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Day 3 in Port-au-Prince: “A Difficult Situation”

[The author was in Port-au-Prince with a delegation when the January 12 earthquake struck the city.  Because of limited electricity and internet access, he was unable to send this report out until after he got back to New York the morning of January 18.]

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan. 16 — Wednesday night, January 13, the second night after a giant earthquake shattered this city, was filled with strange sounds.

At one point a hundred or more people rushed along the Avenue Henri Christophe in front of the Hotel Oloffson in the southwestern part of the city.  They were shouting in Creole: “Dlo!  Dlo!” (“Water!  Water!”) and claiming, improbably, that a tsunami was coming from the hills to the southeast.  Later a vehicle stopped at the intersection by the hotel so a man could make an announcement over a booming loudspeaker.  Apparently he was looking for volunteers for something; a few young men climbed on to the back of his vehicle.  All I understood was the phrase “gen yon sitiyasyon difisil,” repeated over and over — literally, “there’s a difficult situation.”

Some of the strange sounds were hopeful.  One guest at the Oloffson said she’d heard heavy vehicles, like bulldozers or backhoes, going up the street.  Another guest, the Haitian photographer Daniel Morel, heard the rumbling of big transport planes flying into the airport over on the north side of Port-au-Prince.  International aid was finally coming in, more than a day after the quake struck.

Through all this, more than a hundred people remained camped out in the intersection by the hotel, calmly praying and singing hymns (see “Singing and Praying at Night in Port-au-Prince”).

In the Field of Mars

On Thursday morning, Day 3 of the catastrophe, I tagged along with photojournalist Tequila Minsky, who was now under contract with the New York Times, and the paper’s Caracas bureau chief, Simón Romero, as they walked to the National Palace and the morgue.  The Times was paying for a guide, Jean Lundy, a tall, thin, sad-looking man wearing a green shirt and blue baseball cap; he’d lost his brother in the quake.

The morgue and the wreckage of the National Palace, the president’s official residence, seemed to be the first two stopping places for all the mainstream journalists now flooding into the city.  Tequila, though, was much less interested in the shattered Palace than in the scene across the street in the Champ de Mars park, where thousands of people had constructed a huge tent city.

The disaster seemed very democratic over in the park.  The poor and the well-to-do had camped out side by side, improvising tents or awnings out of whatever they had rescued from the ruins of their homes.  Mostly they used sheets and blankets strung on clotheslines.  The better-off had nice sheets with printed fabric, and some families had pitched actual tents: pup tents or the larger ones U.S. families use for camping.

Whatever their class, the Champ de Mars residents must all have lost their homes, and most had probably lost friends and relatives.  Now they sat in the heat in a public park with no sanitation facilities and no sign of any authority supplying food, water, and medicine.  Many tent city residents had nothing to do but sit and stare in front of them.  There was a bad smell, and it was bound to get worse as the day progressed.

Simón stopped to interview a lower middle-class family.  The mother had had a little shop.  “Fallen,” she said in Creole.  What about their home?  “Fallen.”  Tequila asked whether any authorities had told people to assemble in the park.  No, the mother answered, as did everyone else we asked.

“It’s the Holocaust”

The morgue is just a few blocks from the National Palace, at the city’s general hospital, the Hospital of the State University of Haiti (HUEH in French).  We’d been told the hospital was badly damaged.  I didn’t notice any problems as we walked along the tree-lined walkways between buildings, but my attention was focused on the patients lying outdoors waiting for treatment.  Unlike the injured we’d seen waiting on sidewalks outside neighborhood clinics, these were generally on gurneys and most had been carefully placed in the shade.  They seemed to have received some preliminary medical treatment, but the wait had already been too long for some; now their bodies were waiting to be moved to the morgue.

We turned a corner and walked a little further, covering our noses with scarves or our shirt collars.  Tequila looked for moment and then said quietly: “It’s the Holocaust.”

There was an open space in front of us; in the back was a rather small building with a sign in French identifying it as the morgue.  There was no way for the building to hold more than a limited number of bodies, so the dead had been dumped randomly in the open space.  I couldn’t start to count the number of corpses in the jumbled mass, but I guessed there were at least two hundred in front of us, and more than fifty on one side of the building.

The scene really did look like the old black-and-white photos of stacks of corpses in Nazi concentration camps, except, as Tequila remarked later, the Haitians were better fed.  They had been living their everyday lives when the earthquake caught them: at home, at work or school, or going to the market.  They had breakfast and lunch on Tuesday, just as I did.  There was the same sort of democracy as at the Champ de Mars: people in expensive clothes lay next to people in cheap T-shirts and shorts; some seemed to be wearing rags, but that may have been a result of the quake.  Young and old, men and women were all together in the hot sun.  While most bodies appeared to have been dumped randomly, others seemed to be arranged in carefully constructed scenes of everyday life — a middle-aged couple apparently stretched out next to each other as if in their bed at home, a young woman with a baby lying on her chest as if the child had just finished nursing.

