Recalling the day the earth shook in Haiti

A woman mourned among the wreckage in Delmas, Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the Jan. 10, 2010 earthquake. AP photo

On Jan.12, 2010, I woke up to a sunny day in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In a few hours, I would be heading to Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport to fly back to Boston after a two-week vacation in my parents’ homeland, a break from the winter cold that my big family looked forward to every year.

I gave hugs and kisses to my dad, my aunts, uncles, and grandmother who had decided to extend their stay a little longer. My little brother, two of my aunts, and I headed home.

Looking out the window at the busy streets of Delmas, I reminisced about how much fun I have had visiting family and enjoying the holiday season in Haiti. There’s something about Christmas that just puts Haitians in a celebratory and joyful mood, a mood that’s contagious throughout the month of December and into early January.

I never want to go back home to Boston when I’m there. Everything is just right from the warm weather, warm and inviting people, the hustle and bustle of the busy streets, and the fresh cooked food I ate daily. I was born in Boston, but Haiti always feels like home.

Our journey back to Boston took us first to Miami, where we were to spend the night. It was a short flight, and when we arrived, it was oddly very cold. My weather app told me it was 52 degrees. I missed the island weather of Haiti already.

We checked in at our hotel room around 5 p.m. and as usual, my aunts turned on the news. “A major earthquake has struck southern Haiti, knocking down buildings and power lines,” the CNN anchor said.
We were in disbelief. “An earthquake? In Haiti? But we were just there,” I said to everyone.

“We need to call everyone back home,” my aunt said as she grabbed her cell phone to call the Google Voice number that our family in Haiti used to make and receive international phone calls.
She got a busy signal. We called again, and again, and again. The phone never rang; just the obnoxious sound of the busy dial tone.

We watched the news in disbelief as more reports came in. It was a 7.0 magnitude earthquake – the most powerful to hit Haiti in a century – that struck about 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, where my family was staying. This couldn’t be the beautiful, sunny island we had just left hours before. We prayed as news came in of heavy damage and eyewitness accounts of bodies laid out in the streets of the capital.

We kept trying to call our family, but there was no way to reach them. We sat there helpless, eyes glued to the TV as visuals of our beloved country in peril came on the screen. So many buildings, businesses, homes – even the presidential palace – were severely damaged. People were screaming in the streets for help.

The rest of our family in the US called us to make sure we were safe and ask if we’d heard from the others still in Haiti. None of us had.

It wasn’t until five days later that my aunt called me and told me she finally had heard from our family back in Haiti. She told us that everyone in our family had survived the quake, but that there were aftershocks rumbling the ground of the city throughout the days. She said that my family’s next-door neighbors’ house had collapsed with someone inside.

A few days later, I was finally able to reach my dad on the phone. I cried when I heard how weak his voice was. Everyone was traumatized. They were sleeping on the street as far away from our home as possible in case it collapsed during another aftershock.

He told us that all they heard was misery in the streets with people stuck under the rubble crying for help to get out. The smell of dead bodies started to creep into the streets and of course, crime started to rise as desperation hit the Haitian people trying to survive what became known as a catastrophe for the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

It wasn’t until February that we were able to welcome all of our family members who survived the earthquake back home to Boston. Although everyone in my family was unharmed, the trauma and physical damage across Haiti remained. Nearly 250,000 children, women, and men had lost their lives and more than a million people had been displaced.

As we recognize the ten-year anniversary this week, the devastation is still hard to fathom. Despite the outpouring of aid and donations after the earthquake, the $10 billion pledged by governments around the world never fully materialized. Even worse, months after the catastrophe, United Nations troops triggered a cholera outbreak that killed thousands more people, prompting months of angry Haitian street protests against the UN and, in some cases, global NGOs in general.

Critics argued that many of these NGOs that flooded into Haiti had savior complexes and had effectively shut Haitians in Haiti out of their own recovery effort. In addition, efforts to rebuild the palace— known as the Haitian White House— remain in limbo.

However, the spirit of the Haitian people is not easily broken. Last September, Haiti made global headlines as protests broke out across the country against a deepening fuel shortage on top of spiraling inflation, a lack of safe drinking water, environmental degradation, and food scarcity. In Boston today, it’s hard not to come across Haitian people who feel passionate about wanting to see change in their native country.

As we remember the earthquake ten years later, ceremonies are being held throughout the city and the arts exhibit “Still Arts Rise,” created in memory of the victims of January 2010, will be on display in the Boston City Hall Scollay Square Gallery from Jan. 9 until Jan. 30.

Jessicah Pierre is a columnist for the Dorchester Reporter.