Earthquake Disaster Relief in Haiti: Partners Are Key

Tzu Chi Haiti volunteer Johnson Chang leads the disaster assessment team following the earthquake that struck Haiti on August 14, 2021. Photo/Réginald Louissaint Junior

By Ida Eva Zielinska


The summer of 2021 was a turbu-lent one for the Republic of Haiti. On July 7, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, a shock that led the island nation to a state of emergency and political turmoil. Then, on August 14, a magnitude 7.2 earth-quake shook the southwest of the coun-try, killing more than 2,000, injuring over 12,000, and leaving an estimated 650,000 people in need of assistance. 

Tzu Chi has been a helpful pres-ence in Haiti since 2009, its aid efforts escalating in the aftermath of another catastrophe, the tragic 2010 earth-quake, which claimed an estimated 250,000 lives. Today, with several Tzu Chi volunteers residing in Haiti, a di-saster assessment following this most recent earthquake could begin with-out delay in advance of teams from overseas arriving to begin emergency relief distributions.

Tzu Chi Haiti volunteer Johnson Chang assumed the assessment mission and drove to the disaster-stricken ar-eas with a team of volunteers. The sub-sequent reports he sent to the United States and Taiwan were alarming.

I saw an emaciated mother with her three young children under a makeshift tent. There was a baby, looking no older than one, wrapped in a piece of plastic for warmth on the ground, and something was cooking on a fire made up of a pile of stones and firewood nearby.

“Buildings have been damaged to various degrees. Some were destroyed, while others tilted or the walls cracked, as their age, design, and quality of construction varied,” Johnson re-ported. Even the most fortunate among the fam-ilies the team met spoke of pillars in their houses that still stood supporting a weakened roof, but the walls had crumbled. The homes of others had collapsed entirely.

People were still missing, and excavation efforts brought heartbreaking news for many. The survivors were coping with grief while suffering due to a lack of drinking water, food, clothing, shoes, and medical supplies. Wherev-er there was a stretch of empty land, displaced families were propping up plastic sheets as a makeshift shelter over a dirt floor. Cooking under these harsh living conditions was next to impossible.

Not only were residences affected, but nearly 100 schools in the hardest-hit area were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, mak-ing a return to school for those students unlikely in the short term. As far as the eyes could see, a humanitarian crisis was unfolding in Haiti.

Tzu Chi volunteers meet a mother with her young children living under a makeshift tent over bare ground. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

Thanks to the disaster assessment that also covered travel and security concerns and identi-fied potential distribution venues, the first Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team from the Unit-ed States could hit the ground running when it landed on September 1 in Port-au-Prince. On the team, composed of volunteers from Califor-nia and New York, all experienced in Haiti relief work, James Chen would mark this mission as his 79th time serving on the island.

I personally feel that coming here to help those who are suffering is the most meaningful thing in my life.

Tzu Chi volunteers meet a mother with her young children living under a makeshift tent over bare ground. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

Meanwhile, relief supplies shipped from Taiwan had already arrived, including boxes of rice, Jing Si Multipurpose Foldable Beds, face masks, water buckets, antibacterial soaps, and feminine hygiene products. These supplies would join locally purchased rice and food for distribution beginning only a week later. But be-fore then, the team had a whirlwind of activities waiting, from finalizing logistics, meeting with partners, training local volunteers, and even a Donation Ceremony to attend.

The earthquake’s epicenter was Petit Trou de Nippes, located around 80 miles west of Port-au-Prince. However, the damages sustained in Nippes, with scattered residential housing dis-tricts, hardly compared to the death toll and devastating situation in neighboring cities, such as Les Cayes in the country’s Sud Department and Beaumont City in the Grand’Anse Depart-ment. Tzu Chi’s relief distributions would begin in those disaster zones.

The Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team had carefully selected each disaster aid supply item. One of the first tasks was to confirm the status and quantity of the goods ordered from Gigi Depot, a food products distributor in Port-au-Prince. They met with Dashka Bennett, Vice President of Gigi Depot, took a tour of the facil-ities, and discussed security issues around the transport of the goods to the designated ware-house or location in the disaster area in advance of distributions.

Dashka Bennett, Vice President of Gigi Depot, gives the Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team a tour of the premises where their food is stored. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
Dashka Bennett personally helps to pack the food supplies. Photo/ Tzu Chi Haiti Team

The team estimated that all combined, the items could support a household of six to eight people for a whole month. And, they were mindful of packing the food in a way that made it possible to carry by hand. Care recipients would receive two hefty but thoughtfully prepared bags, each weighing nearly 83 lbs.

