News from Shimer Professor Steven Werlin in Haiti
Professor Steven Werlin, who is currently living and working in Haiti, is safe! Below he has shared some of his thoughts and experiences in the days after the tragedy. Also, Maxandre Bien-Aime, who has visited Shimer numerous times and spoken about his school in Haiti, is also safe. You can find out more news about Maxandre and his family at www.kids4good.org.
From Steven WerlinJanuary 14, 2010
It was hard, at first, to take the whole thing seriously. We were violently shaken in the office as we closed for the day. One or two members of the staff fled outside. But when the first shock of it was over, we quickly checked the building for major damage.(We found none.) We called our supervisor, who is based nearby in Jakmèl, and we proceeded through the regular step-by-step process we follow to close our office at the end of the day. More like a carnival attraction than an act of god. It never occurred to me to contact anyone at home to let them know I was alright. Of course I was. I always am.
But then we started to hear things. There had been damage in Jakmèl and Port au Prince. When we tried to call people on the phone, we discovered that it was hard, very hard, to get through. And rumors kept sounding more and more serious.
Job finally reached me at 10:15 PM. He lives in Delmas, the populous suburb north of Port au Prince. He said there had been a lot of damage. He was fine, and asked me how I was. Then he gave me the news: Elie and his brothers had not heard from Apocalypse since the latter had left for classes earlier in the day.
Elie has been my neighbor in Kaglo since 1998. That was the year his mother died. His aunt, Madan Jean Claude, who lives in Kaglo, went down the mountain to Metivier and took him away from his father, Bòs St. Martin. She claimed that the boy’s mother had told her that if Elie did not go away with his aunt, his mother would return from the grave to take him herself. So she and her husband raised Elie from that time, and she credits herself with saving his life. Meanwhile, his three older brothers – Maxène,Josue, and Apocalypse – stayed with their father. The brothers remained very close, even though Elie would see them only every few weeks.
A few years ago, Elie graduated from high school and decided to study medicine.It would have been very hard for him to succeed commuting every day from Kaglo. The travel would have left him little time to study. So I introduced him to Job, who was already in medical school and was living in an apartment in Delmas with his sisters, also students. They hit it off, and Elie moved in.
Since then, they’ve all become very close. So when Job’s older brother Ronal was to be married in Ench, Elie was invited. He brought Josue and one of their cousins as well.
The wedding was Saturday, and Saturday night Maxène, the oldest brother, called them to tell them their father had died. He had been sick for a long time, and had been deteriorating rapidly in recent weeks, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise, but sad nonetheless. Bòs St. Martin was a warm, loving father and a friendly and charming man. The guys left Ench early Sunday morning to rush back to Port au Prince.
Tuesday, they had a lot of work to do arranging things for the funeral, so they were in the streets of Port au Prince together. Except for the third brother, Apocalypse.He’s an architecture student, and he just couldn’t afford to miss class. So he went his own way.
The earthquake leveled the college he attends. When I spoke to Elie at almost 11:30 PM, he and his other brothers had no news. All through yesterday, I had no news,but when Job was finally able to reach me this morning, he let me know that Apocalypse’s body had been found.
So the gravity of circumstances began to weigh on me over the course of what seemed like a very long night, and when I went to the office the next morning, thinking less of opening than of figuring out how things stood, I was able to get on the internet and discover how very bad things are. The worst Caribbean earthquake in 200 years. Thousands dead. Ten of thousands homeless.
Just walking through Marigo at midday was enough to give the beginnings of aconcrete sense of the devastation. Young people were gathered in small groups here andthere around the town, listing friends who were away at school in Port au Prince and were either missing or confirmed as dead. Marigo is a small town, yet if you count only its Portau Prince college students, the death toll would have to be at least a dozen. And “college students from Marigo” is a very small subset of the population of Port au Prince. Even onour small Marigo staff, we have two who may have lost siblings.
And then I went to Jakmèl. It’s one of Haiti’s larger cities, about ten miles west of Marigo. Though it’s no closer to where the quake’s epicenter is said to have been, the impact could not have been more different. Jakmèl was devastated. Whole neighborhoods had been turned into rubble. My driver and I saw schools and hospitals that had collapsed with heavy casualties. Here and there we saw corpses in the streets or the rubble, most of them covered by sheets, but some still in whatever position the earthquake, which had struck about 24 hours earlier, had left them in. We saw what had once been an old man,one his hands grasping the railing of his front porch and one of his feet stepping into the street when the roof pinned where he was and where he will remain until someone moves him to his grave.
The enormity of the disaster here will only emerge slowly in the comings days. I have no news of most of my Port au Prince friends, and may have to go there to get any. Part of me is afraid to find out. January 19, 2010
In Haitian cities and towns, construction methods are fairly uniform. The standard building material is cinder blocks, made locally, often by men with no more equipment than a metal form and a shovel. People with the means will then cover the blocks with cement. They might even paint over that surface. Poured concrete support posts, with metal bars bent into something of a frame, are more or less plentiful depending on the builder’s means. Roofs are poured concrete, with various degrees of metal support, or corrugated tin. None of this is earthquake-proof, it turns out.
