Horror and hope in Haiti
An Alumna Goes Home
It first struck me as the airplane approached Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Peering from my window, I saw stretches of white tents and blue tarp dotting the landscape, a more arresting sight than any home or building that remained. This is the new Haiti, I thought sadly.
January’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake had killed more than 225,000 Haitians, injured 300,000, and left 1.5 million homeless — sheltering in tents. When the pilot announced that the local temperature was 96 degrees, I imagined the sweltering living conditions and human misery.
The last time I had arrived in Haiti, it had been less than 24 hours after the deadly quake destroyed or damaged 80 percent of Port-au-Prince and ripped through cities like Léogâne, west of the capital, and Jacmel, the once-vibrant toast of the South. Then and now, I had come to cover Haiti as a CNN journalist.
But this was not a vaguely familiar place; I was not solely a journalist dispatched to a disaster zone, on the assignment of a lifetime, armed with my reporter’s notebook, laptop and satellite phone, no. I had also come to the birthplace I left when I was 7 and visited regularly. As I had in January, I sensed that my compassion as a human being, my emotions as a daughter of Haiti, and my dedication as a newswoman, covering a deeply personal story, would intertwine.
Six months earlier, I landed at Toussaint Louverture Airport, uncertain of what I would find. This time, however, I was sure Haiti’s president would not be at the airport, and convincing him to grant us an interview would not be one of the first things I faced.
‘My palace collapsed’
Thirty-five seconds. That’s how long the earthquake that decimated Haiti shortly before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12 lasted. “I am just heartbroken,” Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer shortly after reports of the quake surfaced. Within hours, CNN mobilized news teams across its various networks and bureaus to cover the first and biggest disaster of the new year. Anderson Cooper was first on the scene reporting for us, having arrived by helicopter from the Dominican Republic.
I flew in on a chartered plane with nearly a dozen others, including chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta and CNN International’s Jonathan Mann. Together, we comprised CNN’s first 34 on the ground, mobilizing even before many international aid organizations and the U.S. military. Dozens more would travel to Haiti over the months to come, as the magnitude of the disaster became apparent and the scope of our coverage widened.
Our own group landed at Toussaint Louverture Airport the afternoon of January 13. An eerie quiet greeted us as we walked down the steps onto the tarmac. The few airport workers I saw moved robotically, their faces expressionless. Years of natural disasters, poor governance and extreme poverty had crippled Haiti but given its citizens tremendous resolve. With the latest blow, I saw that fortitude in those who showed up for work, in uniform, struggling to direct the sporadic activity.
It wasn’t long before I noticed Haiti’s president, René Préval, and his wife, Elisabeth. A chief member of our security team, a Haitian-American, knew some of Préval’s security detail and facilitated an introduction to the president, standing in a corner not far from the runway. To say it was surreal is an understatement. I greeted him in French, expressed my regrets, and said I was a journalist, born in Haiti, living in the United States. I told him we were there to cover the earthquake and wanted to know the situation on the ground, how the country was faring. He was at first reluctant to be interviewed, but agreed.
We had two interviews with President Préval; one was conducted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Gupta: What are you doing here at the airport?
Préval: My palace collapsed.
Gupta: So you don’t have a home?
Préval: I came here to work, but they told me I cannot work here because it’s not safe.
Gupta: Are you able to live in the palace, or is it completely destroyed?
Préval: I cannot live in the palace. I cannot live in my own house, because the two collapsed.
Gupta: Where are you going to go tonight?
Préval: I don’t know.
President Préval went on to make an appeal for doctors and medical aid, and to thank the various countries promising help. The United States pledged an initial $100 million and military assistance. “You will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten,” President Obama declared from Washington. “America stands with you.”
Much later, when I returned home, I learned the Préval interview reverberated in the Haitian-American community. Some thought the president appeared weak, failing to project confidence that he could steer Haitians through the turmoil. Others were more forgiving, believing few leaders would have tightly crafted sound bites, in a foreign language, for a disaster of biblical proportions.
