Kansas missionaries recall Haiti earthquake
Kansas United Methodist missionaries Shirley and Joe Edgerton experienced the horror of the Haiti earthquake firsthand. (photo by Britt Bradley)
By Susan Cooper
Associate director of Communications
WICHITA—When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, two United Methodist missionaries from Kansas were in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.
Joe and Shirley Edgerton had lived on La Gonâve, an island of Haiti west of Port-au-Prince, for two years as long-term volunteers through the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM).
They ended their term and came back to the United States in 2009. But they returned to Haiti in January for a visit.
“We went to La Gonâve on Jan. 7, primarily for the baptism of a baby I had delivered in the fall. We were on the island for three or four days. On Jan. 11, we went to Port au Prince to attend the meetings,” Shirley said.
Representatives from humanitarian agencies were scheduled to meet Jan. 12-14 at the Haitian Methodist Church compound to explore ways to improve health services and agriculture in Haiti.
After the first day’s meeting ended around 4 p.m., the Edgertons returned to the compound guesthouse. Three GBGM representatives, Revs. Sam Dixon, Clinton Rabb and James Gulley, were driven to the Hotel Montana to meet informally with three other people.
As the earthquake hit, the group was walking across the lobby, and the hotel collapsed. The group was trapped beneath the rubble.
“The guest house [at the compound] held up pretty well, but one wall fell down. Buildings around the area had collapsed, and we immediately started trying to dig people out, doing triage. Shirley’s nursing skills came into play,” Joe said.
“There were about 40 people in the parking lot of the compound. People were in shock. We were covering people up with sheets and towels and whatever we could find.”
That night, the driver who had taken Dixon, Rabb and Gulley to the Hotel Montana told the Edgertons that the hotel had been completely destroyed by the earthquake.
The next day, the Edgertons went toward the Hotel Montana.
“It looked pretty hopeless. We dug around and talked to some of the survivors,” Joe said.
The United Nations had a few people there, and rescue crews began forming. But it became apparent that there was little the Edgertons could do at the hotel.
“The people who run the guesthouse are personal friends—we’ve stayed there off and on for two years—and they needed us to help them evacuate people.”
So, the Edgertons decided to return to the compound and help there.
“We couldn’t make any phone calls out of Haiti, but people in the United States—GBGM—could call us. So, we were in contact with GBGM staff.”
The next day, the Edgertons tried to go back up to the Hotel Montana, but because of landslides, they weren’t allowed in the area.
After about 55 hours, the United Methodist and Interchurch Medical Assistance World Health representatives were dug out of the rubble. However, Dixon had already died.
Joe was called upon to identify Dixon’s body.
“We had Sam’s passport because he had left his things at the guesthouse,” Joe said.
Rabb succumbed to his injuries a fe
Bonnie Laycock, conference Volunteers In Mission chairperson, stacks boxes of health kits for Haiti in the Wilke Gym at First UMC in Wichita. More than 6,000 health kits were delivered for a VIM team to take to Sager Brown, the United Methodist Committee on Relief�s supplies depot in Baldwin, La. (photo by Lisa Elliott Diehl)
“We had all the luggage from the three [United Methodist officials], and we were needed to accompany the luggage back to the United States. We would have been evacuated one way or the other, although,” Joe said.
Feeling like they had done all they could do and that they were “eating up food other people would need,” the Edgertons left Haiti Jan. 20.
Like so many missionaries, the Edgertons had led normal, working lives previously. Joe had been in newspaper publication and building maintenance. Shirley was an operating-room nurse who later became a local pastor in the Kansas East Conference.
“We started leading medical mission teams in 1988,” Shirley said.
Joe had served on volunteer water-drilling teams in the 1980s and 90s.
After Hurricane Georges hit the island of Hispaniola, comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Shirley took a small medical team to Haiti.
“There was a church-operated, micro-finance program there, so the people had a little money. But when I went back in 2006 as a part of a Vacation Bible School mission team, only 40 percent of the children were going to school. The people were so terribly, terribly poor. There was no revenue coming in. Water on the island was a critical situation. We ran out of water the third day we were there. The buildings on the compound were in poor repair, and there were no Volunteers In Mission teams going there because there was no one to host them,” Shirley said.
