Paige Fierbaugh didn’t kiss the ground when she stepped on U.S. soil Tuesday afternoon, but she considered it.
“I was just glad to be back,” she said.
Her month-long stay in Haiti as a short-term missionary ended early and abruptly when unrest in that country led to the evacuation of 40 people from Georgia — a move that was in question until the last minute.
After the Haitian government raised gas prices late last week, citizens of that impoverished nation (the poorest in the Western Hemisphere) took to the streets to voice their concerns. The resulting riots and looting led to the closing of the airport, and U.S. officials urged their own citizens to steer clear of the area.
Fierbaugh, 20, a Starr’s Mill High graduate and a junior at the University of Georgia, was working as an intern with Baptists 4 Haiti, an organization that operates in partnership with the Georgia Baptist Convention. It is based in the town of Leogane, which was the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake that devastated much of the nation, and grew out of initial relief efforts stemming from the earthquake.
Her main responsibility, working with the missionaries who live there, was to accompany a team of people visiting from Georgia as they ministered in the area. Mission teams typically come for a week, arriving on Saturday and going home the following Saturday.
That changed last weekend. As the situation at the airport worsened, flights were cancelled and the visiting group of nearly 40 — whole families and people of all ages, some as young as 10 years old — had no way to get home. The team remained holed up in the Baptists 4 Haiti compound about 20 miles west of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. They were fairly safe in the rural town on the coast, as travel by car to Port-au-Prince can take well over an hour even in relatively good traffic conditions.
“We have a house there with 24/7 security, behind a cement wall with barbed wire around it,” said Fierbaugh. “I always felt safe there.”
What soon became problematic, however, was the accessibility of basic needs such as food and water. They began to receive word of grocery stores they normally use being looted and burned. Since all of their electrical power and Internet service depends upon diesel fuel, they decided to turn their power off for a short time as the uncertainty of available fuel became a concern.
Media access as we know it in the United States does not exist in Haiti, especially local radio and television. Most of the information the missionaries received came from their own Haitian staff members who communicated regularly with family and friends in the region, as well as other missionaries around the country advising each other on which roads were open and other vital tidbits of information.
One of the local women working for Baptists 4 Haiti made her regular Friday grocery trip to stock up on food for the next week. But the group scheduled to come in Saturday was 17 people who weren’t coming, and the ones unable to leave totaled 36.
“So we had 40 people on a 17-person meal plan,” said Fierbaugh. “We just rationed a little bit, and we had plenty of snacks so it was fine. But we knew in the long term there could be a problem. We got a little nervous when we heard about the grocery stores and we realized it could be a while before we get a constant food supply again.”
As efforts were made over the weekend to get the visiting missions team out of the country, the decision was made that staffers such as Fierbaugh should also leave and the remaining two weeks of the summer program be cancelled. The U.S. Embassy went to a Level 4 travel alert, which means Americans are advised not to travel to the country, and then its own non-essential personnel were told they could leave, which usually isn’t a good sign for tourists to stick around.
Fierbaugh posted late Monday on her Facebook page, “Help us get out! … there is no American military presence here to assist! We are safe but we cannot make it to the airport! We have limited food, water and gas!”
By this time scores of such messages had been coming out of Haiti and the plight of missionaries and other visitors in the country was receiving national coverage in the United States.
The earliest possible commercial flight for the Georgia group was Wednesday of this week, and that was booked. But by Monday no one was feeling particularly confident in staying even that long, so other options were considered.
It was learned late Monday that an organization known for what Fierbaugh called “missionary extractions” could take them out of Port-au-Prince early Tuesday morning on a chartered plane. A backup plan was conceived that involved taking the group by helicopter across the border to the Dominican Republic for a flight home. It was starting to sound like a movie but it was quite real.
Arrangements were made for a police escort to arrive at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday to accompany the group to the Port-au-Prince airport. “We decided to get out before things got crazy,” said Fierbaugh. “The road going to the airport was the real problem. It was blocked by burning tires, and we were told people would either throw rocks or shoot you if you tried to pass.”
The flight left without incident and landed a short time later in Fort Lauderdale. Fierbaugh was back in her Fayette County home late Tuesday afternoon.
“God definitely had His hand of protection over us today,” she wrote on Facebook. “What you see on the news is not the Haitian people as a whole. They are loving and full of the most joy I’ve ever seen. But in a nation that is so corrupt, they are also hungry for hope that only the Lord can provide, and giving them that hope through the truth of Jesus is why we go.”
It is also why, Lord willing, her fifth and probably most memorable trip to Haiti will not be her last. When the opportunity comes, she will be ready to go back.