Francois Pierre-Louis Jr. PhD, Associate Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, wrote this letter to his friends following the earthquake in Haiti.
This is my account of the earthquake that I lived through in Haiti on Tuesday Jan 12, 2010.
It was about 4:45 PM; I was in front of my computer at the National Center for Research and Training (CENAREF), a think tank founded by several people in 2008, including former Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, to provide training and technical assistance to community and grassroots organizations. In addition to working with the grassroots organizations, the Center also engages in research on public policy issues. Members of the Center have years of experience in community organizing, group dynamics and leadership development. Many of them are university professors, former government ministers, community organizers and high level officials in previous Haitian governments.
That Tuesday afternoon, I had just finished a meeting with a group that is working on setting up a micro credit for women in the Southeast of Haiti in Anse a Pitres. I was waiting to meet at 5 PM with a youth group that was organizing a seminar on leadership development and community analysis. As I was waiting for the group to arrive, I decided to check my email. As soon as I was logged on, I heard a noise coming from one of the windows. The noise sounded like a huge airplane taking off, like a Boeing 747. A colleague of mine who was in the room remarked that the noise was weird and was wondering what was happening. He did not even finish his sentence when the building began to rattle. It felt like the ceiling was opening and closing. Dust began to fall on our head. Within seconds, I yelled to everyone in the room that it was an earthquake and we have to get out right away. We ran out of the building. Other people in the building also ran out. As we rushed out, we kept calling aloud other people’s name in the building so that everyone could get out.
Luckily, everyone left the building and we stood in the courtyard. Although it looked like an eternity, according to the press, the whole thing lasted less than a minute. While we began to calm down in the courtyard, downtown Port-au-Prince was beginning to look like it was bombed out. We watched from the hill as a cloud of fine dust began to rise slowly from the streets of the city. As the fine dust rose, pitch black smoke and fire began to erupt in various neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the telephone system was dead. Electricity was out. As we watched the city slowly being engulfed in the mayhem, all around us we heard people wailing, shouting out of desperation. Behind the CENAREF office, there is a shanty down with makeshift houses and cinder bloc homes. Practically all of the one room cinder bloc homes fell in the ravine. Some homes did not fall directly into the ravine. They fell on top of other homes. So the whole thing looked like a set of dominoes that was falling on top of each other. Those in the shantytown who survived the quake began to come out of their one room house, dazzled, numbed and stunned. Others began to cry for help as their loved ones, mostly small children, were trapped in the rubble. As the women were crying for help, it seemed as if no one could help them because most of the men who were crawling outside of their homes were injured and they could barely walk.
By 6:30 PM with no way to communicate with anyone, and it was getting real dark, we decided to walk a block down to the hotel where I was staying. When I got to the hotel, we did not know yet the full extent of the disaster. The hotel was still standing, but all the walls were cracked. There was this eerie silence in the hotel because most of the employees had left to look for their families who lived in the shanty town. By 7 PM, the hotel’s owner came and was in total shock. She barely escaped from a building that flattened like pancake in the downtown area. She was about to pass out when we gave her water, and had her rested a little. By this time also throngs of people from the surrounding areas were coming by the hotel because that was the only place there was a generator that provided electricity in the neighborhood. People were coming in with broken legs, arms, bloody faces. They asked us for pain killers, water, blankets, anything. Others were carrying people on makeshift stretchers. Most of these people they were carrying seemed dead already. Fearing more aftershocks, many people decided to camp out on the street in front of the hotel with nothing to sleep on. The owner gave them sheets, pillows, and water. As the night falls, the weather which was stunning hot during the earthquake began to cool off considerably. People began to shiver from the cold.
8:30 PM: the CENAREF administrative assistant came over to the hotel in shock. Her house fell with 7 people in it, including 5 children. She came to ask for help to remove them. We gave her flashlights and tried to make calls for heavy machinery to remove the concrete. But, we all realized how powerless we were in this crisis. The phones were dead; there was no word from the president or government officials. No emergency structure to respond to the crisis and no central command to send any message.
