By Greg Warner
Sean Taylor and his fellow volunteers had planned to go to Haiti in October of 2016 to help residents still recovering from the 2010 earthquake. Instead, they found themselves doing hurricane relief, as yet another natural disaster struck the beleaguered Caribbean nation on October 4.
But it couldn’t have worked out better for the team, Taylor said soon after he and five others from Chandler Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., returned to their homes.
“I really felt this was God’s timing to have us there at this time. No one knew Hurricane Matthew was going to hit,” said Taylor, pastor of the CBF-affiliated congregation. “But it allowed us to be there not even a few weeks after the hurricane.”
Matthew blasted the southwestern tip of Haiti as a Category Four hurricane — the strongest storm to hit the country since 1964 — killing an estimated 1,600 people and causing nearly $2 billion in damages. Roughly 175,000 Haitians were left homeless and 12 percent of the population was in need of assistance.
Arriving soon afterwards “allowed us to do a lot of things we wouldn’t have been able to do,”Taylor said of the trip.
The team, who were among thousands of volunteers who poured into Haiti after the storm, worked in the Grand-Goave area – 40 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince. Teaming with CBF field personnel in the region, they repaired homes, delivered food and brought much-needed building supplies for the recovery effort.
Even though Taylor had been to Haiti on an earlier construction trip, he said he still struggled with the stark contrast and disparity between the United States and the impoverished neighbor on its doorstep.
“It is overwhelming to leave your life and show up in this place,” he said. “You feel guilt for what you have and for [Americans’] constant desire for more.”
Every visitor confronts the obvious poverty, he said — kids not properly clothed, families without food and living in “houses” that are mere sheds, no running water, cooking over an open fire. That’s not just the rural or poor areas; it’s the shared experience of most Haitians.
Most homes don’t have running water but get it from a stand pipe or other common source, especially in rural areas. Newer homes might have pipes, but the system to pump water to the home is most often broken. Only about one-fourth of Haitians have access to a toilet.
In Haiti, the second most populous country in the Caribbean, more than 70 percent of the 10.6 million people live below the poverty line. The same percentage live on less than $2 a day — an estimate from the International Red Cross.
The causes of the systemic problems that have plagued the country for decades are widely known — endemic poverty, government corruption, poor infrastructure, foreign exploitation, lack of health care and education, among others.
Despite money and help from many nations — more than $7 billion for earthquake recovery alone — little true progress is evident. Haiti’s problems seem as permanent as its natural beauty.
Observing the “dysfunction” of Haitian society can be discouraging for those who go to help, said Taylor. “If you travel to Haiti on a plane, it will be full of people on humanitarian trips.” In fact, those eager volunteers are “a huge source of Haitian economy,” he added.
“Some people feel like Haiti is a big hole into which we are pouring resources,”Taylor said. To work there, “you have to come to grips with the reality that so many systems are broken — government, the economy, agriculture.”
“It’s beyond our ability to fix. So what can we do?”
One coping strategy, Taylor said, is to “get down to the relational level” — that is, focus on forming relationships with the individuals you are helping, not the scope of the problems. It’s a lesson he learned from Jenny Jenkins, one of CBF’s field personnel who has served in Haiti since soon after the 2010 earthquake.
“If you look at the whole picture in Haiti, you realize how overwhelming it is,” said Jenkins, a nurse who works in medical clinics around the town of Grand-Goâve, on the northern shore of Tiburon Peninsula.
“That’s the reality — we’re not going to be able to fix Haiti,” she said. “But we don’t think that’s what God has called us here to do.”
During six years of confronting Haiti’s insurmountable problems with inadequate resources, Jenkins knows little has changed, but she has discovered “the freedom of knowing it’s not my job.”
“It’s God’s plan and mission and responsibility,” she said. “I have to trust and know that God knows the answer. If there are ways I can come along and help, God will provide for that.”
So she attacks Haiti’s challenges, she said, “the same way you eat an elephant — one bite at a time.”
When the task is overwhelming, Jenkins says she reminds herself: “I wasn’t meant to fix it all. I’ll do the piece that’s in front of me.”
After Hurricane Matthew, Jenkins and the local churches with which she partners identified 200 homes in their communities damaged by the storm.
“So we’re starting with one at a time.”
Chandler Baptist volunteers, on their most recent trip, helped a widow whose house had been destroyed by the hurricane. The team agreed: “Let’s rebuild her house so it doesn’t wash away next time,” Taylor said. And they did.
One simple solution for one individual.
