Catastrophe hit the small island nation of Haiti in January 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rendered one million residents homeless and another 300,000 injured. While U.S. news coverage of the disaster has all but ceased, a California-based organization, Firefighters for Christ (FFC), has not forgotten.
No stranger to the tiny Caribbean country, FFC International President/Chaplain John White has made almost 10 visits to Haiti since the disastrous quake. The latest was an eight day trip to Carrefour, a poor residential community in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, located approximately 15 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter. After being run out of the downtown area by rioting, the excursion turned into a five day medical outreach during the day and a crusade by night.
“We had three doctors, three nurses, three paramedics and firefighters,” White says. “On one day we saw over 600 patients. We also spent time with local firefighters. We have a rescue strap we present to every firefighter, along with a carabineer. We teach them how to hook on to their partner in a fire situation. They don’t even have a fire truck.”
During its first trip, FFC spent the majority of its time doing rescue work, including constructing water-proof structures so people didn’t have to sleep in the rain, building 90 school desks for an orphanage whose things were destroyed, and running a medical clinic. During this first trip, White recalls seeing buildings where a whole slab of concrete would be on a 45 degree angle and the floor below it would be 30 degrees the other way, with people still trapped and inaccessible beneath the rubble.
Although more than two and half years have passed since the quake hit, the recovery process has been a slow one.
“You can’t tell the extent of the damage now. Having seen it before, and seeing it now, you have to explain to people, ‘That was a four story building, and it’s now one story,’” explains White. “The major slabs from buildings have been removed and stacked up along sidewalks in heaps. The other side is back to back tents touching each other. Those blocks keep automobiles from running into the tents where people are sleeping. They’re putting in curbing on the street but it’s going so slow. There is a little bit of street clean up but the garbage in some areas is still for blocks. Eight feet wide and six feet high, just garbage.”
Having spent 45 years working for the Los Angeles Fire Department, White admits he doesn’t get shocked or break down easily after being exposed to so much, but the situation in Haiti is devastating.
“Everywhere you look there are tents with people who have no running water. You see mothers bathing children in gutter water—it’s heartbreaking.”
Another slow moving development in Haiti has been advancements in medical care. Forty to fifty percent of the buildings in Carrefour were damaged in the earthquake, including the hospital. Most of the people simply do not feel well, and bags of vitamins are often just handed out. Unfortunately, women with vaginal infections and children with worms are still ordinary occurrences. Prescription medicine is a necessity but very hard to come by.
White compares the medical situation to putting a “Band-Aid on cancer,” or emptying the ocean one cup at a time. “On one of our trips we just focused on cholera. We had a baby with meningitis and we had no way to care for it. The baby had two days to live if it didn’t get to a hospital. There are only a couple of working hospitals in Haiti—not many, maybe one or two. Whether the baby survived or not, we don’t know.”
There’s still work to be done in Haiti, and this is not the last trip FFC will make. FFC also has gone on mission trips to Mexico, visited Japan after the 2011 tsunami and prompts members to make regular impacts in their local community, as well.
“Our mission is to encourage firefighters to live for Jesus Christ. Our name says it all; we’re not against other things, we’re just for Christ,” White said.