A front row seat to a national disaster
When Farmington chef Peter Christenson boarded his plane Jan. 9, he thought he was going to do some mission work and help install a bread oven at an orphanage. What he didn't realize was that he'd soon get a first-hand look at the devastation that follows an earthquake.
A corporate chef, Peter joined a mission group from his boss's church on a trip to Fedja, Haiti this year. The plan to help install a stone bread oven at the All of God's Children orphanage there, so they could make bread and sell it in the nearby market.
Christenson had heard about the poor conditions in Haiti, but nothing had prepared him for what he found when he arrived.
"When you walk out of the airport, the poverty just hits you right away," he said.
His group had been in Haiti just a few days. He was helping to cook and serve meals for about 250 kids each day. He was struck by how thin they were, how the smaller children ducked behind the adults serving the food so the older kids wouldn't take their meals.
"It was really amazing to do," he said, "to see how the kids just line up and fight for food."
They were in their third day there, work progressing nicely on the oven, when things in Haiti got just a little worse off.
Peter had never experienced an earthquake before, so he and others in his group were a little bewildered when the ground moved below their feet. A rumbling could be heard. For about 30 seconds, he was standing still, but he could see things around him moving.
"In your mind, you're trying to figure out what it is," he said.
Of course, it was an earthquake. But Fedja is about 40 miles from Port-au-Prince, where the 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused the most devastation. Still, 40 miles away, Peter and the other adults knew it was not safe to go into buildings where they were, for fear of structural damage. The problem was, the children thought to seek shelter for protection, so he and others had to keep the children from trying to go indoors until they knew it was safe.
"We're in shock," he recalled. "We didn't know what to do. There really wasn't a lot for us to do at first but help those kids."
Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, Peter's wife, Kelsey, had just dropped their sons off at her parent's home and was on her way to work. Her father called her while she was en route, and told her there were early news reports of an earthquake in Haiti.
Kelsey had emergency contact numbers to reach the group, but those were at home. The next few hours were long - first, well-meaning co-workers asked things like, "Did you see the news?" Then there were the hours of watching news stories that really didn't answer the question she wanted to know - if her husband was safe.
"It was just a big waiting game," Kelsey said. "I had kind of sick, helpless feeling not knowing where he was or how he was."
Kelsey whiled away nearly four hours, waiting to hear something, but not sure when she would. And then, she got a simple e-mail, sent from Peter's cell phone. All it said was, "We're OK."
Peter was able to send a longer, more detailed e-mail the next day. In it, he explained that his group was cutting their week stay short, and would be heading to the US Embassy, and hopefully would be home as soon as possible.
"All I could think was, 'Get the hell out of there,'" Kelsey said.
A short stay
The next day following the earthquake, a few members of the mission group went to Port-au-Prince, while Peter and the others went to the market to buy food and supplies for the orphanage. When the missionaries returned from Port-au-Prince, "their faces really told the tale," he said.
The group decided there was nothing they could do to help at that point. To stay, he said, would mean they would be eating the food the people in Haiti needed.
"We were just a drag on their resources. The best we could do was leave our food and our money," he said.
And so they did. They packed up and headed back into Port-au-Prince, with the U.S. Embassy as their destination. Arriving in the city was difficult, as they encountered the exodus of people trying to leave for a safer place. For a while, it was a deadlock worse than rush hour traffic, but eventually they arrived at their destination.
Around them, buildings were knocked down, brick walls were crumbled. A pickup truck with bodies in the bed passed by. All the pictures people back home saw on television, Peter saw right up close.
"It was really sad. Not hopeless, but you know it was just so much. You come across some debris, and you could just smell the dead," he said.
At the Embassy, his group decided to turn over all of their medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, because Port-au-Prince doctors had very little to help ease the pain of the many victims. In one area, wounded were arriving. In another, a search and rescue crew was being organized. Another area was set aside for families, hopeful to be reunited with missing loved ones, to gather.
They'd been there for a few hours when someone from the Embassy told them an Air Force cargo plane was available and would take them back to the states. They arrived in New Jersey hours later, then flew in to Chicago, and, finally, back to Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Unnerving as the trip was, Peter swears he will return again and again. Working at the orphanage gave him a new respect for food - especially how much food is wasted in his industry. Now, he has a renewed sense of what it's like to not just want food, but to really need it.
"I'd go back. Absolutely. I felt bad leaving like that. I think all of us would have stayed if we could have helped," he said.
Kelsey knows her husband probably will go back, too.
"Every day since he's been back, it's all about the kids there. The orphanage is his new mission," she said.
In the meantime, Peter and Kelsey are using their home-run business, Plump Chef, to help raise funds for Haiti. Peter makes flavored seasonings as part of his business. His newest one that he plans to launch this week is called, "Haitian Love Rub." It's available at their web site, www.PlumpChef.com, and they'll put all proceeds from their sales into a fund to help the All of God's Children orphanage and other needs in Haiti.