“These are very small steps, and they can feel like nothing,”Taylor admitted. “But small steps are getting them to a better place. Through your love, compassion and prayers, you can build toward something better.”
As for Jenkins, how did this nurse turn into a construction forewoman? Home reconstruction is not what this nurse went to Haiti to do — it’s just what needs to be done at the moment.
“The medical work is still my main thing,” she said. “I’m not the one who is swinging the hammer.”
The real reason she went to Haiti was to establish health clinics in remote locations for residents with little or no access to health care. Jenkins now travels to five clinics she and her partners established in the mountains that hover over Grand-Goave.
“These are full consultation clinics,” where patients are seen by volunteer doctors, nurses and dentists, she said.
“Most of our clinics are staffed by teams that come from the U.S.,” Jenkins added, who claims both Virginia and North Carolina as home states. It’s her job to recruit those volunteers, but “God does a lot of it,” she said. “It’s amazing to me how it comes together.”There always seem to be enough people to get the job done.
“Most months we have at least one team here,” said Jenkins, who hosts about 16 volunteer teams a year — serving medical, construction, educational and other purposes.
Jenkins and one of her medical teams make a scheduled visit to each of the five clinics once a month. In between those trips Jenkins does follow-up.
Jenkins set up those clinics in recent years with the help of a handful of small Baptist churches scattered throughout the mountains south of Grand-Goâve. Those churches were all started by Siloe Baptist Church in Grand-Goâve, which is the key partner for Jenkins’ and CBF’s ministry in the region.
After the hurricane, those same churches helped identify victims in need of assistance.
Matthew made landfall on the southwestern tip of the Tiburon Peninsula, virtually wiping out Jérémie and other towns. CBF personnel are based nearer the eastern end of the peninsula, closer to the mainland and Port-au-Prince. There were far fewer deaths in that area, but there was plenty of flooding and related damage.
“In the first weeks after the storm, we used local labor to help folks dig out, clean up and dry out from mud and water damages,” Jenkins reported. “To date, repair has been done on approximately 10 homes — replacing roofs, foundations and walls damaged in the storm”
“The churches we partner with in the mountains have taken on the responsibility to repair homes in their local areas as an outreach project to their communities,” Jenkins explained.
It wasn’t just homes and roads destroyed by Matthew but also crops. CBF-related teams delivered food as well to residents of one remote community. Seed was also distributed to several communities to replace gardens that were destroyed.
CBF adopted a response plan for Hurricane Matthew that proposes $156,000 for efforts in Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas. In the first of three phases, $20,000 was spent on storm relief, half of it in Haiti — money which Jenkins used to provide food, water, shelter and medicine to storm victims.
The rest of the CBF spending will repair homes and build water cisterns in Cuba ($72,000) and start a two-year Sustainable Living training program for church leaders in the Bahamas and Cuba ($64,000). Those teams teach poor residents to save money to loan to each other, helping them rise above the poverty that makes them more vulnerable to natural disasters.
The Chandler volunteers repaired the home of Marie Rose Saintlo, one of about 90 women who are part of a group of widows that Jenkins regularly assists. Children in Haiti benefit from a lot of international assistance, she said, but needy adults are often overlooked. Widows are particularly vulnerable, unless they have extended families who look after them and their homes.
Even before the hurricane, Jenkins and her volunteers had built or repaired eight widows’ homes, some of which had been erected by aid organizations as “temporary” quarters for victims of the 2010 earthquake and earlier storms.
Marie Rose’s tiny house in the mountains, itself one of those “temporary” structures built by a Christian organization, was now structurally unsound, and every time it rained it got worse.
This time, Matthew’s floodwaters had poured through the house and totally washed away the foundation. Only the roof could be salvaged. After laying a concrete foundation, the Chandler team built new, sturdier walls as well.
It was not as easy as it sounds. First they had to get there over dirt roads that had been turned to mud by the hurricane. Then the volunteers and a handful of hired locals had to get the building supplies to the site.
Instead of being delivered to the house, they had been dropped at the top of the hill, 200 yards away, because the muddy road was impassable. Everything had to be carried by hand — thankfully downhill — but over the proverbial slippery slope. Oh, and it rained almost every day the team was there.
Jenkins agreed the trip by the team from Liberty “was perfect timing.”
“Chandler Baptist was very instrumental in the work on two homes, as well as bringing greatly needed tarps and hurricane ties,” Jenkins said. “We have tried to purchase most materials locally, but some things just couldn’t be found at that time.”
