Catholic charities around the world have rallied to the aid of Haiti after a devastating earthquake left up to 200,000 people dead in the small Caribbean nation.
The 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck just before 5pm local time on January 12, its epicentre only 16 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince.
Three million people in the predominantly Catholic country have been seriously affected and prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive said that over 70,000 bodies have been buried in mass graves.
The presidential palace, national assembly building and Port-au-Prince cathedral were all extensively damaged, as were most of the city’s hospitals and its main jail. Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot and vicar general Charles Benot were among the dead, as are the head and deputy of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission and over half of the 4,000-strong Haitian National Police.
The earthquake was especially lethal in a city where up to 80 per cent of buildings did not meet the minimum standard of earthquake regulations. The French-speaking Caribbean nation is the poorest in the western hemisphere, with a long history of political instability and natural disasters. The country was ruled by the notorious dictators François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier between 1957 and 1986, and in the past decade has been hit by five major hurricanes.
With nearly 500,000 encamped in a tent city in the Champs de Mars Square in downtown Port-au-Prince, the largest of many dotted around the devastated capital, relief agencies raced to prevent survivors dying from starvation or disease.
Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, Grand Hospitaller of the Order of Malta, which is heavily involved in the relief effort, said: “The first priority is water and medical care. Many injured people have not been treated yet and are still dying.
“One has to say that Haiti is probably the most difficult situation we have seen in our lifetime, with the exception of wars. Our people in Haiti said that for the first time they can tell us it’s worse than the media reports.”
The relief effort had been hampered because so much of the infrastructure had been destroyed, he said. “The harbour seems to be mostly destroyed, and there is no state order, as ministries have been destroyed and ministers killed. The chief and the deputy chief of police have been killed. Any possible leadership is dead.”
The Order of Malta has offices in the neighbouring Dominican Republic and in Florida and runs a hospital, Hôpital Sacré Coeur CRUDEM in Milot, 90 miles north of Port-au-Prince. They have sent sent enough food and medicines to cover 20,000 people for three months.
Dr Klaus Runggaldier, from the Order of Malta’s ambulance services, said: “We are all exhausted. We have hardly slept since Friday, and we don’t have enough to eat either. All we have is water, and peanuts, and more water. It is difficult to sleep, too, because of the stench and the suffering, crying, screaming all around us. As well there are now roaming gangs and the sound of shooting goes on and on.”
Aid to the Church in Need has already despatched 50,000 euro (£45,000) in emergency help for food, clean water, clothing and medical aid, channelled through the Apostolic Nuncio to Haiti, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, whose residence had mercifully survived intact.
Archbishop Auza said: “We are in big trouble for obvious logistical reasons. We have no reserves of water and petrol stations are closed. We lack everything.” The nuncio said the country’s main airport was unable to cope following the collapse of the control tower and that people desperate for help were fleeing to the border.
Bishop Gontrand Decoste, SJ of Jérémie in the west of the country, told the charity: “We are on our knees. Only thanks to the solidarity of people like you can we begin to find the strength to get up on our feet again.”
Cafod had pledged £100,000, while its partner agency, Caritas Haiti, began handing out food and blankets almost immediately.
Matthew Carter, Cafod’s Head of Humanitarian Dept said: “Despite all the logistical problems, Caritas aid is certainly coming through. We’ve got six warehouses in Port-au-Prince which have been re-stocked to ensure continued distribution of essential water and food supplies.
“The Catholic Church for a long time has been one of the main providers of health care in Haiti, and we managed to re-open the Catholic hospital in Port-au-Prince after it had been closed for six days.”
Other charities already in the country include Missio, and the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) which has raised £128,000.