The living walked around outside the mass of corpses, covering their noses with scarves and trying to make out the features of a friend or a relative.  They were a much sadder sight than the bodies.  I suddenly looked up: over the pile of bodies you could see, to the southwest, the green, peaceful slopes of the mountain range that rises abruptly from the southern part of the city.

The Belgians Arrive

In the evening Tequila and I ran into Alex Toyo at our hotel’s front gate.  He and his wife own a small restaurant next to the Oloffson grounds.  Alex also works in the informal economy, arranging tours in aging vehicles for the few tourists who still come to Haiti.

We asked Alex what he knew about the “difficult situation” from the night before.  We’d heard that the man with the loudspeaker had been looking for volunteers to help dig out an earthquake victim.  Alex said he’d show us — it wasn’t far, just up a street going toward Carrefour, an impoverished suburb west of the capital.

We walked a few blocks in the dark — the power is out for the foreseeable future — with Alex and a couple of the other informal guides he works with.  Suddenly we ran into bright lights, a giant, shining new truck, and a group of what seemed to be firefighters, white men and women calling out to each other in French as they loaded equipment into the truck.  They were the B-Fast, a Belgian rescue team, one of them told us in English as Tequila took their pictures.

After 50 hours, we’d finally seen some international rescue workers.  Up until then, the only visible rescuers had been neighborhood volunteers.

On our right there was a large ruined building in the glare of floodlights; B-Fast members carefully picked their way through the wreckage as about fifty people watched.  A man in an orange polo shirt sat by the ruins.  He told us in English that this had been an office and apartment complex and that the Belgians were trying to rescue a very popular local man named Carlo Lochard, who had risen to prominence after former president Jean Bertrand Aristide was driven from office in 2004.  Lochard had been police chief in both the West and the North departments — in effect, police chief here and in Cap-Haïtien, the second largest city — the man said, and now he was running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in the elections scheduled for February.  It was clear that Lochard was alive, since he’d talked to his wife on his cell phone; cellular service is operating sporadically.

Robert, one of our informal guides, pulled me aside to say, in a mix of English and Creole, that everyone hated Lochard and that the Belgians were brought to this site just because he was an influential politician.  Meanwhile, sixty students were trapped in the collapsed St. Gérard school, a technical institute a few steps away, Robert said, and the Belgians were doing nothing for them.

He took me to see the school.  “Etidiyan yo vivan?” I asked him.  “Are the students alive?”  “Yes, yes,” he said.

The Quick and the Dead

A B-Fast member gave us a third account.  Their team focuses on pulling out survivors as fast as possible and getting them to a medical facility, he said.  They use dogs specially trained to distinguish the living and the dead.  Once B-Fast has rescued the survivors, they move on to the next site.  In this case, he said, the dogs had only smelled corpses at St. Gérard, while there were a few survivors in Lochard’s building.  Those had been rescued now and the team was about to leave.  Lochard hadn’t been identified among the survivors.

The crowd began arguing with the Belgians.  There was a lot of talking and shouting in French and Creole, and I couldn’t follow in the confusion, but it seemed a large group of young men were demanding that the Belgians search the school, while a massive, self-important middle-aged man was insisting Lochard was alive.  “Il y aura une autre équipe” — “There will be another team” — one of the rescue workers kept saying, apparently meaning that others would come for the bodies later.

The Belgians seemed very serious and professional, and I felt certain they wouldn’t have left sixty students trapped in a collapsed school so they could rescue one big shot.  But who had directed them to come here to Carrefour Feuilles, a middle-class neighborhood all the way across town from the airport where they had landed?  Disaster is never truly democratic.

A large number of the collapsed buildings we’ve seen appear to be modern concrete structures, and a disproportionate number seem to be schools, just as happened in the Chinese earthquake in 2008.  You have to think that much of the devastation came from bad engineering, adulterated building materials, and a lack of building inspectors.  After all, Haiti has been the Promised Land of minimal government interference.  I wonder how the economists who preach the equilibrium of unregulated open markets would feel if their children had been in these schools, if they’d had to go look for the little bodies in the Port-au-Prince morgue.

The earthquake struck a little before 5 pm.  I suspect that a lot more elementary school children would have died if the ground had started shaking earlier in the day.  The loss of so many schools seems especially criminal in a country where there were already so few.

[After I returned to New York and had adequate internet access, I learned that former police chief Carlo Lochard had been detained in connection with a deadly attack on a soccer match in the Martissant neighborhood in August 2005; he was released later.  Lochard has also been accused of a number of other human rights abuses.  See “HAITI: Storm of Killing in Neighborhood Has Wide Implications for Nation.”  DLW.]

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, 2007), and co-editor of Weekly News Update on the Americas.

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