In addition to replacing Jean’s house, the Liberty team helped other residents by hanging tarps where missing roofs and walls once stood and by delivering meals.
This was Chandler Baptist’s third volunteer construction trip to Haiti and Taylor’s second, although “construction is not part of my background,” he noted. “I have close to zero skills. But the work is very simple. It’s more labor and less technical.”
In fact, there was no one with construction experience on the six man crew — Tim Everly and his son Campbell; Kevin Bonham and his son Peyton; Scott Cooper; and Taylor — although the four older members had been part of earlier construction teams from Chandler.
Previous teams had done “rubble construction” — where rubble from homes destroyed by the 2010 earthquake is turned into concrete and used to build replacement structures.
Taylor said he is amazed by the optimism and celebrative nature of Haiti’s people.
“Everyone I encountered was just thrilled we were there. Children would call out to us. They would hold our hands, carry buckets for us.”
His team played soccer with the children, kicking an old basketball on a dirt field, using rocks as boundaries, and yet “they [were] thrilled,” Taylor recalled.
How do they find joy in what many people would term dismal circumstances?
Taylor speculated it comes in part from “living very close to one another. All your neighbors are family. Everyone talks to one another.” The Haitian people, though still independent, have “very open and deep relationships,” the pastor said.
Their poverty teaches them to value even little things. Haitian children are excited to be playing with what others would consider trash, Taylor said, while Americans are notoriously materialistic.
Haitians, by contrast, “find joy in each other.”
Jenkins attributes the Haitian people’s optimism and perseverance in the face of countless natural disasters and intractable economic problems to their simple faith in a providential God.
Visitors who come to Haiti “see people who have desperate, horrible lives [who] can still praise God,” she said. “There may be nothing in the house, but they keep praising God.”
“Regardless of what else is going on, they say, ‘We’re going to keep going. As long as God provides, we are going to keep going on.”‘
“One of the things that people connect with here is the passion that people have to survive,” she added. “They work hard to survive in situations where they shouldn’t survive.”
That determination is ingrained in the Haitian people, Jenkins said. “They fought a revolution for their freedom,” she said. “They just don’t give up.”
The modern nation of Haiti was established on New Year’s Day of 1804 when slaves and former slaves of the French colony of Dominica overthrew their captors. It is still the only nation in the world formed as a result of a successful slave revolt. It was also the first independent nation in Latin America or the Caribbean and only the second republic in the Americas (after the U.S.).
By all rights, Haiti should have been the jewel of the New World. Christopher Columbus first stepped on Western soil on the island of Hispaniola, which today Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. When Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground on the island, the survivors established the first European settlement in the Americas.
After the indigenous peoples were killed off, Haiti was populated largely by slaves the French brought from Africa to work the sugar cane plantations, an industry that made Haiti one of the most lucrative colonies in the world.
Eventually, those slaves revolted and gained their independence — a victory that laid the groundwork for ending slavery and reshaping societies in the New World. To gain and maintain their freedom, Haitians eventually defeated all three great colonial powers — Britain, France and Spain — the only country to do so.
Yet the country has often struggled to find its way since winning independence, alternating between corrupt dictatorship and foreign exploitation.
For two decades beginning in 1914, Haiti was effectively controlled by the United States through the occupation of the U.S. Marines. With the help of local enforcers, the Marines are blamed for the deaths of as many as 15,000 Haitians and for initiating an era of oppressive foreign policy in the hemisphere.
But Haiti’s troubles come from within as well as without. Since independence, Haiti has suffered 32 coups. Rampant government corruption stymies many attempts to improve infrastructure and living conditions.
According to a 2006 study by Transparency International, Haiti ranked first of all countries surveyed for levels of perceived domestic corruption. The organization noted there is a strong correlation between corruption and poverty. Critics say government corruption and ineffectiveness exacerbate every natural disaster as well as the recovery efforts that follow.
Of the 1,600-plus people in six countries killed by Hurricane Matthew, all but about 50 were in Haiti. Despite plenty of notice from forecasters, many residents were not evacuated and others were not even aware the Category Four storm was approaching.
Aid organizations had previously warned that Haiti lacked both the governmental and economic ability to prepare for or recover from such a disaster.
Storms and quakes, compounded by human failures, serve to demonstrate the very complex economic, political and ethical dilemma facing Haiti and those who want to help it. Charities and aid groups in Haiti labor under the constant frustration of a society and infrastructure that inevitably slows their efforts. Every disaster that hits only slows progress further.
