haiti rescue earthquake
People carry away a body recovered from the rubble of an earthquake destroyed home in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. The death toll from a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Haiti soared to more than 1,200 on Sunday as rescuers raced to find survivors amid the rubble ahead an approaching tropical storm. (AP Photo/Joseph Odelyn)

Haitian Americans from earthquake-afflicted regions like Les Cayes continue to feel the emotional toll of the disaster, with some still waiting to hear the status of loved ones since the 7.2 magnitude quake and heavy rains struck the southwestern areas of Haiti. 

“We have members in our church that still have people missing,” said Lovely Pierre, who works at Brooklyn-based Beraca Baptist Church, in an interview Thursday. 

“Personally it’s heavy, my heart is grieving for the people,” said Pierre, a Les Cayes native who now resides in Canarsie. “It could have been me.” 

In Les Cayes and other towns in southern Haiti, residents face deepening material needs like food and shelter in addition to the trauma of an earthquake that has already claimed more than 2,100 lives. Meanwhile, resources are available to address the emotional needs of Haitians residing in the United States. 

Some of Pierre’s family in Les Cayes, including an uncle and cousin, run a church in town called Premiere Eglise Baptiste des Cayes. Church pastor Luders Erase, her uncle, is helping one of Pierre’s fellow parishioners in Brooklyn locate their missing family, but the process has been difficult. 

“[The pastor] needs more information on the exact location, so he’s trying to send a team out to help,” Pierre said on Aug. 19. 

A group of residents in town received disaster relief training from the American Red Cross prior to the Aug. 14 earthquake. And, the church is coordinating with this group to help locate earthquake survivors, said Lunide Erase Sylvain, in a phone interview. 

“[My father] is a man of God, and he is doing everything he can to help people in Les Cayes,” said Sylvain, 45, who is on the worship team at her father’s church. She could not confirm whether the Red Cross-trained residents had found any missing people.

Haitian authorities have reported that more than 330 people remain missing after the earthquake, although the actual figure may be much higher. Reports have also emerged of frustrated crowds demanding essential materials, like tarps for shelter. 

Despite the multitude of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Haiti, Sylvain said she has not seen people get the help they need yet. 

“Now, we have a lot of people, and old people, that are on the street because their houses collapsed,” said Sylvain, of Les Cayes. “They need tents, any kind of food, clothes, medical stuff, anything.”

Witnessing the earthquake was “very, very hard” for Stephania Casimir, a Flatbush resident and Les Cayes native. She said she was blindsided by the event. 

“I didn’t see it coming,” Casimir said. “A lot has to be done in Haiti because of what happened with the assassination of the president and what happened 11 years ago. We still have to rebuild the country.” 

Despite the emotional trauma that persists, Lovely Pierre said that opening up and talking about feelings can be a useful exercise for the diaspora. 

“We have to be practical, and we can’t just bundle up our feelings, we have to express the sadness,” Lovely Pierre said. “If we don’t talk about it, then we will not be able to understand the problem and then solve it.” 

Mental health, counseling services available 

Haitian-Americans in the diaspora have come to the material aid of Haiti, setting up relief funds and organizing to coordinate the shipment of material goods like medical supplies. 

But diaspora leaders have also organized efforts to address the psychological and emotional toll of witnessing another natural disaster that has impacted loved ones in Haiti. 

For one, the office of District 45 Council Member Farah Louis has partnered with multiple organizations including Haitian American Caucus (HAC) and Evangelical Crusade Christian Church to start a grief counseling program in Brooklyn. HAC has a location at 495 Flatbush Ave., Evangelical Crusade is offering services at 557 E. 31st St.

Counselors from ARA Emotional Wellness are on-site at both locations to provide walk-in grief counseling services in English, Creole and French. In addition to walking in, people can call 347-437-1059 to make an appointment, said Elisha Pierre, HAC’s operations director.

“Right now, the public is still trying to get a grip on what’s actually happening,” said Elisha Pierre. “We do believe that once the dust starts to settle, we will start seeing an increased number of individuals looking for counseling, as well as whatever resources we can provide.” 

In addition to on-site counseling, service providers at the sites can connect people to other social services in the city as needed, he said. 

Diaspora leaders on an Aug. 17 conference call also anticipated a need for group healing. Although the process is in its early stages, Association of Black Psychologists co-chair Evan Auguste plans to help train fellow diaspora leaders to offer Sawubona healing circles.

Held virtually via Zoom, the group therapy exercise uses dance, proverbs and literature from Africa, Haiti and the diaspora to facilitate conversations that alleviate stress and trauma. The Association conducted multiple healing circles for Haitian communities after the July 7 Moise assassination and can use the same model, Auguste said. 

“We used Haitian proverbs to guide a discussion on the colonial trauma and the immediate stress and trauma that people were experiencing,” Auguste said. “Mostly, I think the strength [of the circles] is just letting people’s stories be heard. It’s the strength of letting people collectively process what’s going on.” 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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