How American Churches Are Helping in Haiti

Religious communities across America are following an established, if grim, script, organizing support for the latest disaster, the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti.

Some are on the scene, like the Christian charity World Vision, which is flying out 18 metric tons of resources from its U.S. warehouse, including tarps, water, and meal and hygiene kits. The first shipment is expected to reach only 5,000 earthquake victims, but a second airlift to be sent after more preparation could serve as many as 45,000. Others are sticking closer to home, like the American Jewish World Service, which created its own special Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund, funneling all money it receives to 10 local organizations with which it has existing contacts.

For Roman Catholic communities, the collection baskets will be coming around a second time this Sunday, adding to the $5 million already earmarked for Haiti by Catholic Relief Services, the church's main disaster-response organization. CRS has been responding to disasters in Haiti since Hurricane Hazel in 1954, so it already had a team of about 315 on the ground when the quake hit—essentially the same team in place for the devastating spate of hurricanes that hit the country in 2008. Relief supplies were stocked in warehouses in Port-au-Prince, Les Cayes, and the neighboring Dominican Republic.

But prepare as they might, no emergency is like any other, says CRS spokesman Tom Price. Many personnel were trapped under the rubble along with everyone else. One staffer, trapped for eight hours in the market where she was shopping when the quake hit, said only the cans of food around her kept the weight of the building from crushing her. "To a large degree, the team has to think on its feet," says Price. "The U.N. has been badly hit, as has the local church in Haiti. So emergency staff have to be brought in from the U.S." CRS has already distributed food and supplies from its Port-au-Prince warehouse, so it's now relying on ships and trucks coming in from the Dominican Republic. And with each passing day, the security of those transports becomes a greater concern as people become more and more desperate.

But if disaster can bring out the worst in human nature, it can also bring out the best, as when humanitarians find partners in unexpected places. As just one example, Islamic Relief USA is teaming up with its longtime partner, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to send planes loaded with hygiene kits and assorted supplies to Port-au-Prince, sharing the transport, supply, and distribution costs in order to streamline their efforts. "It's still being finalized, but it'll probably be that we cover the cost of the shipment and they supply the goods," says Islamic Relief spokesman Mostafa Mahboob. The two groups have partnered for the past five years, responding together to disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina. Both groups are now sending teams of doctors and other relief specialists to assist with the distribution. "Each time something like this happens, we've been partnering up as soon as we can because we have different connections, both on the ground and to pharmaceutical companies and such," Mahboob explains. "So, in places like Indonesia, we'll take care of distributing supplies because we know people there. But in Samoa, [the Mormons] took the lead because there they had a well-established community. It works out really well."

Still, even the best of intentions can run into trouble. Samaritan's Purse (a charity organization led by Billy Graham's son Franklin) and the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team tried to get three chartered planes of supplies into the Port-au-Prince airport, but they were turned away as U.S. military air-traffic controllers scrambled to control the tarmac without an airport control tower or radar.