But those frustrations don’t dissuade aid workers like Jenkins, who was an oncology nurse for 16 years before seeking another outlet for her skills. The mother of two grown children, she went to Haiti in 2007 on the first of three short-term mission trips and by the third trip in 2008 was hooked.
“I knew that I had heard the unmistakable call from God,” she said soon after that trip. “I learned more about myself than about Haiti during that first trip. I knew God had called me to do this work.”
She also discovered that, despite a lot of foreign assistance, many healthcare needs in Haiti were still unmet. “There were a lot of clinics around, but they didn’t work very well,” she said. “I felt called by God to try to bridge some of that.”
She decided to seek appointment as one of CBF’s field personnel to invest all of her time in Haiti’s ocean of need. The plan was to establish medical clinics in underserved remote areas around Grand-Goâve, a picturesque seaside town of 5,000 beneath the shadow of a mountain range that forms the spine of the Tiburon Peninsula.
But underneath those mountains lies an ominous threat — a major east-west fault line, part of the volatile Caribbean tectonic plate that, hundreds of millennia ago, pushed those mountains out of the Caribbean Sea. It also makes the region around Grand-Goâve, and virtually all of Haiti, a bullseye for earthquakes.
In January 2010, just seven months before Jenkins was to arrive in Grand-Goâve, a 7 .0-magnitude earthquake, the second strongest in Haiti’s history, struck at an epicenter 15 miles away.
Ninety percent of the Grand-Goâve was destroyed, as was three-fourths of Port-au-Prince, including the historic National Palace. Nationwide, more than 100,000 Haitians were killed, 300,000 were injured and about 300,000 homes were destroyed.
Suddenly those chronic medical needs Jenkins planned to treat were replaced by a desperate fight for survival. Instead of waiting for missionary appointment, Jenkins left immediately for Haiti to join the recovery efforts, treating some of the injured, specifically those needing wound care, infection treatment and physical therapy.
History has recorded at least 15 major deadly earthquakes in Haiti since Columbus arrived in 1492. Smaller earthquakes are much more common — about one per month in the past year.
If it seems that hurricanes and earthquakes always hit Haiti hardest, it’s true. Indeed, Haiti’s location is doubly dangerous, at the intersection of the Caribbean tectonic plate and the even deadlier Hurricane Alley, the route that carries tropical storms through the Caribbean and often to the United States. Four hurricanes hit Haiti in less than a month in 2008.
But it’s not Haiti’s location that lands it in the headlines after every natural disaster. In reality, hurricanes and earthquakes are less common in Haiti than in other Caribbean and even U.S. mainland locations. No Haitian location even makes the list of 50 top hurricane targets.
But hurricanes and earthquakes are more deadly in Haiti because of two interrelated factors — poverty and deforestation.
Historically, the only affordable fuel for heating and cooking is wood, which Haitians typically harvest themselves. It’s very common for Haitian families to have a “cook house” — a tiny shack or lean-to with a wood-fired stove — that is separate from their living quarters.
Deforestation in this mountainous country is a major hindrance to development and even safety. Climatologists say at least 70 percent of Haiti is deforested.
With little vegetation to stop or even slow the heavy tropical rains, flooding is a constant danger. Hurricane-induced flooding and landslides are particularly deadly.
Flooding caused most of the deaths from Hurricane Matthew. Around Grand-Goâve, however, the main flooding casualties were roads, homes and property.
“One of the big problems is people don’t own their land,” Jenkins explained. Because they rent the property on which their houses are built, “they can’t build the kind of foundations they need for homes.”
Jenkins knows this because she visits residents in their homes, whether to deliver meals or medical care or simply to learn about the needs.
“Everyone knows her,” said Sean Taylor.
“It’s important to meet people face-to-face and see what their needs are and learn about the conditions that they live in,” Jenkins said.
And that’s why she started rebuilding houses for widows-because the need was there.
“When you visit all the houses that were damaged, it’s very overwhelming. I say, ‘God, what do I do with this?”‘
Jenkins’ teams will continue working through her list of 200 homes, making repairs with money that comes mostly from CBF churches, individuals and Sunday school classes, as well as local groups. But the work is often slowed by a lack of funds for building materials.
“Many people here feel like they have been forgotten, as this storm has gotten lost in all the other things that are going on in the world,” Jenkins said. “It’s quite understandable. But it’s hard when it’s your home.”
“It will be a long process, but we know God is faithful and will guide and provide according to his plan.”