Providence in Port-au-Prince
by Glenda Mathes
A tragedy like the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti is so immense that it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the sheer enormity of the loss of life, destruction, and continued suffering. Focus narrows when someone you love is in it.
My niece, Rachel Roozeboom, was in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck. What began as an ordinary short-term mission trip to Haiti turned into an extraordinary—and sometimes traumatic—experience.
Rachel graduated from Dordt College last year and works as the Director of Youth Ministries for First Reformed Church (RCA) in Sheldon, IA. For over 20 years, members of the church have participated in short-term teams with Mission to Haiti. Rachel was the youngest of the seven people from her church serving on this year’s team.
They arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, about mid-morning on Monday, January 11. Mission to Haiti organized three teams to perform different functions: construction, medical, and relief. On Tuesday the construction team worked on a building at the Mission to Haiti compound with plans to work later on a church in a nearby village. The medical team took the bus to a village to conduct a clinic. Rachel served on the Haiti Relief team, which distributed shoes, clothing, and goats that had been donated for the needy.
She was one of only six team members still away from the compound when the earthquake hit. They were on the edge of Port-au-Prince in a “tap tap,” a type of flat bed truck with sides and three benches. Although they were close to their base camp, it took them about an hour to get back to the compound, driving and then walking in the dark through confusion and chaos, destruction and death.
“Personally I was very scared and felt very vulnerable,” Rachel says. “It got dark before we got back and the traffic and the people and the destruction were all too much to take in.”
The sights, sounds, and smells were overwhelming. Buildings and vehicles were crumpled. Crowds of people with blank stares of shock milled through streets full of rubble and bodies. While the vehicle was still able to move, men kept jumping on the truck. The driver and other Haitians with the team were shouting at the men, trying to make them get off. The men were shouting angrily back.
“I had no idea what they were saying or what they might do to us to get what they wanted,” Rachel says.
When the vehicle could go no farther, team members were forced to walk and carry supplies back to camp. Because their arms were full of boxes and water containers, they could not hold onto each other as they tried to wind through the pressing crowds.
“Other Haitians would get in between us,” Rachel explains, “and if any of us got separated, we had no idea how to get back to camp or how to get in contact with anyone.”
Walking through the debris was difficult, especially for the women since they were wearing skirts and flip flops. It became more dangerous and distressing after dark.
When the small group finally reached the Mission to Haiti compound, they discovered that outer walls had collapsed. Most of the compound, however, was in remarkably good shape. Some inner walls had cracked, but none had fallen.
“It is amazing how well our buildings stood up when looking at everything around us,” Rachel says. “God had to be protecting us, there is no other explanation.”
Miraculously the compound still had internet access and late that night Rachel was able to send a brief message to her parents, who had heard about the earthquake and were anxiously waiting to hear from her.
Because the compound had a light and an open area, people flooded into it, seeking medical care and a place to sleep. Some people were able to walk and needed wounds stitched or bones set. Others needed to be carried because they were paralyzed or required amputations. Some of the injured died in the arms of team members. Team members carried away several bodies to be buried.
Providentially the team included two doctors and several nurses, but they soon ran out of medical supplies. They used broken boards as splints and torn sheets as bandages. If people could walk or had family members to care for them, the team sent them back out of the compound to make room for those with more need.
Due to the continuing aftershocks and danger of buildings collapsing, team members slept outside in short shifts. About 20 injured people spent the night at the compound. The team brought 15 of them to a hospital the next morning.
That day the team continued to provide limited medical care without supplies. Rachel emailed her parents that she had slept from 1:00-4:00 am before giving her bed to “the dentist who had been stitching up people all night.” She also wrote that four small children had died; a family claimed the body of one, the team recognized two as children from the neighborhood, but the fourth child’s body remained unknown and unclaimed.
As the crucial nature of the crisis ebbed, the Mission to Haiti team began to explore options for getting home. Since the Port-au-Prince airport was closed, they discussed the possibility of taking a bus to the Dominican Republic and flying home from there. They spent a second night sleeping outside.
The following day the team spent 12 hours at the Port-au-Prince airport, trying to work with frazzled US Embassy employees to get an evacuation flight out of the country. They saw helicopters and planes flying over, but few landed at the airport. They heard that one flight took out injured people and families with small children. Another flight, arranged by the Canadian embassy, evacuated Canadian citizens.
“We had packed a few snacks, but were not planning on needing them all day,” Rachel says. They shared their food with small children and were able to send someone to purchase water. But it was awkward to eat and drink when the people pressing around them didn’t have either food or water.
“We were also worried about the heat taking its toll on us because there were quite a few elderly on our team, and even the younger ones were feeling weak,” Rachel says. “Our thirst never felt quenched as we had to take a drink and pass it on to someone else on our team.”
At the end of the day, the Mission to Haiti bus picked them up and a discouraged team traveled back to the compound.
But God, in His providence, had already begun orchestrating their rescue through His instrument, Lt. Col Scott Patterson.
Soon after the earthquake struck, Lt. Col. Patterson volunteered for relief efforts, went on active duty, and flew to Port-au-Prince. His home church sponsored Mission to Haiti and he’d heard that it had a team stranded on the ground. Late on his second evening in Haiti, he called his pastor for information that might help him locate the team. He drove around the area, using all the clues he knew to search for the compound. Eventually he found them.
