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Earthquake terror yields to faith unshaken

Earthquake terror yields to faith unshaken

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series about Pam Carter's mission experiences in Haiti. The wife of Bishop Ken Carter, she plans to continue her work in global missions as the couple settle into new roles with the Florida Conference. 

Thousands of people flood the streets of Port-au-Prince, injured or looking for lost loved ones, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. Photo by Jeff Kiffmeyer.

LAKELAND – Pam Carter, wife of Bishop Ken Carter, has been visiting Haiti since 2006 and uses tales of the hardships and everyday miracles there to recruit more aid for the impoverished nation.

She never would have predicted, though, the powerful story she would add to her repertoire when she found herself in the middle of a massive earthquake that flattened much of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

She had spent most of that January day in 2010 meeting with other missionaries to talk about ways to help the impoverished country. She had planned to leave Port-au-Prince the next day for Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti to work at a medical clinic founded by Providence UMC, where her husband, Rev. Dr. Ken Carter, was pastor at the time. 

Carter remembered she had just returned to the guesthouse where she was staying and was upstairs typing an email to her husband when the violent shaking started.

She feared there would be no time to get out of the building before it crumbled, so she braced herself in a doorway leading out to a balcony, thinking that if the balcony fell, she would be able to jump to the ground.

“I knew it was bad. I just didn’t know how bad,” said Carter, who later learned the quake measured 7.0 in magnitude. “So I just began to pray. And I said, ‘God, I’ve had a good life, and I thank you for the life I’ve had.’ … It was in God’s hands.”  

Triage outside Port-au-Prince guesthouse
People line up for blankets and first aid outside the guesthouse where Pam Carter stayed during an earthquake in Port-au-Prince in 2010. Photo by Jeff Kiffmeyer.

When the earth finally stopped shuddering, Carter quickly made her way out of the building, knowing that the tremors would begin again.

“What I heard was children screaming,” she recalled. “For a split second, you’re just stunned, and everybody’s trying to make sense of everything.” 

The guesthouse was across a compound from a school, and the quake hit just before dismissal time.

“It was just a mass of children and teachers and administrators, everybody screaming and running,” Carter said.

“They [children] were all just beside themselves with fear. … But truthfully I didn’t see anybody who had more than a scraped knee.”

She said she knelt to hug a girl who was screaming uncontrollably, as other adults scrambled to keep the children from fleeing into the streets. A woman came home to the house next to where Carter was staying to find one sister crushed and killed and the other severely injured as she tried to escape. The second sister also later died.

Carter remembers the ground shaking for about two hours. After that, the rumblings diminished, and people began flocking to the guesthouse, which still stood. Carter and others brought chairs, towels and bandages from the house to the driveway outside, which became a gathering point. 

Chaos rules the streets of Port-au-Prince after a massive earthquake in 2010. Photo by Jeff Kiffmeyer.

She counted 40 aftershocks in the next 24 hours, some nearly as strong as the quake. She and others couldn’t sleep inside for fear of the building falling, so she chose to sleep in a van. Others slept on the sidewalks.

“In the night, I remember hearing what sounded like enormous numbers of people singing,” Carter said. “And this went on for like an hour. An earthquake would come or a tremor, and you’d hear this collective roar of fear. And when it would stop, they would start singing again.”

She said she didn’t understand the Creole language, but she interpreted the meaning.

“It was just everybody holding hands and begging for mercy. You know, please protect us.”

Music became a means of connecting despite the language barrier. When she was asked to comfort an older woman, she hummed the tune “How Great Thou Art,” which she knew Haitian children sang in school. The woman calmed down.

“I think that’s the good that tragedy brings out in us – the need to care for one another in small ways,” Carter said. 

People flood the streets of Port-au-Prince looking for help or lost loved ones after an earthquake in 2010. Photo by Jeff Kiffmeyer.

The next day, she and her roommate ventured out and found the streets unrecognizable, either because of damage or bodies piling up.

“You would see people desperately trying to dig people out,” Carter said. “Honestly, it was absolutely heartbreaking to watch – people trying to save people they love, and just desperate, with their fingers on concrete slabs. It was just terrible.”

She later discovered that two of the missionaries she had met with the previous day had been killed when a popular hotel caved in.

She said she and her roommate stayed another night at the guesthouse but had to leave the following day because safe drinking water was running out. They first went to the airport but were not able to get on a flight out, and the terminal was not safe. So Carter decided to catch a ride to the U.S. embassy.

“When we got there, there was this kind of odd sense of American normalcy, where there were flushed toilets and lights and we watched CNN. I mean, just very surreal,” Carter recalled.

Three days after the ground first began quivering, Carter managed to hitch a ride on a cargo plane to New Jersey, and from there make her way home to Charlotte.

By this time, she had not bathed for days and she headed for the shower. 

We Need Help sign in rubble - David Johnson photo
 A sign in the rubble three months after a massive earthquake strikes Port-au-Prince reveals the lingering devastation. Photo courtesy Silent Images, David Johnson.

"It just hit me, all of this dust all over me,” she said. “People died. … It just seemed wrong to let it low away so easy. So for months I wouldn’t wash the clothes I had on. Life is so precious. You just feel like to many people have died, that it was just like even in the dust, they were there.”

She returned to Haiti the following April, wearing the same dusty shoes that had trod on rubble a few months before. She was among others who evaluated needs and allocated more than $400,000 in donations for earthquake relief, including funding a hospital and prosthetics lab to help amputees and victims who had fled to Cap-Haitien.

In Port-au-Prince, children were afraid to return to the school building and sat in makeshift classrooms under tarps. A chalkboard inside the abandoned schoolhouse retained the earthquake date written in French: Jan. 12, 2010.

Even now, Haiti is still struggling with the earthquake’s aftermath.

“It’s a mixed bag in Haiti in terms of recovery,” Carter said. “There are still tent cities. … Poverty is such a persistent thing in Haiti. You don’t go to Haiti to have this big experience of victory.

“If you want to feel like you turned the world around in a short time frame, maybe Haiti isn’t for you. But I do think some of the things I’ve seen people do there have made a difference in people’s lives. Maybe it’s for persistent folks.”

Mission work is not just reaching out to others, she added.

“It’s not just that we have so much to give and these places have so much need,” Carter said. “We have needs we don’t recognize, and in the process of serving together in ministry, you learn so much and it’s mutually beneficial.

“I have no conception of what my life would be like had I not gone to Haiti in 2006. It has brought a sense of meaning and purpose and fulfillment, joy and connection, all those things, that it’s hard for me to understand what my life would be had I not done that.”

Susan Green is editor of Florida Conference Connection.