11 PM: no one could sleep. All the hotel guests gathered in the hotel’s courtyard afraid to go inside. Some tried to sleep in the parked cars. By 12 midnight there was an aftershock estimated to be 5.2 on the Richter‘s scale. There was collective yelling and crying. This aftershock created more panic. After several attempts of trying to call my wife in vain, one of my colleagues got through. He spoke to his wife in Miami and he told her to call my wife to let her know that I am okay. 11:45 PM, my phone rang and I heard my brother on the line. I told him that I was okay, but I don’t know about the others. I did not even finish the sentence when the communication was cut off. Communication would not be established again in Haiti for several days.
3 AM: Another aftershock estimated to be 5.0 on the Richter’s scale. More panic; more crying and yelling.
6 AM: the sun began to rise. We are now receiving more news about people’s whereabouts. Every bit of news we received was bad. The quake hit some residential neighborhoods like Turgeau, Canape Vert and Bourdon quite hard. We learned that prominent people: (university professors, businessmen, government officials, retired people from the diaspora were killed). Others were unaccounted for. In the hotel, the spouse of one employee came to look for him because he did not come home on Tuesday night. Minute by minute employees were coming in grieving because they lost their children, their parents. One employee, his wife and three children died when their home fell on them.
10 am the hotel’s owner began to warn us about the shortage of food, water and fuel for the generator. She can only give us cold food; sandwiches and fruit since the gas line was broken and she did not want to take a chance with it. The main waterline was broken also. Therefore, no running water for the time being; we have to fetch water for our personal use in a bucket. Some of us got a whole bucket, others just a pitcher.
My colleague and I decided to take a tour of the city. The minute we got out of the hotel yard, we saw people everywhere camping out in the middle of the streets. Every other home was destroyed. My colleague went to check out his family members. He learned that his cousin died in the rubble of a two story home. The whole family was homeless and camping out on the street. Next he went to visit his house. A whole section of the house was destroyed. It’s a brick house that was built in the 1940s. The wall fell where he usually sleeps. Had he been there, he would have probably been killed. Our next stop was to check on the President of CENAREF who had just dropped his wife at the airport on Tuesday afternoon. Since we had no news of him, we decided to drive by his house. We got there, there was no house. The building collapsed to a pile of dust. His cousins who lived in the house next to him barely escaped because their house also collapsed. We learned that our friend was buried in the rubble. The cousins asked us for help, but there were no heavy equipments to remove the concrete and the cinder blocks. So we went out to seek help.
Later in the afternoon, we learned that he died in the rubble and was eventually buried without the presence of his family.
We drove by again to the CENAREF staff member’s house to find out how she was doing. So far, the neighborhood had mobilized to remove the rubble, but her brother was pinned down under some heavy blocks and they could still not get any one to help them remove him. Meanwhile, there was no more sound coming from the children. She and everyone in the courtyard were resigning themselves to the fact that the children were dead. Now, they have to save the brother. When we left her, they were thinking about amputating the brother’s legs because he was in so much pain.
4 PM: another day ended. No one was helping the people on the streets. Children, young and old gathered in the middle of the streets, hungry, dazed, in pain and helpless. Another night was falling with no hope of a better tomorrow.
11 PM: As people nursed their pain and we were keeping vigil in the hotel’s courtyard, we heard a throng of people walking in the dark toward the mountains. Everyone panicked and began to wonder what was going on. We learned that there was an alarm about an impeding tsunami. People who were camping in the public parks in downtown panicked, dropped whatever belongings they had and began to walk up the hills to seek refuge in the mountains. The Hotel’s street leads to the mountains. We watched as hundred of people crying, wailing carrying whatever they could walk up the street to the mountains. We learned later on by 3 am that it was a false alarm.
