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Amid Haiti horror, stories of survival and hope

As reports of casualties in the tens of thousands and mounting chaos emerge from the Haiti earthquake zone, some are clinging to hope for loved ones, including Rhode Island parents relieved to get a text from their daughter: “I’m OK.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Death, devastation and despair dominate the news coming out of Port-au-Prince, but out of the chaos have also come miraculous stories of survival and hope.

Orphanages filled with scores of Haiti’s most vulnerable citizens — its parentless children —survived without losing a single child. A missionary lying trapped for 10 hours in the collapsed rubble that was once her mission was reunited with her husband, who drove hours to dig her out and take her to safety. A college student managed to send her worried parents a two-word text message that meant everything: “I’m OK.”

The recipients of that text message were Joan and Steve Prudhomme of East Greenwich, R.I. Their daughter Julie had gone to Haiti with 11 other students and two faculty advisers from  Lynn University of Boca Raton, Fla., to work on an irrigation project for the mission group Food for the Poor.

“We read an e-mail last night stating one sentence: ‘I’m OK,’ ” Joan Prudhomme told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Thursday morning from the family’s home in Rhode Island. “And we were overjoyed.”

Still missingThe Prudhommes were lucky. Just a couple of hours after the 7.0 temblor shattered Port-au-Prince Tuesday afternoon, they received that message. “Apparently, one girl was able to send a text to someone in the United States and Julie was with that girl, and so we did have initial confirmation around 7 p.m. the first night of the earthquake, Tuesday night, that she was OK,” Joan said. “Of course, you don’t know what happens with the aftershocks and everything else. It was extremely anxiety-producing.”

And even hearing that their daughter is unharmed doesn’t end the anxiety. As of Thursday morning, four Lynn students and the two faculty advisers were still missing. And, while the university’s travel insurance carrier immediately dispatched a rescue helicopter from the Dominican Republic, the Prudhommes still didn’t know when they’d see their daughter.

“The worst part is not having any communication with them, so we don’t know where she is, how she is, where she’s going, what’s her plan,” Steve Prudhomme said. “If we could just talk to her, that would be great.”

His wife said that what was important was just knowing that Julie survived uninjured.

“I think there were so many people there just trying to get one sentence out. That’s all we care about. ‘I’m OK’ said it all,” Joan said. “We didn’t need the rest of it,” she added. “We’ll get that in good time, and, we hope, very soon, when she gets airlifted out of Haiti and into the Dominican Republic.”

Dug from the rubbleGetting out is a theme for survivors of the cataclysm.

On Wednesday, TODAY spoke by phone with Frank Thorp Jr., who had driven eight hours from the Haitian countryside to Port-au-Prince, where he dug his wife, Jillian, out of the rubble of the collapsed mission building where they had been staying.

“They couldn’t see her face. They could see one hand waving and they were able to talk,” Jillian’s father, Clay Cook, told TODAY. “With a little more digging, Frank literally lifted her out of the wreckage.”

Although bruised, Jillian was better off than other mission workers. One co-worker suffered a broken leg, and a housekeeper lost both her legs in the quake.

Cook, who called his daughter’s rescue “nothing short of a miracle,” said Thursday morning that Frank and Jillian had managed to get to the Dominican Republic and were hoping to get home to the U.S. later in the day.

Orphans of the storm
Another family waiting for their loved ones to get home are Kendra and Brett Schlenbaker of Bellingham, Wash.

Three years ago, while doing mission work, the Schlenbakers, who have two biological children, Austin, 12, and Karson, 8, fell in love with two children at a Port-au-Prince orphanage. The children, Bjennika, now 8, and Djouvensky, now 6, are brother and sister.

The adoption process is a laborious one, rife with red tape, but by last July, the family thought they’d finally completed the long process. But some documents got lost, and everything was delayed.

And then the earthquake struck.

When she heard the first reports, Kendra said her reactions were “fear and just a lot of turmoil, not knowing if they were OK. They were so close to the palace that had crumbled that we were very worried about their safety.”

But Kendra had been in Haiti visiting the children and working on the adoption for several weeks ending in December, and she remembered that the orphanage kept to a strict schedule: Every afternoon, all the children were assembled under a tree in a courtyard outside the building.

“They’re very rigid on their schedules, so when the quake hit at 4:30, everybody should have still been outside with all the handicapped children. That’s what we were praying for,” Kendra told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira.

Fortunately, their prayers were answered. And, like the Prudhommes, the Schlenbakers got the initial good news by a roundabout route.

“We got a phone call from one of our friends from church who got an e-mail from a gentleman who was on a mission trip down there,” Brett said. “He just happened to be staying at the orphanage when the earthquake hit. Sometime yesterday, he was able to leave the orphanage and get out to an area where somehow he got word to somebody in the States, and then an e-mail went around saying everybody in the orphanage was OK.”

Part of the church associated with the orphanage had collapsed along with parts of the 12-foot-high concrete wall surrounding the compound, but all the children had survived. Now the Schlenbakers just want to finally get their children out and bring them home. Given the damage to Haitian government buildings, they’re not sure what the status of their paperwork is. Fortunately, Kendra has copies of all of it, and she has enlisted the help of her congressman, Rick Larsen.

“The children are legally ours, and I have copies of all the paperwork stating that,” Kendra said. “We’re hoping that maybe the right people in government will see our paperwork and help us get passports and visas for the kids to get them out of the country. That way we can get them home.

“Everybody talks about them as if they’re already living here,” she added. “To have them here would just be amazing.”

Amid devastation, children playingOn Wednesday, TODAY had reported on another orphanage outside of the capital that had also survived the quake. On Thursday, Laurie Bickel, one of the administrators of God’s Littlest Angels Orphanage, updated TODAY on the more than 100 orphans in her care.

“All of the children are doing great. Nobody was injured here. Everybody is faring well,” she said in a phone interview.

Bickel also described the scene outside the orphanage, where tens of thousands of Haitians are in the streets with nowhere to take refuge.

“The amount of damage that is done is absolutely catastrophic,” she said. “People are just sitting in parks. They’re scared to go home or their homes have been destroyed.”

And yet, she said, many people continue to attempt to take what joy life still offers them.

“You get to the playground areas and the kids are just playing. They’re enjoying today; they’re enjoying that moment, and that’s how the Haitian people are,” Bickel said. “In the face of all of this, they’ve been singing and just praising God that they survived, and they are here and they will get through this.”