It was about a quarter to five and my aunt Laura was anxious about missing the worship session in our guesthouse, St. Joseph’s Home for Boys. The home housed about twenty boys who were all former street boys or child slaves. Father Michael, the founder, gave these boys religion, shelter, food, education, and companionship. Here, these boys with no family to speak of and no one to believe in them were accepted as part of the St. Joseph’s family. To support the project, St. Joseph’s had group rooms on the fourth floor for guests—from what I could tell, mostly mission groups. Every morning and evening at 5, the boys would come together on the sixth floor of the home for a worship session, which guests could attend.
The group I was with, which was working with St. Joseph’s, was the first trip to Haiti organized by my aunt. She is trying to start up a company with trips to different orphanages and schools as well as cultural centers, like museums and art co-ops. This was a mother-daughter trip, so there were four mothers (my mom and aunt included) and their respective daughters.
It was obvious we were going to miss the day’s meeting for the second day in a row due to heavy traffic. Our driver, hoping to find a faster route, turned off the steep, busy main road to a quieter alleyway. Around us, like in most parts of Port-au-Prince, were walls constructed of concrete blocks and houses with heavy roofs made of the same cheap material. Just as we were approaching an intersection, people suddenly began to scream. My cousin Martha claims to have seen a woman running up the road and then thrown violently to the ground by the wave that a millisecond later rocked our van. The walls and houses around us exploded. “Bomb!” someone in the van yelled. “Is this a hurricane?!” my mother shrieked. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time a hurricane did not seem too farfetched. Although the weather was beautiful, our van was shaking so violently that it seemed as if it were no longer on the ground, but picked up by some mighty wind.
What was going on inside the van was nowhere near as frightening or surreal as what was happening outside our safe, air-conditioned bubble. Serendipitously, we were at an intersection and away from any buildings around us. The wall to our back left did not so much crumble as turn into dust on the spot. The house to our front left had a cement roof that literally slid forward, folded in half, and then came crashing through the front doorway. I was on the left side of the van, but the other women with me reported that a roof of a house on our right destroyed one of its walls. When the shake began, people ran to the streets, raising their arms and faces to the sky, praying to Jesus. They seemed to almost expect to see Him or to be received by Him – lifted up to the sky. What do you do when your whole world shakes apart and collapses?
Then, the air filled with thick, grey cement dust. I have no idea for how long, somewhere between 10 seconds and 10 minutes. We could only hear the people outside, blocked by the dust, screaming otherworldly screams, moaning, praying. As the dust settled, I saw a woman right in front of the house whose roof had folded and crashed through the doorframe. She looked in shock with wide, frantic eyes. In her arms was a young boy. They were both white with cement dust except for where blood from the large gash on the boy’s head washed the dust off his face and her bosom. As we began to drive on, a man came and took the boy from her arms, comforting him and carrying him off, presumably to find help. People on the street were crying, watching the boy go by. At first, I thought that all the cries and pained expressions I heard and saw were for this one boy. Once we began to drive again and see the destruction, it dawned on me that that boy had been lucky.
The five hours after the earthquake are a blur in my memory. I can remember specific events, but cannot give a chronological description of everything I saw. The roads we drove on were reasonably clear of debris, but the citizens of Port-au-Prince were all out in the streets. If by some miracle their houses were still standing, the earthquake had made them unstable. Nobody wanted to be indoors – especially since there were rumors of large aftershocks soon to come. We drove up one narrow road but found ourselves stuck in a line of cars. A passerby informed our driver that this road was blocked. As our driver put the van in reverse, a woman next to our car covered in dust with crazy hair and even crazier eyes was screaming in Creole to no one in particular. She caught sight of us—eight untouched foreign women—and started yelling at us. We could not understand her, but it felt as if she was blaming us for this earthquake. She banged angrily on my window, screaming curses at me. Then we pulled away.
It felt wrong to be in our van watching the Haitian people in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Everyone was on the streets, still crying, praying, some were singing. Now we saw people walk by in such shock, I’m not sure they noticed the gashes on their heads or shoulders. My mom’s BlackBerry was working and a Haitian friend of ours from home emailed, warning that an aftershock of magnitude six was predicted to arrive within the hour. At this point, we were stuck in traffic driving uphill. We looked to our left to see a tall building whose top floor had collapsed. People were pointing up at it and running to the other side of the street. The building, though mostly intact, looked unstable; it was almost swaying, though the aftershocks had yet to come. Those in the car were chatting in loud, nervous voices. Should we get out of the van? Would that be safer or more dangerous? Before we could reach a decision, the car in front of us began to move, and we were out of the way of the unstable building. The rest of the ride became a silent calculation of the stability of the buildings on either side of the van, and I found myself holding my breath as we drove past the tallest ones.
We began driving down another road, which turned out not to be passable. As we began turning around in the drive of a partially crumbled house, I saw a girl I will never be able to get out of my head. She looked to be in her late teens and was sitting in the driveway that the nose of our van was in, legs stretched out in front of her. Her waist down was completely bloody. It looked like maybe a wall had fallen and crushed her bottom half. Two men who were comforting her picked her up as we pulled in, leaving behind a pool of bright red blood. We drove on.
