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null / Catholic Medical Mission Board

Les Cayes, Haiti, Sep 14, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

On August 14, Josette lost everything. A single mother, she had gone to the supermarket to sell items to support her four children when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. She returned home to find her house collapsed, with her mother and her children crushed beneath the rubble. Without hesitation, she began assisting her neighbors and went to the local church to ask the priest what he needed.

“She lost everything in less than a minute, but she helped her neighbors,” said Dr. Dianne Jean-François, program director for Haiti for Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB). “That struck me. The people have lost their loved ones, but they will go immediately, moving the rubble to take out children, women, men who are under the rubble, to save lives. That’s the resilience of these people.” 

According to a USAID report released Sept. 7, at least 2,207 people have died and more than 12,260 people sustained injuries since the earthquake struck in mid-August. Two days after the quake, Tropical Storm Grace made landfall in Haiti overnight, flooding the country with as much as 15 inches of rain in a single day in certain areas. 

People were also immediately without drinking water as mountains collapsed, preventing the passage of rivers and streams. Approximately 130,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, and more than 650,000 people are in need of humanitarian aid.

“It was already difficult for the people, and they were already living in terrible conditions—no jobs, no income-generating activities, depending on others, they had to survive,” said Jean-François, who has been working for CMMB for 18 years. “The earthquake came and destroyed what they had as their home and more. Then, you have [tropical storm] Grace, falling in the same ward, the southern part of Haiti, causing more problems.”

Haiti has long suffered from political turmoil and gang activities, while also facing the financial impacts of COVID-19, Jean-François said. The recent back-to-back natural disasters left the already-vulnerable country desperate for international assistance. 

Within six hours of the earthquake, CMMB had medical supplies, including antibiotics, pain killers, antiseptics, orthopedic supplies, and bandages on the ground in Haiti. The organization, which provides medical and development aid to communities affected by poverty and unequal access to healthcare, has been a stable presence in Haiti for the last 100 years. 

The day after the earthquake, CMMB sponsored a local team of two orthopedic surgeons and five anesthesiologists to provide surgeries.

“When you have an earthquake, either you die or you are crushed with bone injuries and internal bleeding,” Jean-François said. “You will have a lot of injured people. We sent antibiotic painkillers, anesthetic medicine, supplies for wounded care, and plaster.” 

With the medical supplies, the doctors were able to operate quickly and stabilize those with injuries soon after the earthquake occurred, Jean-François said. 

Additionally, CMMB began to mobilize at their headquarters in New York City, gathering supplies from pharmaceutical companies and benefactors. 

“We looked at what we had on hand, and within a week, we had two 40-foot containers going down,” said Dick Day, senior vice president for programs for CMMB.

CMMB employs nearly 150 people, most of whom are Haitian. In the aftermath of the disaster, they worked closely with the local ministry of health in Haiti to determine what supplies would be helpful, noting that their in-country colleagues are the decision-makers when it comes to what supplies to send.

“It’s really the people on the ground that are in the best place to define what those needs are,” Day said. “The international community should always be trying to fill gaps. There was a lot of coordination that took place with Dianne in those first couple of days to make sure that we were mobilizing resources from here that she and our partners on the ground could use.”  

Coordinating efforts, Jean-François said, was something they learned following the 2010 earthquake, during which time many relief programs were operating independently, instead of working together or with the local government. 

“We talk with the Ministry of Health because they are the ones coordinating the response, the medical emergency,” she said. “That’s a lesson learned from the earthquake in 2010. There was no real coordination, and that created a lot of issues later.” 

Two weeks ago, Jean-François traveled to the southern part of the country to assess the current situation and begin planning longer-term recovery efforts. 

“We’re working with the priests and sisters in the different communities because they live in the community,” Jean-François said. “They know our vulnerable [people]. The really vulnerable will not be able to rebuild their homes. They will not have funds to live for daily living.”

“With the sisters and the priests, we will move forward, identifying the kind of infrastructure, a home that will be adapted to respond to any hurricane with winds of 150 kilometers and an earthquake of the same magnitude we had,” she said. 

After homes and rural health facilities are rebuilt, CMMB will help Haitians identify and work toward income-generating activities to establish a more secure financial situation. CMMB is also actively working with the local priests to encourage parishioners to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, an effort sidelined by the earthquake. 

“We’re not fundamentally an emergency relief organization,” Day said. “We’re more of a long-term public health organization, but we have a very demonstrated capacity, which has been developed over years in Haiti, because of the necessity of responding.” 

“We want to make sure we balance those two—that we have excellence in our emergency response, but also in our long-term public health programs,” he said.

Upcoming shipments from CMMB will include hygiene kits and additional medications. They will also provide water-purification systems for families to have access to clean drinking water.

As a native of Haiti herself, Jean-François is committed to helping her country with longer-term recovery, she said, beyond the current earthquake relief efforts. 

“I would like to see my fellow citizens, my brothers and sisters, living a better life,” she said. “Give them opportunities so things can change for them. That is my motivation. It’s the wellbeing of everyone living in Haiti.”

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