News and analysis
May 07, 2010

Months After Haiti’s Earthquake, Aid Workers Are Still Under Stress

When a massive earthquake struck Haiti’s capital city in January, hundreds of charity workers lost loved ones and homes, instantly needing the very services they had provided to residents of Port-au-Prince for decades through private donations. But there was no time to grieve. There was no time to clear away rubble or to rebuild. There was and is only overwhelming need.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every single person in this city [was] traumatized by the event,” said Kurt Hildebrand, who oversees Haiti relief operations for the Mennonite Central Committee.

Today, aid workers here are putting in 12- to 14-hour days trying to meet basic needs like food, water, and shelter for the estimated 1.5 million people left homeless by the quake. As a result, charities have had to put in place special mechanisms to be sure that aid workers don’t become incapacitated by the emotional and physical difficulties of the job.

Mr. Hildebrand says he and his staff of 26 have felt more emotionally unpredictable since the earthquake, at times overreacting to situations. Three staff members lost their homes, and half of the charity’s Haitian staff members are hosting relatives, friends, or neighbors who have nowhere else to live.

The Mennonite charity gathered workers as a group in the days right after the quake to talk about what they saw during the quake and how the felt. And the 300 workers who joined the charity’s Haiti recovery effort continue to process their emotions through daily communal lunches and weekly devotions.

“Everyone that I know here has lost friends and or family,” he said. “Most people didn’t have a chance to grieve the people that they lost. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface.”

To stave off burnout, the charity asked employees to take two weeks off before the middle of April. It has also rented a home in the cooler mountains above Port-au-Prince to serve as a local getaway for weary relief workers.

'I Have to Do It’

No matter how many precautions charities take to prevent exhaustion, many workers feel compelled to pour their every waking hour into the recovery effort.

Constant Bebe, a Haitian biochemistry professor now employed by Catholic Relief Services, says the best healing is helping his neighbors. Mr. Bebe lost his home and everything in it. Miraculously, he didn’t lose any immediate family members.

“Everyone is looking for something to hold on to,” he said. “You can’t really understand it unless you are living in the situation.”

Which is perhaps why he finds himself so impassioned about providing food, water, and shelter at the Pétionville Club, an exclusive golf resort that now houses more than 50,000 people side by side in tents.

“I’m really proud to be helping. I don’t feel like doing anything else,” he said.

“This is the first time that I’ve done something that meant so much. I have to do it. I have no choice.”