New Horizons

Surviving the Earthquake in Haiti

Stephen W. Igo

Twenty-four hours before the earthquake in Haiti (which occurred on January 12), missionary Ben Hopp and I walked the city streets of Port-au-Prince together. I found it a most exhilarating experience. French and Creole swirled about me. Spirited Haitians crowded the congested city streets selling their goods. And tasty Haitian food enticed us into a local eatery. Fond memories from my university days in France flooded my mind. Indeed, I was counting my blessings. Thank you, Lord!

But I did not take the time to count how many buildings we frequented that day. I would only do that a day later, when we learned of our near miss with a deadly 7.0 earthquake that devastated the city and surrounding countryside of Port-au-Prince. We had entered six buildings. But now, few of them remain standing. I marvel at the mysterious mercy of the Lord.

Thirty minutes after the quake, the phone rang. Of all people, it was my wife. Apparently the world was jarred by reports of a severe earthquake in Haiti. Was I all right? Yes we were, but we were scared. Ben and I had taken the children swimming at a nearby pool just before the earthquake struck. It had been a morning of modest work, but mostly a day of rest. In God's providence, our mission team from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Ada, Mich., and Cedar Presbyterian Church in Hudsonville, Mich., had left the previous day after a one-week ministry on Haiti's Central Plateau. Ben decided to give me a break before preparing for ministry on the island of La Gonave. So we gathered the children for a refreshing afternoon swim. Somewhere between Marco Polo and Sharks and Minnows, I began to feel quite dizzy. Two-foot waves began sloshing about the pool. Ben shouted for us to evacuate, and we huddled together for several minutes. It took some time for this Midwesterner to realize that an earthquake had struck. I had never before felt such a dizzying, disorienting display of Almighty God's power, and it scared me. I felt helpless, humble, and wholly dependent upon his mercy.

Later that night, we heard a knock at the door. An exhausted, dust-covered missionary friend pleaded for our assistance the next morning at Ecole Normale de Delmas in Port-au-Prince. Students were trapped. He had freed several with his bare hands, but darkness and a lack of tools prevented him from doing more. Could we help?

At first light the next morning, Ben loaded a generator, tools, and our willing bodies onto a flatbed truck and headed south to the city. Racing the clock down the newly paved Haitian highway, we arrived at a scene of utter exhaustion. Fifty Haitian men had labored all night to free as many students as they could, but they had reached the limit of what bare hands could accomplish. They needed support. We surged toward the building with tools and renewed intensity, but the wind in our sails suddenly broke when the stale, heavy air of death obstructed our path. Bodies lined the alley: sweet young Haitian girls in plaid uniforms; a refined and charming professor with a crisp white shirt and tie. For a moment, death stole our breath away as it did its dark dance over the deceased, who represented Haiti's finest. Oh, Lord, this isn't happening, is it? I wanted to stop É to weepÉ to cry out to the Lord in a prolonged lamentation with the mourning, bewildered family and friends who had gathered in that alley. But deep inside I knew it wasn't the time. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. So, we decided to do what was best, not what was easiest. We set aside our emotions and pressed ahead.

With our arrival, the Haitian men rallied. All morning we listened for voices, drilled holes, sent workers down into the belly of death and the grave, and lifted young girls to the light of God's new day of their lives. God gave these exhausted, dust-covered girls a second chance. Praise his good name! I can only wonder how God will use these ten girls in the days to come. Sadly, we also lifted out the bodies of a dozen people whom God in his wisdom had seen fit to send ahead to the next world. Several of them were still sitting at their desks with pen and notebook in hand. How suddenly God can take any one of us home!

As we began to lose the Haitian sun, and fine dust settled in our lungs, we rattled our old trucks back north to the safety of Ben and Heather's home. Thoroughly invigorated, we made rescue plans for the next day. With our supply of food, water, and electricity, we figured we could last at least another two weeks! Not until the next day did we consider that small, steady, sinking needle located on the dashboard of Ben's vehicle.

"I am sorry, Monsieur Ben, but we are out of diesel fuelü" the local gasoline vendor politely told us the next morning. A few moments later, Ben spied a few barrels selling at a roadside stand—at $25.00 per gallon! But that was it. No more! We decided to visit a nearby missionary compound led by Ben's good friend, Haitian pastor Charles Amicy (with Mission to the World). Charles, his staff, and a visiting medical team from Savannah, Georgia, had treated nearly fifty earthquake victims the previous day. They were exhausted, low on medical supplies, and dangerously short on food, water, and electricity. That very morning, they had made the difficult decision to evacuate as many team members as possible. Hugs were exchanged. Prayers were offered. Good-byes were said. As Ben and I left the compound, we realized that the OPC now had a difficult decision to make as well. What did the Lord want us to do?

At that moment, I realized why God had sent me down to Haiti. Why had I stayed one week longer than the rest of my team? Why had a once-in-fifty-years earthquake occurred during my visit with Ben and Heather? It was so I could help my dear brother and sister—who were in clear and present danger—evacuate Haiti with their three lovely children, their faithful family dog, and a few pieces of luggage. After thirty-six hours, many phone calls, a lot of tears, and a nail-biting drive to Port-au-Prince International Airport, we left Haiti on a passenger plane on loan from NASCAR's Hendrick Motorsports. God lifted a great burden from our shoulders!

At the time of this writing (in late January), Ben has returned to Haiti with OPC personnel to assess how we can best serve our brothers and sisters on the island of La Gonave in the coming days. The church anxiously awaits the conclusion of those reports. Meanwhile, Heather and the children are establishing a temporary residence in Tampa, Florida, as the Hopps await the summertime birth of their fourth child. As for me, I hope to return to Haiti regularly with many good friends from our presbytery to assist the church and people of Haiti for many years to come.

Perhaps one day I will meet those high school girls we helped lift to safety. I would certainly like to tell them the story of how God sent people from around the world to rescue them that day, just as he sent his one and only son into our broken world to rescue us from sin, misery, and judgment. All glory to his name!

The author is pastor of Cedar Presbyterian Church in Hudsonville, Mich. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2010.

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