What I Saw in Haiti
When the earthquake struck, Buck Close was driving in a car on the outskirts of Port au Prince. Here, he recounts his journey through the rubble.
When the earthquake struck, Buck Close was driving in a car on the outskirts of Port Au Prince. Here, he recounts his journey through the rubble.
I was entering the town of Croix des Bouquets on the outskirts of Port au Prince, driving along with some partners from 1000 Jobs/Haiti, when the earthquake struck. At first, I thought we had hit something. Then the truck began to rock from side to side while still going forward, as if the vehicle was a boat on a wavy sea. Around us there was chaos with other cars stopped and people screaming. No one knew what had happened. It was several seconds, perhaps a minute, before Jacky said that it must have been an earthquake. But we also thought a power line might have fallen, because there was smoke immediately and the smell of burning.
We then quickly began to see the results of whatever had happened–a long cinder block wall adjacent to the road and about eight-feet high had fallen, burying people who had been walking on the sidewalk. Houses had collapsed and people were running into the street screaming, some of them injured. We were headed to my coworker Amelie’s house, which was in the area, and on our way we continued to see toppled buildings, injured people, and lost lives.
We saw hundreds of thousands of Haitians sitting or standing in and alongside the roads in the dark with nowhere to go and little or nothing to eat or drink.
We could not drive all the way to Amelie’s house because a wall had fallen across the road. Amelie lives in a rural setting–an open field with cinder-block houses in various stages of construction. Her house is a one-room cinder-block structure with a tin roof and neither water nor electricity. She built the house with her own hands after the death of her husband. Everything she owned was inside. When we arrived there on foot, I thought at first that the house had withstood the quake. As we got closer, it became clear that that was not the case. Three of the four walls were partially collapsed spilling cinder blocks and dust into the room and breaking the bed and many other things. One wall had buckled outward. The interior was a chaotic dusty mess with Amelie’s few belongings strewn among the cinder block. But she had no time to mourn the loss of her home and all her possessions because her 9-year-old son, Olivier, was missing. We waited there in the growing darkness for about 45 minutes before he appeared. He had been on a school bus when the quake hit. Olivier released an outpouring of grief when he saw his destroyed home. We wanted Amelie and Olivier to come with us, but Amelie refused to leave her home for fear of robbers and because there was a young neighbor, a girl of about 10 years, who was there alone.
• Tweets from Haiti• The Daily Beast’s full Haiti coverage We had intended to try to travel next to our driver Dieuseul’s house, but he then got a call from Sister Marie Claire, the Provincial Superior of Haiti, who needed to get from a conference she was attending back to her headquarters at the Provincial House of the Salesian Sisters in Port au Prince. So we started on the first leg of what turning out to be a 7-hour odyssey through the streets of Port au Prince. The drive would have normally taken 30-40 minutes, even less if you factor out Port au Prince’s terrible traffic. When we finally found Sr. Marie Claire, she had two more passengers. So there were now six of us crammed into the cab of the small truck with some luggage. There was no room to budge but we were all anxious to get to the Provincial House and find out how it had withstood the quake.
The seven hours seemed endless. The scenes we saw were heartbreaking, frightening, and, in the end, somewhat numbing. We saw hundreds of thousands of Haitians sitting or standing in and alongside the roads in the dark with nowhere to go and little or nothing to eat or drink; a woman begging us for our water, which we gave her; UN troops with automatic weapons vainly trying to be helpful; building after building, a fallen mass of cinder blocks and rebar piled up on the side of the road or in it; babies in mothers’ arms in the dark below my window, about six inches from the truck’s tires: traffic jams so dense that motorcycles could not move with them; power lines being held off the road by makeshift means so that we could pass; people relieving themselves right and left with no trace of modesty since there was absolutely no alternative; bleeding people; dead bodies; bodies being carried; dust and filth and more dust and more filth; hopeless stares from dusty faces sitting or lying in the street. It was a scene of overwhelming devastation and loss and it stretched from one end of Port au Prince to the other.
When we finally arrived at the Provincial House, we saw that it had withstood the quake. The Sisters and the 45 orphans who live there with them were all outside in the darkness. Jacky, Dieuseul, and I slept in the truck to the extent sleep was possible. The night was filled with sounds of screaming and grief and singing. One very loud and didactic preacher bellowed out a sermon that lasted until about 2:30 or later and seemed to come from about a foot from our vehicle.
We remained outside until around 5:30 and then went up the hill to the Provincial House and decamped. I slept for a couple of hours and had vivid and violent dreams that I found hard to disentangle from the previous night’s experience. Now it is the day after–very bright and sunny. From where we are you can look down on most of Port au Prince and almost miss the fact that things are not normal. But the sounds of emergency vehicles and helicopters let you know better. We are planning to go back out shortly and check on Amelie, Dieuseul, and some of the Sisters’ other locations which did not escape the quake unscathed.
What I can say for sure is that this earthquake will inflict more misery on millions of people who were already at the very bottom in terms of quality of life. Port au Prince was difficult to top on the misery index before yesterday. Now most of its residents, living in abject poverty, have been stripped of the very few material things that they possessed. It is buried under endless piles of dusty rubble and they are picking through that rubble in desperate attempts to salvage anything they can. It is difficult for a privileged U.S. resident–even one who spends much time here–to imagine how one can keep on trying to make a life for oneself and one’s family in the face of such total devastation.
Buck Close has been involved in Haiti on various levels for 40 years. He currently directs a 501(c)(3) called 1,000 Jobs/Haiti.