“When I came home and told Joe and other people about the conditions, everyone was really upset about the situation.”
The Edgertons volunteered in Bay St. Louis, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina and were beginning to consider seeking a long-term mission appointment. They were thinking about going to Cameroon, but the Haitian Methodist Church issued an invitation through GBGM for long-term volunteers in 2006.
They went to Haiti in October of 2007. One of their goals was to serve as hosts for VIM teams.
“The schools were in horrible repair,” Shirley said.
The other primary project was to deal with the water wells on La Gonâve. There is very little fresh water on the island, and people have to walk 12-14 miles to get water for cooking and drinking. Rectangular, above-ground, concrete cisterns are used to collect rainwater. The cisterns are covered with a tin roof and catchment system.
“There’s two rainy seasons during the year—one very short one that doesn’t always happen and the other is during hurricane season, which breaks a lot of the cisterns,” Shirley said. “The west end of the island is completely dependent on the cisterns.”
“It was really critical that we work on the water system.”
They received, somewhat unexpectedly, a $30,000 grant from GBGM that had been earmarked for water projects in Haiti.
The Edgertons began working in concert with the Haitian Methodist Church and other organizations that are partners in what is known as the Water Platform.
One of the few existing wells on La Gonâve had a huge, broken windmill that had powered it in the past. The windmill has been removed now, and a solar-power system has been purchased and installed on the well.
“But the well pipe was damaged when solar system was being installed. This is typical of what happens in Haiti. Nothing happens fast in Haiti. But the well is almost done,” Shirley said.
“GBGM also let us use part of the grant money for a geophysical study. The Episcopal Church had geophysicists on the island doing studies, and we targeted an area centrally located on the west end. They agreed to survey an area for us there for a reduced fee,” she said.
“We just recently got the results back. If there is water on the west end, it’s at 800-1,000 feet deep. Haiti Outreach, a drilling organization, called after we got back in the U.S. They would drill three wells on the west end but only 650 feet deep. But we would be able to use grant money to get them drilled deeper.”
No one who was on La Gonâve at the time of the earthquake was killed, but 200 La Gonâve residents who were on the Haiti mainland died.
“One of the young people we knew was killed,” Joe said.
An early estimate was that about 1,300 homes were demolished on La Gonâve, and about 4,700 were damaged.
“The biggest problem the island had was the influx of 40,000 people looking for something to eat and a way to get out of Port-au-Prince. The normal population [of La Gonâve] is 90,000-100,000 people,” Joe said.
The Edgertons have been in contact with people on La Gonâve since they returned to Kansas.
“They’re all afraid to stay inside. Food is very expensive because of the influx of people,” Joe said.
The Edgertons intend to return to Haiti at some point.
“We don’t really know when yet. GBGM and the Haitian Methodist Church will determine that. There are engineers looking at the Methodist structures to see what to do with them. Medical teams are welcome, and anyone with a specialized service is welcome. The others—they’re not ready for yet. Maybe in April or May,” Joe said.
“GBGM will send U.S. teams on a schedule. We will work through them, but we may go back a little early as individuals to help with the guesthouse and getting it ready.”
The Edgertons are committed to plans in Haiti for the next three years.
“Rather than live there, we’ll go back and reinforce the projects we’re working on,” Shirley said.
“We feel change is in the wind in Haiti,” Joe said. “[The earthquake] is an opportunity people should not pass over to help the Haitians, to keep working with them to help them improve their system.”
The Edgertons are encouraging people to donate generously to UMCOR’s relief efforts in Haiti and will be speaking about the situation there at United Methodist churches in Kansas.
Donations to support UMCOR’s Haiti Relief efforts can be made online to Haiti Emergency, UMCOR Advance #418325. The entire amount of each gift will be used to help the people of Haiti. Donate online at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor.
Checks can be made payable to local churches with the notation “Haiti Relief” and put in the churches’ offering plates.