After a powerful earthquake hit Haiti last week, leaving an estimated death toll of 200,000 people, members of the Emory community have been contributing to relief and rebuilding efforts.
The earthquake, which measured a magnitude of 7.0, is the most powerful to have hit disaster-stricken Haiti in a century and was located 15 miles from capital Port-au-Prince.
No Emory students or faculty members were in Haiti during the earthquake, and the Haitian students who are enrolled at Emory are safe in the United States, according to University President James W. Wagner’s University-wide e-mail sent on Thursday.
In his e-mail, Wagner urged the Emory community to “reach out and provide support” by sending money online to expert rescue workers, especially because the University has no direct channels to provide aid to Haiti.
“In the coming days and weeks our thoughts and prayers will be with ... all persons touched by the devastation,” Wagner wrote.
Hundreds of students and members of the Emory community volunteered with MedShare International this past weekend, according to Volunteer Emory fellow Jocelyn Shieh (’09C). MedShare is a nonprofit organization that distributes medical supplies to hospitals in countries in need.
“Right now, so many students are aware of what happened. It’s all over the news, and being in a community, we are in a place to reach out and help,” Shieh said.
So many volunteers signed up to package medical supplies, such as bandages, gauze and needles, that students were being turned away over the weekend, according to Shieh.
Shieh said that Volunteer Emory is currently working on a University-wide fund-raiser which may begin in the next few weeks.
Volunteering with local organizations is important as well, Assistant Professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts Regine Jackson said.
“There are a few local organizations where students can just chime in,” Jackson said, listing the Georgia Haitian Alliance, Ebenezer Baptist Church and Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Decatur.
“These groups haven’t waited for disaster to hit Haiti to help; they’ve been contributing for a long time,” she said.
Participating in relief efforts not only benefits victims, but is also good for the volunteers, Jackson explained.
“Our own well-being is tied in with these people,” she explained of the need to volunteer.
Jackson, who has both extended family and immediate relatives in Haiti, said that waiting to hear from family was “excruciating.”
“It has been a horrible 48 hours, but we finally got a text message from my uncle,” she said in a Jan. 14 interview. “‘We are OK, we had to sleep outside, but we are OK,’ he said. I can’t imagine them sleeping outside, but in all of this, you just take what you can get.”
Jackson said that she was primarily concerned about her grandmother, aunt and uncle because of their old age and health. While they survived the earthquake, her uncle’s mother did not make it out of the house.
The lack of contact, Jackson said, was trying. Because of the long distance, she explained, the closest connection family members overseas have is via telephone.
“The past two days were particularly difficult because that contact was cut off, and there was a feeling of helplessness, but you have to continue on with life,” said Jackson, who continued to teach her class after the earthquake. “I drank hot coffee this morning knowing that my relatives were in the streets.”
College sophomore Reginald Extra, who stayed with family in Haiti for three weeks during winter break, left the day of the earthquake only hours before it happened.
His father, grandmother and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins live in Port-au-Prince.
“I called my dad immediately,” Extra said. “I spoke with him right after the earthquake, but I couldn’t get in contact with my grandma for two days.”
The wait to hear from his grandmother was “the worst thing ever,” Extra said. He said he was worried that if she hadn’t been hurt by the quake, that she would have suffered from a heart attack.
When he heard from his grandmother, he said that he learned her house was the only one that suffered no structural damage among others that had been completely destroyed.
In order to help with relief efforts, Extra said that he is currently going through the logistics of starting an organization that will contribute to rebuilding Haiti long-term. He said that the organization, currently titled “Lets Help: Haiti Relief” on LearnLink, plans on starting small with projects such as selling T-shirts where “120 percent of proceeds will go to the Red Cross.”
Extra added that students interested in getting involved are welcome to e-mail him for more information.
Shieh said that she believes students value service and helping the less fortunate.
“The natural response is to want to help. [Emory students] are in a place to really make a difference and I think they realize that,” she said, adding that she has received several hundreds of e-mails from both undergraduate and graduate students asking how they can help.
College Junior Sylvie Curci, who worked at the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) in Haiti during winter break, had planned to stay in Haiti until Wednesday but returned shortly before the earthquake in order to practice with the varsity swim and dive team.
HAS is located 40 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince and is one of the few hospitals still standing, according to Curci.
The earthquake was “eye-opening,” Curci said. Although she has spoken to some of her friends and colleagues in Haiti, many others are still missing or have died.
“It makes me question my own way of life and my priorities in life,” she said.
Extra said that the disaster makes many people appreciate life so much more, but it also affects others differently.
“Something like this takes the soul out of people. It can humanize you, but it can also dehumanize you,” he said, explaining that truckloads of bodies are moved in piles to cemeteries. “The death toll is unfathomable. I can’t even put it through my head.”
His father, Extra added, drives through the streets taking the injured to the hospital, and the back of his car is stained with blood.
Jackson said that she is worried about Haiti’s rebuilding because the country, which has faced numerous natural disasters in the past, is the poorest in the Western hemisphere.
“It’s devastating. Anybody who has ever been to Haiti and to the city of Port-au-Prince can see how devastating it really is,” she said. “It will take a long time to return to any sort of normalcy. Even Louisiana isn’t back to pre-Katrina conditions; if it takes a major city in the United States this long to rebuild, you can only imagine how long it will take a country like Haiti to rebuild.”
Having lived in and recently visited Port-au-Prince, Extra said that he can’t watch the news or look at pictures of post-earthquake Haiti.
“Seeing the Palace was the worst. My uncle used to work as security, so I used to play basketball there all the time,” he said.
Extra said that he hopes students will not forget that rebuilding will take a long time.
“All the news cameras will leave eventually, but there will still be lots to do,” he explained. “Most people think everything needs to be done now, but rebuilding is a process.”
Jackson said that in addition to reaching out to victims abroad, it is also necessary not to forget those closer to home who have suffered from the tragedy.
“I think it is important to pay attention not only to the victims in Haiti but also the people here who are experiencing loss,” Jackson said. “Think more broadly about the effect of trauma and feel empowered to do something small and know that that’s making a difference.”
Asst. News Editor Molly Davis contributed reporting.
— Contact Alice Chen