Two years ago today, about 4:30 p.m., I was headed home to my campo house in El Limon, when I got a text from David. It said something like, “If I’m not mistaken, that was an earthquake.” His house in San Francisco de Macoris was shaking, so much that he went to stand in a doorway. In the hours that followed, I learned from my mom that it was the worst case scenario. It wasn’t a small earthquake in San Francisco de Macoris, in the heart of the DR, but rather, an enormous quake a few miles from Port-au-Prince, a seismically vulnerable, teeming city in an already struggling country.
That moment sent off a chain of events that ended with me taking a bus with Mittens to Port-au-Prince on a day in May 2011 when most of my Peace Corps friends took planes home. I arrived after a nearly 12-hour bus ride in downtown Port-au-Prince, right next to the still-collapsed presidential palace, where a lone blan was waiting for me.
In the weeks after the earthquake, Peace Corps DR volunteers festered under the ban against traveling to Haiti imposed by Peace Corps headquarters. Being there for supposedly humanitarian reasons and so close to the disaster, we couldn’t understand why we were doing nothing to respond. We wondered why Peace Corps administration didn’t react more quickly and find ways for us to contribute. David ended up working with Plan International, which was coordinating a huge shipment of emergency supplies, and he coordinated hundreds of volunteers for a week to send kits with food and other necessities like soap and tarps across the border. Peace Corps finally sent waves of volunteers with Creole training to translate and handle logistics at a hospital in Jimani, the Dominican border town closest to Port-au-Prince, which was flooded with earthquake victims in need of emergency medical care such as amputations.
Now, after about seven months in Haiti, the earthquake looms even larger with the stories of people I’ve met. Reflecting on today, I think of my friends who have shared their earthquake experiences with me. A friend who was trapped in rubble for hours with colleagues digging her out while her husband rushed to find her. A couple who held each other to stay upright as they staggered out of their house, then stayed in Port-au-Prince to help in the relief effort. My boss at the nonprofit I work for, who fell out of a second story building and broke her back. A reporter friend who flew into Santo Domingo, crossed the border in northern Haiti, and then hired a school bus to drive him directly to Port-au-Prince. The bus driver refused to take him all the way to Petionville, he was so afraid to be in the city. The most haunting image that comes to mind thinking about this day is our friends Ben and Alexis’s description of the mass migration of people after the earthquake. Fearing a tsunami, hundreds of people walked on foot away from the slums of Port-au-Prince’s waterfront downtown up toward the mountains and Petionville, the hub of the elite. Now that I live in the city, I can picture it – total blackness, masses of people, stunned but survivors.
Anniversaries cause us to look back, but in this case the just thing to do is to look at where we are today. The aid response, judging by the 500,000 people still living in tents and others who have been forced out through government evictions, has been a failure. I believe some organizations, including the microfinance institution David and I work for and Partners in Health, are doing good work. It’s still wholly inadequate. One of the biggest consequences of the international intervention in Haiti has been the outbreak of cholera, brought here by UN Peacekeepers. Any of the progress made through international organizations pales in comparison to the death of more than 6,000 Haitians and a disease that will become endemic to a country with no water and sanitation system to speak of. The vast majority of aid has circumvented the Haitian government, which does nothing to strengthen the government and provide better public services.
What to do? I believe a good place to start is to be informed. I suggest you check out Ben and Alexis’s blog, which has a good summary of articles about the anniversary, and if you read nothing else, this op-ed about how Haiti “can be rich again.”