in mourning, Father Boisvert suggests that in the long-term a sense of hope may overcome the immediate feelings of despair and that a “new Haiti” may emerge from the disaster. 

“The Haitian people are known for their ability to remain hopeful in the face of misery, poverty and calamity. There’s a chance that this could turn into an opportunity for a new beginning,” he said. “Haiti’s weak infrastructure, its rampant corruption at all government levels, the elites’ control of the economy to their advantage could be near their end. The earthquake could be the final blow when the people say, ‘This is enough! We deserve better.’”

Joan Rosenhauer, CRS executive vice president of U.S. operations, said it is difficult to predict what the next decade may hold for Haiti, but there is a hope that conditions will improve with the reconstruction. 

“Haiti has been plagued by challenges for many, many years, so I don’t think we can assume that it is going to take a couple years and that is going to completely turn around,” she told OSV. “But on the other hand, I do think that in a few years we will see significant rebuilding in the city of Port-au-Prince, and hopefully that will be accompanied by some assistance with economic development, that people will be able to develop job skills in the process, and there will be some improvement in their economy.” 

CRS, she added, is committed to a rebuilding strategy that will look to address many of the same problems the organization had been working to alleviate before the earthquake. 

“We don’t want to be a part of just rebuilding the poverty that has plagued Haiti,” Rosenhauer said. “The phrase that we’ve been using is we want to ‘build back better.’” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

How to Help

The U.S. bishops have urged Catholics to join in the relief effort by giving to parish collections for Haiti and to Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ international humanitarian agency. 

In a letter to all U.S. bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, CRS chairman, wrote that “our faith compels us to pray for and reach out to our brothers and sisters in their time of suffering.” 

CRS is accepting secure online donations through their website, www.crs.org. Donations can also be made by calling 1-877-HELP-CRS or by texting the word “RELIEF” to 30644. 

Online contributions can also be made to Theo’s Work, Father Marc Boisvert’s program for poverty-stricken and orphaned children in Haiti, by visiting www.freethekids.org

See the In Focus section (Pages 9-12) to find Catholic organizations in need of donations to help the people of Haiti.