We opened my Fonkoze office in Marigo for a couple of hours Thursday morning, just to let locals have access to some cash. Staff members in particular needed to make withdrawals since they don’t normally bother to keep much cash on hand.
After opening, I went to Port au Prince. The main route passes by Jacmel. It’s a winding mountain road that sits right over the quake’s epicenter, so cars and trucks can no longer make the trip. Motorcycles work, at least for now, while there’s gas. There area couple of places, however, that require the driver to have two men hold on to the cycleto prevent it from sliding down a sleep hill as they walk it across damaged terrain.
I went with Naël, a member of the Marigo staff, and when we got to Leyogann,we found a bus loading for the capital. The trip has cost 20 gourds for several years. The conductor was asking for 50 gourds, and no one was blinking. Everyone was anxious to get to Port au Prince, too anxious to argue about the price.
But something interesting happened. The driver got on the bus, and saw what was happening. He announced in a loud voice that he was very sorry, that he had been away from the bus for a few minutes. He didn’t know what the conductor was up to. He gave everyone a 25-gourd refund.
Leyogann itself was in ruins. It’s said that 90% of structures were destroyed. And the damage done along the rest of the road to Port au Prince was considerable. Naël was rushing to the city with me because his younger brother, a student of linguistics, was trapped underneath a collapsed classroom building. As of Thursday, members of the family who were waiting outside the building could still speak to him. As of Monday, he was still buried, but they could no longer hear his voice.
When we reached Port au Prince, we went our separate ways. I was anxious to get to Kaglo, because I had no news. Normally, it’s a bus and then a pick-up truck from Port au Prince to get to Malik, just 30 minutes by foot below Kaglo, but there was no transportation available, so I hiked up the hill from Port au Prince. I passed by the Fonkoze central office, and knocked politely at the closed front gate. When I got no response, I went around the back to discover a big gap in the wall. No one was there. The building was standing, but the cracks were so severe that to this non-engineer it appeared unusable.
The folks in Kaglo were fine. There were houses in upper Glo, the poorer half of the community, that had been completely or partially destroyed. But the people were almost entirely unhurt.
Early Friday morning, I hiked downhill to Metivier to see Elie and his brothers.After waiting for a day in front of their brother’s school as corpses were removed, they were able to identify Apocalypse on Thursday by the clothes he was wearing. His head had been crushed beyond recognition. They put what was left of him onto a plank, carried him to the closest cemetery, and bribed the attendants to put him in an available grave.Their father’s funeral would have to wait a few more days.
I spent the rest of Friday and all day Saturday walking around Port au Prince,trying to find people I needed to see. Telephone communication was and still is so poor that, even if one could be satisfied by just hearing someone’s voice, one wouldn’t most likely be able to do so. Searching the city to find the people I needed seemed like the only thing to do.
The destruction is hard to convey. Whole blocks entirely leveled. A second or third floor, or both, sitting neatly or not so neatly on the crushed floor or floors below. So much for the buildings. The air in Port au Prince is bad at all times, but the dust of wrecked buildings and the stench of rotting corpses and burning debris now combine to make it much worse than it usually is.
Every corpse one sees is a shock. I began to see them from the bus as we entered Port au Prince. They had been arranged on the median in the middle of the express road through Kafou, the capital’s main suburb to the south. Most were covered by sheets or curtains or whatever cloth was handy. But even so, one could discern in the shape of the now-stiff arms the terror they must have felt as they raised their hands towards the roofs that descended upon them. On Saturday, as I walked down and then up Delmas, one of the main roads between Port au Prince and Pétion-Ville, I was still seeing them here and there. And many more yet remain under rubble that is a long way from being cleared away.
Estimates of the dead go as high as 200,000. It’s hard to imagine how anyone will get an accurate count. Many of the buildings that fell – not just homes, but schools,churches, offices, and everything else one can imagine – were full of young or old at the time. Even so, many people are saying that we were lucky in a sense. It struck during afternoon rush hour. Had it been earlier or later in the day, many more people who were in the streets would have been indoors and, so, would have died as well.
Some, like Naël’s brother were still hoping for help. As I walked up Bois Patateon Thursday, I heard a strange bark from underneath the rubble of one fallen home. What appeared to be a family was gathered in front, trying to figure how to free its trapped dog. The scene was a reminder that the worst of the suffering was not at all over.
I knew I would need to be in Marigo on Monday to open our office. We needed to do the little we could to help Marigo lift itself up again. If nothing else, we needed to giveour clients access to their savings and make remittances available to those whose friendsand family abroad could send them.
Not knowing how easy transportation back over the Jacmel road would be, I chose the shorter, harder, but more certain road through the mountains. It meant spending a full day hiking across a beautiful, very rural path that leads from Kenskof, above Portau Prince, to Kajak and Segen, which are above Marigo. I spent much of the walk thinking about all the times I had made the hike for fun. This time I just wanted to get to my office.
Our whole staff met Sunday evening at 7:00 to plan our approach to the coming days. Monday we opened as scheduled. Everyone had lost a brother, a sister, a cousin, a number of friends. But everyone was willing to get back to work.