The next important and most welcome meetings were with Tzu Chi’s long-term partners in Haiti, the Salésiens de Don Bosco. This Catho-lic religious congregation has collaborated with Tzu Chi Haiti for years, helping provide regular rice distributions in impoverished Port-au-Prince neighborhoods, supporting the nutritional needs of students in the order’s schools, and more. The congregation would again be critical to this mis-sion, and this time, it would involve the Sœurs Salésiennes, the nuns in this order. Their meetings helped finalize venues for the upcoming distribu-tions, and the team learned about the most recent aid efforts of the congregation.

Father Zucchi Ange Olibrice, a long time Tzu Chi Haiti volunteer and the Executive Di-rector of the Oeuvre des Petites Écoles de Père Bohnen (OPEPB) school in La Saline, operated by the Salésiens de Don Bosco congregation, had received a shipment of rice from Tzu Chi in late August, destined for community distribu-tion. He took the initiative to send some of it to earthquake survivors in Les Cayes, and his team gave out 1,000 bags on September 3 and another 1,000 on September 6.

Rice from Tzu Chi on its way to the OPEPB school in La Saline in August. Part of the supply would be distributed in Les Cayes in September. Photo/ Tzu Chi Haiti Team

The Tzu Chi Earthquake Response Team also met with the Executive Director of Caritas Haiti, Father Jean-Hervé François. As stated on its web-site, founded in 1975, Caritas Haiti is a social or-ganization whose mission is to build a fairer and more supportive society. Its areas of operation include risk and disaster management, agricul-ture and the environment, institutional capacity building, water and sanitation, solidarity econo-my, gender equality, infrastructure and housing, health, and nutrition.

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation partners with Caritas in other countries, for instance, in Sierra Leone. After introducing the Foundation to Father François, the team hoped they could explore how the two organizations might collab-orate in Haiti on short and long-term earthquake recovery efforts. During the meeting, Caritas Hai-ti agreed to work together with Tzu Chi, paving the way for future relief missions after this one.

We can’t do anything alone. We’re so helpless, at the same time resilient. We must really consider outside help. I believe that this collaboration is very important, and people will be happy to receive the help.

The next pressing matter was the transport of aid supplies from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes in the Sud Department, where the first distributions would occur. Due to a recent heightened level of gang activity, this was an issue of concern with the threat of violent attack plus seizure of goods not to be taken lightly. Luckily, despite a harrow-ing moment when a flat tire brought a truck to a halt in a dangerous region, most of the supplies reached their destination on time.

Yet, the tension was far from over as an al-liance of Haitian gangs had announced plans to blockade Port-au-Prince on Monday, September 6, which could lead to a much-feared explosion of violence. Furthermore, a Donation Ceremony for earthquake relief materials would take place the next day, attended by Prime Minister of Hai-ti Dr. Ariel Henry, Ambassador of Taiwan to Haiti Wen-jiann Ku, the press, and special guests.

Although the stress level was at the high-est level, everything went smoothly. The special event honored the government of Taiwan, the Taiwan Red Cross, and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation for donating a collective 25 tons of relief materials for those impacted by the Au-gust 14 earthquake.

Prime Minister of Haiti Dr. Ariel Henry (first row, second left), the press, and honored guests at the Donation Ceremony on September 7, 2021. Photo/ Tzu Chi Haiti Team
Prime Minister Dr. Ariel Henry addresses guests at the Donation Ceremony on September 7, 2021. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

Prime Minister of Haiti Dr. Ariel Henry ac-cepted the donation of relief materials on behalf of the nation, stating:

Once again, the government salutes the momentum of solidarity and mutual aid from Haiti’s friends from everywhere, without which it would have been difficult for us to intervene quickly to rescue the victims.

When interviewed following his speech, Prime Minister Henry shared that “Haiti and Tai-wan have a great tradition of cooperation, since more than 65 years. We recognize a real friend when we are in pain. I want to say thank you for the help, thank you for the solidarity.”

As Prime Minister Henry toured the Tzu Chi Haiti Warehouse campus, veteran Tzu Chi volunteer James Chen had other imminent mat-ters at heart. Just one week after the Tzu Chi Haiti Earthquake Response Team had landed in Haiti, the humanitarian aid supplies would begin passing into the hands of earthquake survivors.

We responded with careful attention to the earthquake survivors’ most urgent needs. And now, our large-scale disaster relief distributions will begin tomorrow.

