Local parishes, charities look to help Haiti after earthquake

BRAINTREE -- After the devastation of the earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Haiti took another blow on Aug. 14, this time in the form of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that claimed the lives of over 1,900 people in the southern part of the world's most impoverished country. But, as in the case of those previous natural disasters, people in Massachusetts and organizations on the ground in Haiti are asking how they can help.

The earthquake seemingly could not have come at a worse time, taking place a month after the assassination of Haitian president Jovenal Moise, while gang violence and the coronavirus pandemic continue to ravage the country.

"As far as impacting an already fragile economy with an extremely fragile government and ruling body, the timing on all of this has just been horrific," said Stuart Meurer, the chairman of the board of IC-Haiti, a nonprofit run by Holy Redeemer Immaculate Conception Collaborative in Newburyport.

After its formation in 2008, IC-Haiti raised funds to build and operate an elementary school, Father Marc Piche School, in Puit Chacha, Haiti. Over time, they have also added other programs, such as providing food, dental care, and a scholarship for students to continue their education after they leave the elementary school.

The earthquake's epicenter was 20 miles from the school, which has often served as a community shelter in extreme weather. The school did not sustain any damage, something Meurer attributed to its being built following seismic codes. He said they hope the school can serve as a shelter now when many people have lost their homes and face the threat of tropical storms, which could cause flooding and mudslides.

Meurer noted that some parts of Haiti still have not recovered from the 2010 earthquake. When he was in Port-au-Prince a few years ago, he saw the remains of fallen buildings and debris that had not been cleared away. He said he thinks recovering from this earthquake will also take a long time.

"There are scars from 2010 that are still very evident now, and I think that'll be the case with this," Meurer said.

The main difference between this earthquake and the one of 2010, he said, is that the 2010 earthquake resulted in much higher casualties because it impacted a more densely populated area.

"As far as human life, it will be less because of density. But the impacts are still as great to the people in that area," he said.

IC-Haiti's partner in Haiti is Health Equity International, formerly St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, a charity established by St. Boniface Parish in Quincy.

Health Equity International runs Father Marc Piche School and, just north of the school, St. Boniface Hospital, which was the only fully functional 24/7 referral hospital in the region before the earthquake.

The hospital did not sustain much damage, and none of its staff were injured or killed. However, some staff members lost their homes, and the hospital is now receiving patients from across the southern peninsula.

They have been sending vehicles into the hardest-hit areas to pick up and provide care for the critically injured. They have also been picking up pregnant women in labor, since St. Boniface Hospital is the only facility in the area that can provide emergency obstetrics care.

Conor Shapiro, the president and CEO of Health Equity International, found it "almost inconceivable" that the people of Haiti are dealing with another natural disaster.

"Just like in those other instances, we're doing everything we can to respond," he said.

The devastation of the earthquake was very personal for the parishioners of Blessed Mother of the Morning Star Parish in Chelsea, Everett, and Revere. For one thing, their Haitian community just marked 24 years in the parish. For another, they have a sister parish, St. Joseph Parish in L'Asile, Haiti, where many parishioners have visited as missionaries over nearly a quarter of a century.

"The entire relationship has been built upon working beside them. In every trip, whether we were building a chapel, building a retaining wall, putting in a water system, anything, even fixing up playgrounds, whatever the case may be, we were never working alone. We've always built such great relationships with people in the parish," Bill Ells, a cantor at Morning Star who has gone on the trip many times, said Aug. 17.

About five years ago, they brought pews, altars, statues, and sound systems from closed churches in Lynn and Fall River to St. Joseph Parish. That rebuilding was effectively undone by the earthquake, whose epicenter was about four miles away from L'Asile.

The two priests in the St. Joseph's rectory jumped from a second-floor window to escape before the building collapsed on itself. Others working in the kitchen or cleaning the church were able to get outside when the shaking began.

According to a parishioner's notes from a discussion with the pastor of St. Joseph's, there is no fresh water, food, or shelter in L'Asile. Almost every building has sustained some amount of damage, and about 55 deaths were reported. Most people are sleeping outside due to aftershocks, which may continue for weeks. In their area, they have seen no response from the Haitian government, which is concentrating on large cities like Les Cayes and Jeremie.

Linda DeCristoforo, a pastoral associate at Morning Star and frequent mission trip participant to St. Joseph's, said her parish community is "heartbroken."

"Over the years, we've basically rebuilt the whole church, and now it's destroyed," she said.

The night after the earthquake, the parishioners met and discussed whether they could go down personally to help. Since then, they have been in contact with Catholic Relief Services to talk about what they can do going forward.

Shapiro said his team, which is made up mostly of Haitians, will continue to visit the impacted area, evaluate the situation, evacuate those who need care, and work with partners to identify needs as they arise.

"Over time, we're going to be here for the long haul. So, we want to make sure that we're continuing to back up our courageous and talented and brave Haitian colleagues who are really providing the care here," Shapiro said.

Meurer spoke of his past interactions with the people of Haiti, describing them as "extremely positive." He said they will be resilient, as they have been in the past, but right now, they need help.

"This is not by far a lost cause," he said.

Meurer runs Windover Construction in Beverly and has helped with construction projects in Haiti in the past. He said he might be able to help with cleanup and rebuilding projects when things are more stable.

"With what's going on right now, we're not certain what the needs are going to be. We know there's going to be needs, and we're just going to figure out how we can help support them," Meurer said.

Information about Health Equity International is available at HealthEquityIntl.org. Information about IC-Haiti can be found at ICHaiti.org.