PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Shouts split the darkness early Friday as members of the Lifechurch in Allentown, Pa., arrived at the orphanage they run here to find everyone safe – 11 children and four staff members sleeping in the garden. The hugging, conversation and serious business of inspecting damage continued until just before dawn, when the just-settled roosters wearily performed their rise-and-shine ritual once again.
The nine-hour drive from Santo Domingo, while long, tense and eerily dark, proved less fearsome than we had imagined. ŠWhen we arrived at the border shortly after midnight, Dominican immigration officers let us pass after a glance at our passports and a quick conversation in a back room. The Haitian side was unguarded.
As we neared Port-au-Prince on a back road that was nearly deserted, we saw rock walls toppled over, then whole houses down.
David Friedman / msnbc.com
Kids at the Rescue Children orphanage watch a generator-powered television on Friday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Upon reaching the orphanage, members of the church group began calling out names in the dark, dizzy with excitement but wondering what they would find, having exchanged just a few quick text messages with the orphanage director shortly after the quake.
Their relief was palpable as they were joyously welcomed by the director, Dave Harris, staff members and the children -- Macson, Roberde, François, Jeff-Alande, Mafouna, Widlyne, Rodlin, Roger, Marie-Victorie, Stevenson and Julie – all shod in new green or pink Crocs donated by the church. All the kids, who range in age from 4 to 16, will give you a hug if you let them borrow your sunglasses.
After the welcoming, the church members quickly set out to examine the damage to the house, which they only recently occupied. They entered through an entryway marked with Psalm 27:10, in Creole, "Papa m ak manman m te mét lage m, Senyé a va ranmase mwen." In English: "When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me."
|VIDEO: Senior Pastor Randy Landis describes the emotions of his team's arrival at the orphanage|
Some of the kids are true orphans. One of the girls' father and brother were murdered in a machete attack, and she still bears a scar. Another girl was found in a trash can when she was an infant. Two of the boys have no backstories at all; no one knows where they came from.
But others are economic castoffs, with parents who were alive before the earthquake, and may still be.
"There's a new type of orphan in the world today, where the mom and dad just can't afford to take care of the kids," said senior pastor Randy Landis, 50, of Lifechurch, an Evangelical Christian nondenominational congregation. As he talks, Julie, 4, soothingly cleans his bald head with a wet wipe.
In daylight, we headed out looking for charcoal and more food in the relatively upscale section of Port-au-Prince, called Santo, about 15 minutes from the city center before the quake. A church leader carried a shotgun, though no one appeared menacing. Up and down the street, people slept outside on mattresses in the comfortable weather, far from the buildings.
Many of the houses around the orphanage were pancaked by the quake. Just down the street, a young girl's corpse remained trapped in the rubble of one house where three died.
At a collapsed multi-story concrete building, dozens of people worked in clumps on the pile, swinging sledgehammers and digging by hand. The air smelled of smoke.
A U.N. truck drove past, carrying armed men wearing face masks. Neighbors told us later that the U.N. men were burying bodies in a nearby mass grave. The neighbors were upset, because the dead are not receiving individual funerals and burials.
Heading toward the Delmas area and central Port-au-Prince, we encountered a major bridge that was down and had to turn around.
But amid the devastation, signs of normalcy were evident. On the main street into the city center, some stores were open. The streets were less busy than usual, but still many people were riding mopeds or flagging down "tap-taps," as the multicolored taxi vans are known. Some gas stations were open, with long lines of vehicles waiting to fuel up.
Military planes and helicopters occasionally flew by as people carried water to their homes from a nearby tower or other sources, using jugs, buckets, any container they could find. Two boys at a soda stand popped open orange drinks. A neighbor's scrawny horse stood tied up in front of a damaged home, with no food or water in view.
The orphanage just moved to this grand old house owned by a Haitian living in Canada. It's still standing, but the concrete walls have large cracks and the adults fear it could collapse if there are more aftershocks. The children are forbidden to go inside and have to use a portable toilet in the carport.
The kids had just returned from their second day at their new school when the quake hit on Tuesday afternoon. Now, with the nearby Catholic school at least temporarily closed, they spend their days helping carry cans of vegetables and other supplies to the pantry and trying to stay busy. They have toys and games, though mostly they seem preoccupied with hanging onto the adults. The kids next door play soccer, but the orphanage's soccer ball deflated after it rolled into razor wire on the driveway, strewn there when a portion of the concrete wall around the grounds collapsed.
David Friedman / msnbc.com
Lifechurch mission members Ramon Crespo and Ramon Morales clear debris from a collapsed wall at Rescue Children orphanage in Port-au-Prince on Friday.
"We've had tremors all day," said Harris, 56, the orphanage manager. He's a retired specialist in quality control, and it shows in the organization he has imposed on the extended family now camped outside. "The house could go at any time. The children are pretty scared. Even the dog is scared."
The women have moved the kitchen to the garden, serving boiled spaghetti and sausage for breakfast, rice and canned tuna for lunch and plenty of hot coffee with sugar. The children have been sleeping outside, and the men are putting up tents for shade now, and shelter when the rain comes.
Paramedic Frank Andino, a church volunteer, has set up a small medical station. But he said he's afraid word will get out, and he'll be overwhelmed by the neighbors, exhausting his supplies. But the church group is offering boxes of sports bars to the neighbors.
Water is being rationed. No one changes clothes. No showers are allowed, except for women and girls who are menstruating.
Still to do: Stretch the razor wire across a broken section of the exterior wall to provide security. A church mission near the Dominican border has offered more food, so a trip Saturday morning should help restock the shelves. But fuel is iffy.
"One bag of charcoal is all we have left," said mission director Ramon Crespo, 47, a veteran of a mud slide relief effort eight years ago in El Salvador and many other rescue efforts. "After that, we burn wood. After that, we burn books."
Within a week, pastor Landis said he hopes to find another house to rent, farther from the city center, and to bring down a second mission group to help move.
The Haitian doctor from New Jersey who met the group on the flight down, Hubermann Debrosse, and joined them for the drive to the Haitian capital, headed off Friday morning with two hired drivers, hoping to find his wife and two children.
|VIDEO: The children at Rescue Children Orphanage sing a song of thanks before their meals|
After breakfast, mission director Crespo gave a pep talk, recited a prayer and led the children in a Creole song. He reassured the children, "More people are coming to help, and a lot of people are praying."
"That house may collapse," he said, gesturing at the grand facade. Then, holding out his hands to encircle the children in an embrace, he added. "But this home will never collapse."
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In the afternoon, the children gathered to watch a video on a TV and VCR set up in the garden.Š "Christmas in Haiti" was filmed by church members to show everyone back home in Pennsylvania how well the kids were doing in the new house. The video is set to a contemporary Christian song, "Fade With Our Voices," by Jason Gray. The chorus begins, "Does our worship have hands? Does it have feet? Does it stand up in the face of injustice?"
While the church group and the kids remain in relatively high spirits, the shock of starting over so soon after the recent move is an emotional blow.
"We showed this at church on Sunday," said mission director Crespo, barely holding back tears. "On Tuesday, we lost it all."
Donations to support Lifechurch's orphanage work can be sent to 1401 East Cedar St., Allentown, Pa., 19109. Or you can click here for a list of other charitable organizations working on the Haiti earthquake relief effort.