It was nightfall before we left the airport and got our first look at the devastation, our convoy moving slowly through the streets. A grayish haze from the dust clouds that followed the quake mingled with the darkness. It looked like a bomb had dropped on Port-au-Prince — collapsed buildings, crumbled cement, twisted rebar, crushed cars and dead bodies. At first I saw the bodies only sporadically. But as we neared our downtown hotel, I saw more. Some were covered, others exposed, as the living wandered among them, dazed and in shock.
In Titanyin, an arid plain on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Anderson Cooper would discover mass graves, where government dump trucks were unceremoniously disposing of bodies mingled with rubble, furniture and whatever else they had scooped up. The number of dead overwhelmed Haitian authorities, who had no system of photographing or identifying bodies — unlike the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, where authorities in Southeast Asia made efforts to catalogue more than 280,000 dead from several countries. Haiti, a poor, already fragile nation of more than nine million, suffered similar numbers of casualties but did not have the capability or resources to make forensics a priority.
“No records are being kept of the names of the dead,” Cooper said in a report from Titanyin. “A lot of people are simply gonna disappear, and no will know what happened to them.”
At cemeteries throughout the city, old crypts were opened to receive the newly deceased. Hospital morgues and funeral homes were inundated with corpses. With little chance of a proper funeral, some buried their loved ones in their yards. Others, exasperated by the slow removal of countless dead, burned the bodies, fearing the spread of disease and to alleviate the stench. Decades of government ineptitude, rampant corruption and economic stasis had left the country unable to adequately meet its most basic needs, let alone the challenge of a disaster that would confound the most able nations. By comparison, more than 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina, and five years later, the missteps and scars from that tragedy still linger.
I don’t think the world will ever know how many people died in Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake.
Everywhere one turned, those still alive were standing in lines in the blazing sun: lines for food, water, tents, medical care, phone cards, money transfers. The road leading up to the U.S. Embassy became impassable as thousands waited, hoping for a way out of the disaster zone.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “Every day is the same.” Survivors who weren’t in lines settled in what open area they could find. At the Champ de Mars plaza, usually reserved for outdoor celebrations, the homeless lay on sheets, cardboard or plastic tarp, with their families and remaining possessions. That’s where I met Jean-Robert Jeanty, his wife, Ruth, and infant son, Rudens. With their home in nearby Fort National destroyed, they resettled to the plaza, within walking distance of the collapsed presidential palace and other ruined government buildings. Jeanty described the family’s daily shuffle for food and shelter, only to end up back at the plaza at nightfall.
The Champ de Mars is also where I encountered Ronide Baduel, a nurse who was once part of the Haitian middle class and within seconds joined its destitute. Baduel was grateful she and her young son escaped with their lives when their rented home collapsed. But she said the indignity of living on the streets, robbed of privacy, was taking its toll. In her purse she carried soap, toothpaste, a change of clothes, so she could wash and change at the hospital where she worked.
Though a massive humanitarian aid effort was under way, carried out by scores of aid organizations, numerous reports detailed red tape, bottlenecks and poor coordination, slowing things down. “Although it is inevitably slower and more difficult than any of us would wish, we are mobilizing all resources as fast as we possibly can,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The U.N. itself was affected by the quake, suffering “the single greatest loss of life in its history,” Ban Ki-moon later said in a Washington Post editorial.
Searching for roots in the rubble
After nearly a month covering the quake, I summoned the courage to visit my father’s burial site. I had been avoiding it, afraid the mausoleum might have collapsed and left his remains indistinguishable under a heap of rubble. But with only days left in my assignment, I faced my fears. Vladimir Duthiers, a Haitian-American colleague on our CNN team, was also anxious to visit his grandparents’ grave for the first time. He was born in New York and never knew them. We decided to go together, bonding in tragedy and nationality. We first stopped at the Port-au-Prince cemetery to find Duthiers’ family crypt. CNN wire reporter Moni Basu and photojournalist John Torigoe documented our visit.