Team members were thrilled to see an American soldier in uniform. He spent over an hour with them, encouraging them and assuring them that he would meet them at the airport the next morning. Then he headed back to the airport, where he was scheduled to pick up an Air Force Division Commander about an hour later. But for some reason, the Commander’s flight was delayed another two and a half hours.
Lt. Col. Patterson wrote in an email, “I believe divine providence was involved.”
A US Air Force C-17 with a full cargo had just landed. The C-17 is a high-wing, T-tailed military transport with an international range that is capable of carrying payloads up to 169,000 lbs. and can land on small airfields. Lt. Col. Patterson boarded the aircraft and introduced himself to the crew.
He wrote that “by divine providence” and for no apparent reason, a State Department employee also came on board. Lt. Col. Patterson asked him, “Why are you bringing an airplane full of cargo and going home empty when we have so many US citizens who are stranded here?”
The request had to be sent through proper channels, but he was assured “the answer isn’t going to be no.”
“I was off with my driver like Mario Andretti to the camp,” wrote Lt. Col. Patterson.
At 2:30 am, he pounded on the compound’s dormitory doors and told the team to get on the bus because he had a plane for them.
“I think we were out in about 15 minutes,” says Rachel. “I was ready fairly quickly as I had slept in my clothes, and he told me to go help everyone else pack up.”
The bus drove through a back gate of the airport directly onto the tarmac.
“The plane seemed to be in a darkened corner of the runway,” Rachel says. “I thought back to the WWII movies of Jews being taken into hiding.”
“I was terribly afraid the airplane might have to leave,” wrote Lt. Col. Patterson. “By providence again, the crew had just finished unloading and we were able to board without much waiting.”
After passports were checked several times, the 46 team members were allowed on board. They settled into canvas seats that folded down from the sides of the aircraft, facing the center. Then the plane left Haiti.
“I was very happy to see them off and understand they were well taken care of by the Air Force,” wrote Lt. Col. Patterson, explaining that many other people had been waiting at the airport for three days. “It was a real blessing to be an instrument.”
In another stroke of providence, Cuba allowed relief aircraft to fly through its air space, which cut the flight from Haiti to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey by 50 minutes.
The team arrived on US soil around 7:00 am. They were searched, their passports checked, and taken to a gym to sign in. They were given access to showers, food, clothes, and cots with sleeping bags and pillows. The Red Cross provided toiletries. Doctors and chaplains were available. Rachel, who was struggling with congestion, saw the doctors, who she says, “treated me very well.”
The team did not take time for showers or sleep, but quickly ate and figured out flights for home. Later in the morning, a police car escorted their bus to an airport in Newark. There they were able to eat lunch and phone home. Their airline tickets transferred with no extra fees. Since they had been evacuated from Haiti, the airline waived baggage fees.
Rachel and other team members from her church flew from Newark to Dallas that afternoon. While she was at the Dallas airport, a friend from her Dordt days (who now lives in the Dallas area) came to visit with her.
“I was able to talk to her for about an hour and she passed on hugs from other Dordt roommates,” Rachel says. “She was the first person I talked to about it who wasn’t there with me. She was very understanding and it was very helpful for me.”
When Rachel arrived in Omaha, her parents and a brother (who had driven from Manhattan, KS) were waiting to greet her.
“I had never in my life wanted to see my family so much, even though I had seen them just a few weeks earlier for Christmas,” Rachel says. “Mom and Dad just held me for so long, and I finally felt safe and protected.”
The drive back to Sheldon gave the family time to talk about some things and enjoy being together again.
Rev. David Brower, the Lead Pastor at First Reformed Church in Sheldon, arranged a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing session for returned team members. Team members spent most of Sunday afternoon sharing their experiences, feelings, and fears under the guidance of Lt. Col. Dale Ellens, who is in the Army Reserve and a professional counselor with Bethesda Christian Counseling Center in Orange City. Dr. Shawn Scholten, a female counselor with Creative Living Center in Orange City, assisted with the debriefing.
“This was not required, but strongly recommended,” Rachel says. “It was hard, but helpful.”
Rachel requests prayer for relief workers, including perseverance for those serving long-term in Haiti, and that God’s work in all of this would be seen.
In a Facebook note, she writes, “…the death, destruction, fear, and sadness that I have experienced were horrific, and though the situation is no longer before my eyes, I still see and hear and smell everything. It is only because of your prayers and God at work that we were able to leave safely…. even though I experienced things that no one should ever have to go through, I also experienced God at work in ways that are unexplainable and completely awesome.”
It’s appropriate to say that Mission to Haiti team members, the US Air Force, and Lt. Col Scott Patterson are my heroes. But this story isn’t about personal emotions or human heroes. This story is about how a sovereign God orders all events of human history and cares for each of His children, even in times of extraordinary trauma and suffering.
For more information about Mission to Haiti or to donate to its relief efforts, see its website: http://www.missiontohaiti.org. Pictures accompanying this article were taken by team members and found on the Mission to Haiti site. Other pictures are posted under the “Pictures from Mission Teams” link, in the “earthquake_in_haiti” folder, but be warned that some are graphic.