It took a bit of discussion to decide what to do. Although our passports, money, laptops, shoes, and other possessions were in the guesthouse, we concluded that it would be too dangerous to return, since the building probably received major damage. We did not want to strand ourselves in the middle of a disaster-torn city, most likely doing more harm than help. Everybody but me was wearing skirts and flip-flops, a vulnerable group in this disaster. With the half a tank of gas we had left, we decided to head straight for the U.S. Embassy, which had relocated a couple years before to an area a little out of town, past the airport. Usually a 15 to 20 minute drive, the car ride took us about five hours.
We drove on, finally getting out of town and on the flat, wide road to the airport. Even here, people, not knowing what to do, were in the streets and crowding the sidewalks and median. At one point, a woman was sitting out my window in the median with two young boys sitting with her and a toddler in her lap. She was singing and clapping and the child in her lap began clapping too. The mother said something to my driver, and he handed her his last bottle of water.
The unity of the people in Port-au-Prince made me feel that, deep down, everyone is intrinsically good. I saw no violence on that drive, just people sharing a common grief. Inside the van, I felt helpless and unable to relate to or comfort those outside. Sure, I had potentially lost my laptop, sneakers, and some credit cards, but nobody around me had any of those things to begin with. Even before the earthquake, I was so much better off than them, and now they were experiencing a loss that I could not even begin to relate. Many of the people in Port-au-Prince could barely afford to sustain themselves even before the earthquake. They had no margin for error. I had this fierce desire to help them, yet I had no idea how I could help. It still bothers me today that even though I am an unharmed, able-bodied nineteen year old, I was not able to help.
As we drove, I saw the first corpse that I can remember. A little, shirtless brown body of a four or five year old boy lay at the end of the median. Later, as we passed a hospital near the Embassy, we would see people piling bloody bodies next to the crumbled walls that used to protect the hospital lawn. This hospital was reasonably intact, but too many people wanted in. Some of the injured waited outside the gate, some sitting or lying on the ground.
We drove on. The road and all the houses were dark, because many of the power lines had been shaken down. Soon, we saw a large, brightly lit fortress ahead. “Is that the Embassy?!” one of the other girls asked with excitement. Indeed, the Embassy had multiple security guards, a security house, a perfectly manicured lawn, and large walls surrounding the huge, bombproof coral-colored main building. We poured out of the car, happy to stretch our legs. One of the first sights we saw was a large woman, her head wrapped in white gauze, lying in the middle of the parking lot. An American nurse who had come to the Embassy for refuge was tending to her, but he wasn’t able to do much in the parking lot with only some gauze and water. As she turned on her back, the severity of her situation was suddenly obvious. The gauze covering half her face was soaked in blood.
Aunt Laura approached the security guard. “What do you need?” he barked, eyeing us suspiciously. My aunt, a little baffled, stated that we were all Americans and would like some assistance after the earthquake. “Listen, see these blue badges?” the security guard asked, holding up his Embassy badge. “These people are our first priority. You’re going to have to wait out here for the American Citizen Services people.”
“Well is there a bathroom we could use? We’ve been driving for five or six hours,” she asked, eyeing the brightly lit security building. The guard pointed us in the direction of some bushes lining the parking lot.
We waited outside for about an hour until finally we were allowed in and given blankets. “This isn’t a hotel,” became the common refrain of the next two days. “This isn’t a hotel. This isn’t a hospital. It’s our legal obligation to get you out of here, but we’re not an airline.” We were okay with this, but watching the Embassy employees yelling at groups to get in line—people who had just lost members of their group, friends, or husbands – was heartbreaking and inappropriate. There are ways to talk to and to deal with people in trauma, but the Embassy members must have skipped that day of training. We spent two nights on the floor of the Embassy, wrapped up in sheets usually used for the prison inside. Considering the millions of dollars that the U.S. obviously poured into this brand-new Embassy, one might expect them to be slightly more prepared for a disaster. After the first morning, they quickly ran out of food. On Wednesday, children were peeing on the floor because there were no diapers. The eight of us were part of the ten Americans able to make it to the Embassy the first night, so we got sheets and blankets, but they quickly ran out of those too.
Finally, on Thursday, we were driven out to the tarmac. Others had been waiting in the airport longer than we had, but we were the direct responsibility of the Embassy, so they wanted to get rid of us first. After about three or four hours standing around on the tarmac, our C-130 finally landed. The injured, people with young children, and adults over sixty were all put onto the first plane. We made the second.
Arriving in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic felt like heaven compared to Haiti. Before my eyes could even adjust to the light getting out of the plane, the chief of the American Citizens Services was shaking my hand, telling me how happy he was that I was there. Two steps more and someone was giving me a cup of water, asking if he could help with anything. The Embassy had huge piles of toothbrushes, shampoo, toys for children, granola bars, and clean clothes—everything we could hope for. There was even a diaper-changing table and a table covered in phones where we could make free calls to the States. They helped us apply for temporary travel papers, as well as to get hotels and dinner.
As grateful as I am that I was able to so easily evacuate Haiti, in many ways I wish I had been stuck there, forced to stay and offer my help to those millions of people who were less fortunate than I. Recently, I’ve been bothered by that fact that I can get on a government plane, fly back to my privileged life, go back to my private college, get a new cell phone and credit cards, and try to feel better about myself by participating in a charity dodge ball game or hanging up decorations for the Haiti formal. I left behind injured people, people who now no longer have houses or jobs or a source of clean water, people who do not have a brightly lit Embassy to go to nor a foreign home to which they can evacuate.