On the best of days, life in the Port-au-Prince slum known as Cite Soleil has been described as a living hell, a place where people eat mud cakes spiced with bouillon cubes to survive.
On the worst of days — a day when a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti’s capital — “there’s no ability for the government of Haiti to respond,” said former U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, a longtime advocate for Haiti. “There’s no infrastructure and there’s very little heavy equipment to assist with rescue efforts.”
DeWine said Wednesday he fears the death toll will go “very high” as victims wait for rescue that may never come. “Haitians are hard workers and they will dig through the rubble,” he said. “But at some point you need the heavy equipment.”
He’s anxiously awaiting word on the Becky DeWine School, a complex of eight schools named for his late daughter, which feeds and educates some 8,000 children in one of the world’s worst slums. He has learned to his great relief that his close friend, Father Tom Hagan, is safe, though his home, which doubles as a volunteer center, has been destroyed. “We’re also very worried about the Sisters of Charity orphanage which is very close to Father Tom’s house,” said DeWine. “Father Tom is reporting that everything is down, just destroyed.”
Hagan has lived in Haiti for 13 years as a missionary for Hands Together, the Massachusetts-based aid agency that supports the Becky DeWine School and a medical clinic in Cite Soleil as well as humanitarian projects throughout Haiti. Hagan flew in from Haiti to officiate at the double funeral Mass for DeWine’s parents, Jean and Dick DeWine, in November 2008.
“People look to Father Tom in times of crisis,” DeWine said. “When they had the flooding, he was one of the first to break through and rescue people. People will be looking to him now.”
Wilson Cohoon of Bellbrook also got good news Tuesday night about friends and associates in Haiti. The connection was shaky, barely audible, but it sounded like music when Cohoon heard the voice of his friend, Pastor Joel Beaucejour, in Leogane, Haiti, after several failed attempts to get through.
“Joel, how are you?” Wilson asked.
“We’re alive,” Beaujecour replied.
For more than 20 years Cohoon and his church, Emmanuel Lutheran in Kettering, have supported Beaucejour’s work in his native Haiti through the Emmanuel Christian Mission compound, which houses two orphanages, a school, and a church. Cohoon is now director for the Caribbean ministry of Children of Promise International, a Christian relief agency with world headquarters in Centerville.
Cohoon spoke to Beaucejour after the third shock from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Leogane is about12 miles from the quake’s epicenter, the Haitian capital of Port au Prince.
The orphans were all safe, Beaucejour reported, but the church building sustained heavy damage. Cohoon feels grateful it wasn’t worse. An Emmanuel Christian Mission staffer was scheduled to pick up a check from Children of Promise International later this week. “Thank God they didn’t send him Tuesday, or he might have been in town when it hit,” Cohoon said.
After speaking with Beaucejour, Cohoon was able to reach his wife Rose in Ottawa, Canada, where she is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for leukemia. The couple’s two youngest children — their daughter Othmar and son J.J. — are with her, while older son J.L. attends school in Toledo.
Cohoon tried all day Wednesday to reach Beaucejour again, with no success. “All circuits to Haiti are jammed,” he said. The more he watched the news, the more he despaired over the widespread nature of the devastation.
Cohoon travels to Haiti frequently but doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return. “Why did this happen to them, when they’ve already suffered so much?” he asked. “The cost of food and fuel and running things will increase dramatically. We have to pray that somehow we can see the Lord’s hand in this.”
Cohoon’s prayers this week begin with a simple plea: 'Lord, these are your people.’”
In the long run, DeWine said, it is agencies such as Hands Together and Children of Promise that will be there for the Haitian people: “Every natural disaster hits Haiti and every natural disaster is much more devastating there because the government can barely function on a normal day-to-day basis. When the surge of international aid has gone away, it is the nonprofits that will have the job of rebuilding Haiti.”
Contact this reporter at mmccarty@DaytonDailyNews.com . Donations can be made to support the Becky DeWine School and Father Tom Hagan’s work in Haiti at Hands Together, Box 80985, Springfield, MA 01138. Donations to help the Emmanuel Christian Mission can be sent to Children of Promise International, 6844 Loop Road, Centerville 45459.