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Local residents affected by earthquake

Local people with Haiti ties are worried about their loved ones and hoping they have a chance to help the island nation recover.

Haiti, which is located in the Gulf of Mexico, was struck by an earthquake Tuesday, Jan. 12, that measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. It is estimated that 50,000 to 200,000 people were killed.

Dr. Edriss Estime, the internal medicine physician at Marengo Memorial Hospital, was born in Haiti and lived there until the age of 12.

He said he still has many relatives and friends in Haiti, more than he can count, but luckily they all survived the earthquake unscathed. However, he said there were a few close calls.

Estime said he has not been able to directly contact any of his relatives, but his wife, Benetty, also a native of Haiti, did speak with an aunt. The aunt flew to Haiti and arrived at 4:15 p.m. the day of the earthquake. The earthquake struck an hour later. She was not injured in the event.

A cousin of Dr. Estime’s attends the university in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital that was struck hard. The cousin attended class the day of the earthquake, but left early. Later, the building he was in was completely destroyed.

“We have been very, very lucky,” Estime said.

Estime grew up in the northern port town of Cap-Haitien, which is about 200 miles north of Port-au-Prince.

He said he never experienced an earthquake growing up. Hurricanes, yes. Earthquakes, no.

The Jan. 12 earthquake affected a 100-mile radius, so most of his relatives did not feel anything physically.

That doesn’t mean that his family hasn’t been affected emotionally.

“It has been a depressing week with all of the news. It has been pretty difficult,” Estime said. “One of the stages of anger is asking, “Why? Why Haiti?” And when you think about it, “why not?” Other countries have experienced the same thing. Did it have to happen to my country? I don’t think it was necessary.”

Estime has not been back to Haiti in 20 years, but he recognized many of the places on television, such as the palace, that were demolished.

He said he hopes to be able to return to Haiti to help out with medical care. He said he is in contact with the Mercy Ship, which is an ocean vessel that provides health care to the poor. It is currently in West Africa and has set sail for Haiti.

While Estime said it is his greatest wish to return to Haiti to help, he also knows it will take an emotional toll.

“It’s one thing to work in a disaster. It is another thing to work in a disaster that affects so closely. You have to be mentally prepared,” he said. “You don’t perform surgery on your loved ones.”

For people looking to donate to the cause, Estime said he vouches for an organization called Partners In Health. For more information, visit the Web site


For Marengo resident Gene Portz, he does not plan to return to Haiti, a country he has visited a dozen times, in the near future.

“Let the professionals do their thing. They don’t need us in their way,” Portz said.

Gene and his wife, LeAnne Spacek, began going to Haiti in 1993 to perform mission work with their church, St. Jude’s, Cedar Rapids. They have done everything from helping farmers plant corn to helping a blacksmith revive his business to supporting education for young Haitian girls.

Portz said Haiti wasn’t in stable condition before the earthquake struck.

“When they say there was no infrastructure, they mean it,” he said. “There is no 911, no sheriff’s department, no water supply. Healthcare is especially hard to find and the schools are very poor. They don’t have the budget to maintain roads. Our worst roads are their best roads.”

When traveling 20 miles from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel, a small town on the south coast of Haiti, Portz said the drive takes five hours. If there is a heavy rain, he said the roads could be closed for months.

“It’s a very, very poor country,” Portz said. “It is amazing the resiliency of the people. They do it. The people are very loving.”

One project Portz helped with in Haiti was repopulating the hogs. Years ago he said Haiti had a massive loss of hogs due to pseudo-rabies. He was involved in a project that brought pigs from the United States and gave two piglets to every farmer. Once the pigs had a litter, they were instructed to return one piglet to the person who gave them the original hogs, and pass one more on to someone else.

Portz hasn’t been to Haiti for a few years, but LeAnne, an artist, goes every year to teach orphans how to paint icons.

The orphans are able to sell their paintings for income.

The orphanages they support were severely damaged by the earthquake, Portz said. While nobody was killed, he said many were injured and others are sleeping in the streets.

“It’s really chaos. They need the basics — food, water, shelter, medicine,” Portz said. “We have received e-mails from Haitian friends that say, ‘Everything is broken. It was broken before the earthquake, now maybe it will get fixed.’”

Portz said once everything settles down, he and LeAnne will look to return to Haiti with the Franciscan Sisters, based out of LaCrosse, Wis.

“After things stabilize, we will go down for a service trip,” he said. “We have to find out what skills people have and find out what is needed.”


Marengo native Lucy Dietrich has personal interests at stake in Haiti.

Her daughter, Renee Dietrich, has worked as a social worker in Haiti since 2002, and survived the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Just after the earthquake occurred, Renee was able to quickly call her mother in Cedar Rapids, to tell her she was all right.

Lucy tried to contact Renee for the next 24 hours, unsuccessfully.

Renee is the communications director for St. Joseph’s Family, which runs three orphanages in Haiti. The home in Port-au-Prince was completely demolished, Lucy said.

Another home in the mountains outside of the capital, which houses 45 severely handicapped children, was partly demolished.

All of the boys are living in one room at the front of the building. The backside of the building is in danger of falling down the mountain.

Lucy said one of the boys in the Port-au-Prince orphanage was injured while attempting to jump from the roof of the building to another. They were able to fly him to Fort Lauderdale, where it was found he had cracked his ribs and ruptured his spleen, but he will be okay. Another 10-year-old boy was trapped under the rubble, but he suffered only bruises and scrapes, Lucy said.

She did say Dubuque native Ben Larson was staying in a guest house in Port-au-Prince owned by St. Joseph’s Family. Larson died when the guest house collapsed on him.

Lucy said she spoke with Renee Monday, Jan. 18, and Renee described the unbelievable devastation.

“All the places we have known and loved, the supermarket, the cathedral, the old Episcopal home of a French-Canadian woman who has helped us over the years, all these places are gone,” Lucy said. “Renee said, ‘You wouldn’t believe it, mother. You wouldn’t believe it.’”

Lucy said while touring Port-au-Prince one week after the earthquake, Renee saw dead bodies strewn about. She said they were burning bodies in the street because the stench was becoming so bad.

“It will be a long, long time before Haiti is any semblance of what it was before,” Lucy said.

Lucy Dietrich (whose maiden name is Wandling) started working with St. Joseph’s Family 25 years ago, when the organization was merely one man helping five orphans on a budget of $500.

Michael Geilenfeld, another Iowa native, started St. Joseph’s Family with the goal of bringing orphans off the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Lucy, who was a 1953 graduate of Marengo High School, was then a nurse in Cedar Rapids. She was taking a mission trip to Haiti with her church, St. Jude’s.

Geilenfeld’s mother told Lucy to get in touch with her son while she was in Port-au-Prince.

“I was one of his first guests,” Lucy said. “He had been there two days before our mission went there.”

She has returned to Haiti every year since 1985 (except for two years when political unrest made travel unsafe) to help St. Joseph’s Family.

The organization celebrates its 25th anniversary Jan. 31. Lucy said she has a plane ticket to fly to Haiti Jan. 25. She said she is not yet sure if she will be able to go.

Lucy said people who want to donate to the cause in Haiti are encouraged to make a donation through St. Joseph’s Family.

“Every penny gets through,” she said.

To learn more about St. Joseph’s Family, visit

UPDATED January 21, 2010 11:48 AM

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