Cause to Rejoice

The first distribution by the Tzu Chi Earth-quake Response Team, on September 8, took place at École Notre Dame, a school run by the Sœurs Salésiennes. Sister Rose Monique Joli-coeur expressed her thanks to Tzu Chi on behalf of the Catholic congregation:

We are in solidarity, and we sympathize with the suffering of the people. It’s a hard time for them. Most almost lost everything. So really, this aid can help and relieve them so that they can get through this situation.

Sister Rose Monique Jolicoeur addresses care recipients at the distribution on September 8, 2021. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

But an even more profound feeling of grat-itude filled the hearts of the 1,000 families who received two large bags of rice, each weighing over 27 pounds. Their voices echoing the senti-ment of thanks:

People need food because there is a lot of hunger. I hope God gives them the strength so they can come back and help us.

My house was completely destroyed. I’m sleeping in the street. I want to thank them, and I encourage them to help the Haitian people and take them out of the street.

To add further joy to the occasion, Sister Rose also shared a further positive nod to Tzu Chi’s presence and approach to providing hu-manitarian aid:

They do it respecting people’s dignity, the value of these people. Even if people are in need when they feel you’re helping them while respecting their dignity, they feel more valued.

The rice distributed to 1,000 families in Les Cayes on September 8, 2021, will help relieve their food insecurity after the earthquake. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

To ensure everyone’s safety and peace of mind at the distribution event, 45 Haiti Nation-al Police officers were on hand, fulfilling Prime Minister of Haiti Dr. Ariel Henry’s promise of providing security during Tzu Chi’s aid mission.

On Friday, September 10, the earthquake disaster relief distribution brought aid to an-other 1,250 families residing in Les Cayes. The distribution site was in the vicinity of a Caritas Haiti Catholic church, Église Saint Gérard de La Gaudray, in an area that incurred severe damage during the earthquake. The hall with-out walls was adjacent to destroyed buildings yet still offered a place sheltered from the sun’s heat.

As people arrived, they passed beside heaps of rubble, a constant reminder of the amount of destruction in Les Cayes and the loss and trauma they had experienced. And, that was on the mind of many care recipients as they waited for the event to begin.

During the earthquake, my legs were almost broken. I almost died. Thank God for saving my life.

Once the distribution ceremony began, bringing its typically joyful atmosphere, the mood lifted, and smiles began to appear on peo-ple’s faces in the assembled crowd.

September 11 brought relief to yet an-other 1,000 families in Les Cayes. This third distribution was held at the Salésiens de Don Bosco’s Centre Diocésain Des Arts et Métiers Des Cayes. Father Zucchi Ange Olibrice came to help out. Actually, he and his team had worked through the night unloading and preparing the 9,000 bags of aid supplies for the event.

The preparation has been long and we put all our heart into it. We do it with a lot of respect and gratitude for Master Cheng Yen. That’s right, we worked hard to make this distribution happen. Our joy is to help these people.

Father Zucchi Ange Olibrice is as happy as ever to address the crowd after a night of hard work preparing the supplies for distribution. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
Thanks to the patience of each care recipient and the attentive efforts of volunteers, the distribution is smooth and successful. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

Dashka Bennett, Vice President of Gigi Depot, also came to volunteer at the event. The company had overcome several challenges in getting the supplies to Les Cayes safely and on time, and she wanted to personally show her support:

I definitely wanted to experience the smile on people’s faces when they got the goods. I would say this is a good, successful, first group-work miracle. I’m here accompanying you guys on this unbelievable mission, and it’s an honor to be part of it. We’re family, and family doesn’t break up.

A fourth distribution took place in Les Cayes on September 15. The Tzu Chi Earth-quake Response Team did not make it there due to travel complications. However, thanks to staff from the Taiwan Technical Mission in the Republic of Haiti, part of the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund, who volunteered to help, 1,000 more households received two bags of rice. On September 16, after completing the first phase of relief, the Tzu Chi Earthquake Re-sponse Team lifted off from Port-au-Prince on a flight back to the United States. They felt a sense of fulfillment as during their two weeks in Haiti, 6,250 struggling households had received disaster aid and could feel some relief know-ing they had food and other supplies to meet their needs for a while. However, while this first team from the U.S. returned home, the Haiti earthquake mission is far from over.

Only the Beginning

The collaborations between Tzu Chi and Christian organizations in Haiti continue to prove that we can do so much more by joining together for a cause. Before the end of Septem-ber, Caritas Haiti followed up on its agreement to distribute aid to a total of 2,000 households. Since there were transportation issues with delivering the goods to Les Cayes earlier in the month, only 1,250 families received assistance on September 10. Thus, Caritas Haiti distribut-ed the remaining 750 allotments on the 24th.

