Distress was every-where. One morning, outside the Saint Jean Bosco Catholic Church, an elderly woman in a blue dress caught my eye. Our crew was there to cover the first Sunday following the Jan. 12 earthquake. She sat on the steps, beneath the church’s massive steeple, clutching three plastic bags. She said it was all she could carry when she fled her home on foot in the wake of the disaster. Her name was Carméline Narcisse. She was 82, alone and scared. Her caretaker had vanished. Her only lifeline: two sons in the U.S. she hoped would come for her.
“I have no one here. I have lost everyone,” she said near tears.
She had her son Oriol’s business card. He worked at a digital print shop in Miami. I promised to call. She hugged me and said God told her to come to the church that morning. I hugged her back, crying, thinking she could be my own mother.
Reaching Oriol, I explained where he could find his mother. He was overjoyed. He hadn’t been able to reach her, did not know whether she’d survived. Within days, Oriol and his brother Marc Bertrand came for their mother. We were there the night the family reunited. “With your help, we know she’s OK. We were a little bit scared. We didn’t know how to find her,” Oriol said with gratitude.
Requests from displaced Haitians to make calls to relatives in the U.S. were not unusual in the early days after the quake. I spoke the language, was one of their own, and maybe that made it easier to ask.
At times, it was well past midnight before I’d get to the list.
“Hello,” I would say, sitting at the small desk in my hotel room, lit by a flashlight. “Sorry to call so late. My name is Edvige Jean-François; I’m a journalist. I met your brother today, and he wanted me to let you know he is alive. He survived.”
The relative would press for more information: “Where is he?” “Is he injured?”
I moved through those calls as quickly as I could, since at times I needed to be up at 4 a.m. to produce my first live reports. On those early mornings I also dressed with a flashlight, and a few times with my cell phone, since the hotel was operating on limited power and lights went out at midnight and came on at 6 a.m.
Some colleagues said they slept fully dressed, not only to avoid the hassle of dressing in the dark, but also to be ready to bolt because of continued aftershocks in the early days. Most of us got used to it after a while. We were there to do a job. Nevertheless, panic ensued one morning when a 6.1 aftershock rocked the country. One European journalist in our hotel was badly hurt as he escaped from his room. I think we all got a dose of reality that day about the risks involved, risks we accepted voluntarily to cover the story.
One of the most difficult undertakings was following up on reports from those who said loved ones had texted from beneath the rubble. One night, I remember texting a woman over and over, hoping for a response so we could alert rescue workers. But nothing.
Some nights I cried in my hotel room because of the sheer scope of suffering I witnessed on a daily basis. I also cried, ironically, in gratitude that my dad, who had died a year earlier, was not alive to see the beleaguered state of his beloved Haiti. And I prayed and gave thanks that my mother was not there. She had been planning to go to Haiti on Jan. 10, just two days before the quake. But I convinced her she’d get a better fare if she waited a week and booked her on a flight for Jan. 17.
Though her home withstood the quake’s punishing blow, she could have been at the Caribbean Market, where she shopped regularly and a number died, or at her neighborhood gas station that is no more. And, even if she had been unscathed, I don’t know whether my mother could have survived the experience itself.
Another alumni journalist, Patrick Raycraft ’84, a staff photographer at the Hartford Courant, assisted International Medical Alliance relief efforts at a Dominican Republic hospital on the Haitian border soon after the devastating Jan. 12 quake.
You can find his photos and an account of his work on the Hartford Courant website.
A summary of early Haitian relief efforts by alumni and students also appeared in the Spring 2010 Alumni Review, pages 10-11.