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Visitors get more out of Haiti trip than they expected

It took fourteen hours for Adam and Karen Buhler's family to receive word that they were safe.

Adam, a sophomore at Kansas University, and Karen, a graduate student studying special education, were in Haiti to do volunteer work at a school in the southern coast town of Jacmel when the 7.0 magnitude quake hit on Jan. 12. They were reunited with their family in Kansas on Monday, Jan. 18 amid a flurry of hugs and tears.

The couple, members of the Lawrence University Ward, Topeka Kansas Stake, said they escaped the aftermath of the earthquake through a series of "tender mercies from the Lord."

Adam and Karen Buhler
Adam and Karen Buhler Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler

"There are no words to describe how blessed and protected we were," Adam said. "Heavenly Father blessed us in so many ways."

Adam was called to serve as a missionary to Haiti in 2005, but the mission was closed to all but Haitian missionaries five days before he left the Missionary Training Center. Instead, he served in Florida working with Haitian immigrants. While there he developed a love for the people and culture. He and Karen planned their trip to be one of many to the island nation.

Street view of Jacmel prior to the earthquake.
Street view of Jacmel prior to the earthquake. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler
Photo of damage following earthquake in Jacmel.
Photo of damage following earthquake in Jacmel. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler

They spent a week touring Port-au-Prince and sightseeing before traveling to Jacmel and the school. They described the third-world country as "beautiful but sad."

"It was hard to see people's meager living circumstances," Adam said.

However, they also described the joy they felt at visiting a ward in Port-au-Prince and experiencing the strength of the members there. "Going to Church in Haiti was the best thing ever," Karen said. "The members there are amazing. We met so many returned missionaries."

At the U.N. compound in Jacmel.
At the U.N. compound in Jacmel. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler
At the U.N. compound in Jacmel.
At the U.N. compound in Jacmel. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler

They traveled to Jacmel on the evening of Monday, Jan. 11. Because Adam wasn't feeling well, he stayed behind the next morning to rest while Karen toured the school, called Pazapa, which caters to children with special needs. He later joined her and both of them returned to the hotel to rest before dinner.

Adam was standing on the second story balcony of the hotel room taking pictures of a nearby church when he felt the initial rumbling. "I thought at first a big truck was passing. Then I thought, 'Oh my gosh, something just hit the building.'"

It wasn't until he saw the walls of the church he had seconds before been photographing begin to crumble that it registered that they were experiencing an earthquake.

View from helicopter of Port-au-Prince.
View from helicopter of Port-au-Prince. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler
Street view of Jacmel.
Street view of Jacmel. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler
Street view of Jacmel.
Street view of Jacmel. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler

When the tremors finally subsided, Adam ran inside to Karen; the flustered couple said a prayer before going to the window to survey the damage.

Fortunately, their hotel was well constructed and was seemingly undamaged. The jagged remnants of the church next door, however, stood in sharp contrast. People from the street beckoned to them to get out of the building. They grabbed their shoes and went to wait outside. It seemed like the majority of people were making an exodus toward the beach but they stayed where they were. As darkness fell and they were standing in the street in front of the hotel, a Land Cruiser pulled up and a Haitian man asked them if they were Americans. They soon found out that he worked for the U.S. Embassy and would take them to the U.N. compound.

At first they thought the earthquake was small and centralized in Jacmel. "We hoped it wouldn't make the news so that our parents wouldn't worry," Adam said.

Street view of Jacmel prior to the earthquake.
Street view of Jacmel prior to the earthquake. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler
Attending church in Port-au-Prince prior to earthquake.
Attending church in Port-au-Prince prior to earthquake. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler
Attending church in Port-au-Prince prior to earthquake.
Attending church in Port-au-Prince prior to earthquake. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler

It wasn't until they were at the U.N. compound and news began to trickle in that they began to catch a glimmer of the magnitude of the situation. They learned the airports were closed and that part of the hospital had been destroyed.

Thursday night they finally got Internet access and could watch CNN reports. "It was devastating," Adam said. "I can't say how many times I'd just start crying looking at everything, having just been at the places that are now destroyed. We'd think to ourselves, 'We were just there on Monday,' or 'We were just taking a picture in front of that last week.'"

While at the compound they met and befriended four Danish filmmakers whose home had been crushed. The Danes were able to use their contacts to charter a helicopter from the Dominican Republic to bring medical supplies to the U.N. compound while arranging for their own transport out of the country.

Photo during the earthquake.
Photo during the earthquake. Photo: Photo courtesy Adam Buhler

When the helicopter came Friday morning, the Danes told Adam and Karen to pack up their stuff. Hoping they could squeeze onto the same flight, they rushed to comply. As they approached the helicopter, however, they found that none of the Danes had packed their gear. They weren't just making room; they were giving up their seats to Adam and Karen, who is four months pregnant.

"We all just started crying and hugging. Five minutes later we were in the air."

Once they landed in Santo Domingo they were able to buy tickets for the last two seats on a flight to Florida two hours before it left.

"There were so many miracles that we were given to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right people who were able to help us," Adam said. "We experienced so many miracles along the way. If I hadn't been sick, we probably would have been out sightseeing or at the market or something; not at the hotel that was well built …

"If we hadn't been in the street when the man drove by, if we had gone down to the beach … I don't know what would have happened."

Adam and Karen said the hardest part of their experience was leaving. Being there had put a face to the victims — people who had lost their loved ones, their homes, literally everything. "There were hundreds of people at the airport in Jacmel just watching us leave," Adam said, emotion choking his voice. "That was really hard … to leave. I wanted so much to stay there to help. I know the language. I know the people. I just wanted to stay there and help as much as I could but I knew I couldn't."

He continued: "My wife and I were intact. We were together. We were uninjured. We had our belongings. We were relatively healthy. We had food and water and security. We had it easy. It was so hard to see so many people suffering."

They are not sure why they were spared but their experience in Haiti has solidified their desire to help. "A part of us, in a way, is still in Haiti," Adam explained. "[Our experience] has cemented our connection to Haiti. We feel an obligation and a responsibility to really help in the months and years to come."

Karen added, "Even though it was very hard to leave, we are realizing there is so much we can do from here … The devastation is so widespread it's overwhelming to know where to begin so we've decided to focus on what we can do in that town and in those children's lives. We can't do everything, but we can do something."

Adam and Karen are trying to use the local media attention they've received to try to raise money to rebuild Pazapa. "Our mission to Haiti is not done yet," Adam said.

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