On that same day, the Sœurs Salésiennes also held a distribution in Les Cayes, giving rice and a bag of food provided by Tzu Chi to 1,000 households. Finally, on September 30, the Salésiens de Don Bosco team distributed rice and a food bag from Tzu Chi to another 1,000 families.

Another 1,000 households receive rice thanks to the Taiwan Technical Mission in the Republic of Haiti staff who volunteer to help on September 15. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
As a testament to interfaith collaboration, a photo of Buddhist Master Cheng Yen honorably hangs on a wall with a painted depiction of the Virgin Mary revered by Christians. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

Tzu Chi Haiti was also going forward with providing more assistance. Through the efforts of local volunteers (read our next story for more) who continue to receive training, on October 1, Tzu Chi’s aid reached Beaumont City in the Grand’Anse Department, where several com-munities were hard-hit by the catastrophe, and residents remember what happened all too well:

My wife almost died in the earthquake. I was somewhere, rocks started to roll, I was on the ground, and I was safe. My wife was inside the house. The moment she saw that the walls were collapsing, she started to run and had time to get out of the house.

Clergé and his wife now live in a shelter as their house has completely collapsed, but they are far from the only ones. Valeur Noêl, Civil Protection Coordinator in Beaumont, sadly shared that the earthquake destroyed 80% of the city. Moreover, many of the houses still standing are irreparable and must be de-molished, leaving residents unable to return home. Fortuné Marcelle, the Mayor of Beau-mont, also lamented the state of affairs for his people:

Now, the population lives under the protection of God, the people are at the mercy of nature, they have no choice. People have lost their homes and everything. When this happens, they are forced to sleep under the stars; they are not protected from the sun or the rain. If you go to the communal sections, you will feel a lot of sadness when you see how our brothers and sisters manage to sleep.

Jean Arnel Desrosiers, a community lead-er, also added that the population is getting desperate as even weeks after the earthquake, many still lack drinking water. If this were not enough, Noêl shared that people also live in constant fear as “there are about ten to 15 tremors a day, and sometimes they’re significant. Every time there’s a tremor, people start running.” Conditions in Beaumont are dire, and Tzu Chi’s first assistance initiative in this city focused on providing food and other emergency supplies, as it had in Les Cayes. 

Only the Beginning

We are in solidarity, and we sympathize with the suffering of the people. It’s a hard time for them. Most almost lost everything. So really, this aid can help and relieve them so that they can get through this situation.

A lady is overcome by fatigue during the distribution in Beaumont. So many are suffering and exhausted by their difficulties since the earthquake. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team
A large crowd assembles at the distribution in Beaumont on October 1, everyone eager to get food, sometimes their impatience flaring. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

stant fear as “there are about ten to 15 tremors a day, and sometimes they’re significant. Every time there’s a tremor, people start running.” Conditions in Beaumont are dire, and Tzu Chi’s first assistance initiative in this city focused on providing food and other emergency supplies, as it had in Les Cayes.

The first distribution in Beaumont benefit-ed 2,100 families, each receiving a bag of rice to feed themselves for a week and a special first aid kit. Gabrielle Paul, a long-standing Tzu Chi local volunteer who was in charge of this distribution, described the contents:

They’ll find a medical kit which I think is very important and contains gloves, masks. It’s true that people live as if COVID is not present, but the masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer will remind people that COVID is present and that they should be careful. In addition, they will also find alcohol to treat wounds, bandages, and scissors. All this will allow them to get first aid if the injuries are not serious.

Tzu Chi local volunteers do their best to maintain order as people wait their turn to receive food and a medical kit. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

And yet, the day was not without tension, as a large crowd had assembled, and the crush of people was intense, their impatience at times alarming. Moreover, many had come from sur-rounding small localities and were feeling some-what desperate, thus appreciating the chance to get assistance all the more:

It is often said that people from the communal sections do not benefit from anything, but today they received something.

For many, the aid felt like something of a miracle, and they wondered how it came to be and weren’t even sure whom to thank.

They came all the way here to help us. I don’t even know where they came from. We thank them.

A man leaves happy after receiving food and a first aid kit. Photo/Tzu Chi Haiti Team

Finally, the wait was worth it, as the radiant faces of those leaving with their goods showed. As of October 1, a total of 11,100 families have benefited from the 2021 Haiti earthquake relief mission. Distributions will continue in hard-hit regions in the weeks to come, expecting to reach many more households. The next phase of disas-ter relief may involve reconstruction assistance, which Tzu Chi has provided in Haiti before.


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