Morning: The hotel owner was getting more nervous. The two nights that she spent without any sleep were getting to her and everyone else. She was even more nervous of the cracks in the walls and the fact that she could not get a structural engineer to come inspect the cracks. Wednesday night, we had aftershocks every hour. Some stronger than others; every aftershock sent everyone in the hotel out into the streets. Finally, she politely told us that she is running out of water, she can barely feed us now and she has no fuel for the generator. In other words, get out! With no flights out of Port-au-Prince, no communications and no fuel, the question was how to get out. As we begin to consider various scenarios, the stench of the bodies buried under the hot sun was beginning to overwhelm us. Those who had face masks began to wear them as they walked in the streets. People who had kept the bodies of their loved ones next to them in hope of a proper burial began to abandon them on the streets. As we drove on Ave John Brown in Lalue, a main thoroughfare, we began to see tens of bodies abandoned on the sidewalk. Some are covered with plastic bags, others are barely covered. The bodies were not being collected by the authorities. However, by Thursday afternoon a dump truck began to collect them for burial in a mass grave.
As my colleague and I tried to figure what to do, we went to different friend’s homes to check on them and inquire about how to get out. We arrived at one home where they were cooking for neighbors and homeless residents. They did not have a way to transport the food, so they asked us to take it over for them. We also went to collect water for the house since they were running out. Although we got involved in delivering aid and helping out, we still did not know what was going to happen to us. Finally we decided to go back to the hotel for one more night in the hope that we can get out on Friday.
6 AM: The aftershocks all night long kept everyone awake. We could not even sleep in the cars. I slept with my clothes on and a small bag that I could run with in case I needed to do so. The hotel’s owner was really intent on kicking everybody out. She told the Swiss guests that they have to call their embassy. She volunteered to drive the Canadian guest to the Canadian Embassy. As for us, we did not wait for her to say anything. We told her that we were going to take our chances by going to the Dominican Republic. Although we said that to her, we had no idea how we were going to get there. So we packed up, paid our bills and left. I only took a small bag with me because I gave away my clothes and suitcases to friends who are living in the streets. As we drove toward Champ de Mars, a large public space where thousands of people are camping out, I met a friend who is a police officer who was looking for his wife and children because their home had collapsed. I told him that I was trying to get to the border. He mentioned that there was a bus leaving for the DR. We immediately went there, took the last remaining two seats and prepared to leave. The bus looked like it was also affected by the quake. We were so happy to catch it that we did not even think about anything else. We sat on the bus at 9 am. It left at 11:40 am and we arrived in Santo Domingo 13 hours later, around 1:30 am (the trip usually takes 5-6 hours). In between, the bus broke down twice. One time, it ran out of fuel. The second time, it overheated while climbing a hill. The Dominican army stopped us 20 times. Every time, the driver had to pay off the officer at the checkpoint. From the capital we took a cab to the airport and flew out to NY where I arrived in the arms of my wife and children who all came to meet me at the airport.
Although I am safe and sound and I am indeed grateful to everyone who has expressed their love, sympathy and concerns for me, I am sitting here still thinking about the people in Haiti who are homeless today and have lost everything. I can’t forget the faces of the children that I saw, the dead bodies, the wounded and the memories of my dear friends that have perished. Haiti is going to need a lot of help in the months and years ahead. In the midst of the suffering, I also saw hope. Despite media reports that the people are unorganized, I saw a lot of young people and neighborhood groups coming together to organize their blocs, direct traffic and transport people to hospitals. Although Haiti is going to need a lot of support in the months and years ahead, I hope you are not distracted by media reports that want to bypass the local organizations and the people in the neighborhoods in rebuilding the country. I ask all of you to be vigilant of solutions that will leave the people out. The tasks at hand cannot be done by NGOs and humanitarian organizations alone as that have been done in the past.
Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
This article originally appeared in the CUNY Clarion.