January 27, 2010 // Local

Notre Dame Haiti Program staff recounts earthquake, refocuses priorities

By Shannon Chapla

NOTRE DAME — “I feel like I have my second life,” said Holy Cross Father Thomas Streit, founder of the University of Notre Dame’s Haiti Program.
Father Streit was at a meeting in Port-au-Prince’s Hotel Montana with Notre Dame colleagues Sarah Craig and Logan Anderson and postdoctoral student Marie Denise Milord during the Jan. 12 earthquake, which collapsed their hotel. All four were standing on open hotel balconies and rode the building down as it pancaked to the ground. They sustained only minor cuts and bruises.

“The building around us came down and we were all thrown to the ground and we held on to literally nothing because we were on a tile floor,” explained Craig, manager of the Haiti Program. “The building below us just collapsed and we could feel it going down each floor until we ended up somewhere between the first and second floors with the rubble beneath us.”

The four were in the nation’s capital city to attend the semiannual partners meeting for the Neglected Tropical Disease Initiative, along with some 25 Haitian colleagues. After the meeting had concluded, the group separated into different areas of the hotel compound.

“The Notre Dame people split into different groups and when the earthquake hit, we were all on different rooftop terraces,” said Father Streit, who had been standing below another terrace but managed to step out from underneath seconds before the collapse. “All of us went down at least two floors. One of our staff people had a double fracture to his leg and some from our meeting were buried in the building for a few days but were found unhurt. Everyone that was associated with the meeting and our partnership has been accounted for, except one, so we are praying for that individual.”

“I remember seeing Father Tom right after,” said Anderson, the program’s financial manager. “He was the only person I could see other than the three people who were on the terrace with me, so that was a pretty big relief. We made our way down and found our colleague who had broken his leg. I was thinking this is something I see on TV, not something I experience.

“Sarah (formerly an emergency first responder) went right into first-aid mode. I took off my shirt and we started tearing it up into strips. We found two sticks and I helped hold (my colleague’s) leg while Sarah splinted it.”

After helping carry injured people from the hotel and assisting with first-aid, the four found a grassy spot to rest and spend the night, if not sleep.
“I could hear people praying and chanting,” Anderson said, “and also the sounds of more buildings coming down during the aftershocks. You could just hear thousands of people screaming. That will stay with me for awhile.”

The next day, U.N. troops arrived at the hotel and the four walked with them to the U.N. Embassy, then to the American Embassy where they spent another night. Craig, Anderson and Milord were flown home, while Father Streit remained behind to help his Haitian colleagues. All now are back at Notre Dame.

For Father Streit, the “horrific” experience also was a testimony to the spirit of humanity.

“I saw people with limbs torn from their bodies screaming in pain,” he said. “I saw children wandering about who had perhaps just lost their parents, bodies stacked up four and five deep, and the churches were all gone … all of them … places that mean so much to the nation’s people. That was their source of hope. And yet, the people at night were praying and singing. They were holding hands as perhaps the only thing they could do without food or water. They turned to God.

“I came away with an experience I would not have wished for,” Father Streit said, “but one that has shown me the strength that we have in the human spirit and that spirit is so clearly sustained by our belief and our faith.”

Notre Dame’s Haiti Program, based in Léogâne about 30 kilometers west of Port-au-Prince, has worked since 1993 in conjunction with Hôpital Sainte-Croix on a major initiative to eradicate lymphatic filariasis, a debilitating mosquito-borne disease that affects some 120 million people around the world and manifests itself as elephantiasis. For now, the program’s focus will shift from public health to relief.
“Haiti needs our help now more than ever,” Craig said. “Our program is a mainstay in the community and we need to make sure we help where we can. After we help get the community settled, we can then address our global health program.”

“There’s a Haitian expression ‘paz a pa’ (step-by-step),” Father Streit said. “We’ve been set back quite a bit, so we need prayers, financial support and involvement. The people of Haiti really depend on their faith that has gotten them through 200 years of difficulty, so I would urge anyone planning relief efforts not to forget this important element of nourishment for the Haitian psyche and spirit … that is faith.”

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