We meandered down narrow passages for over an hour, through unearthed coffins and bones, even a decomposing body covered with a gray blanket and a cardboard sign with the name Hilaire Nicaisse. Vladimir pointed to it; I retreated from the smell. This was what I was afraid of.
Finally, we reached the crypt. Vladimir crouched down, overwhelmed, his head bowed in silence. Then he slowly stood up. “You’re standing in the worst place on earth, a cemetery that’s been devastated by an earthquake,” he said with emotion, touching the gravestone. “You’re sort of in the middle of hell, and you get to feel a bit of heaven at the same time.”
We then headed to Parc du Souvenir, the private mausoleum where my dad is buried. Barely out of the car, I burst into tears, my knees shaking. I was relieved.
“It’s good to see it’s still standing,” I said, looking up at the row of crypts, finding the silver plaque bearing his name, Pierre André Jean-François. “That’s my dad,” I said to Vladimir in tears. “I really had visions that I would come here and there would be coffins and rubble and rock.”
For a moment I felt guilty mourning the dead while so many of the living suffered, but I needed this. And even in death my dad comforted me. Vladimir and I left Parc du Souvenir, with its quiet breeze and hanging bougainvilleas, strangely revitalized. We were indeed on an extraordinary assignment, not solely for what we documented on Haitian soil, but for our connection to it.
In February I departed Haiti with sadness but full of hope, knowing the resilience of Haitians and encouraged by the millions who gave and thousands who showed up to help, like the Ford brothers, three Haitian-American physicians who came to treat and comfort their own. “Part of it has to do with how we were brought up, starting here in Haiti. We’re here to give back. Haiti gave us a lot,” said Dr. Jean Ford, of Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.
I left thinking of my interview with the hyperrealist artist Franck Louissaint. I had visited him at his home overlooking the hills of Port-au-Prince, watching as he painted for the first time since the catastrophic earthquake. He reflected on his own brush with death and the thousands who did perish; he hoped some good would come out of the enormous tragedy.
“Good or bad, the whole world now knows of Haiti,” he said.
The halfway mark
As I watched Haitians make the most of their situation nearly a month following the disaster, I remember fearing they would begin to “normalize the abnormal.” And that’s exactly what has happened in the months since the earthquake ripped through their lives. By midsummer, the sporadic makeshift tent camps erected after the quake had mushroomed to more than 1,300 throughout the country, housing more than 1.5 million people. Many homeless Haitians who fled Port-au-Prince to unaffected areas are returning, unable to find work or assistance. They’re camping out at schoolyards, churches and any private lot they can find, pitting landowners against the displaced.
At the Centre Sportif Henfrasa, a large athletic complex, business came to a near-halt in the face of 7,000 homeless people living on the grounds. Owner Vladimir Saint Louis said on the night of Jan. 12, quake victims climbed over broken walls and took over his soccer field, 400-meter track, tennis and basketball courts. At first he was sympathetic; after months he was exasperated.
“All the government officials we sent letters to, all the letters went unanswered,” he said.
Saint Louis said he couldn’t remove the squatters himself. In six months, they had erected their own businesses on his property, including a goods store and barbershop. They even formed a tent-camp committee to help keep the peace.
More striking than the squalid camps are the miles and miles of rubble, much of it virtually untouched since the quake. In a disturbing tableau of misery and determination, street merchants sold whatever they scraped together on the very mounds of rubble that signaled death and destruction.
“We have moved 250,000 cubic meters of rubble,” United Nations humanitarian spokeswoman Imogen Wall told CNN’s Ivan Watson in July. “Sounds like a lot, until you realize there are 20 million cubic meters of rubble here.” Some estimates predict at the current rate of removal, it could take 20 years to clear all of it. The Haitian government said resettlement and rubble removal had taken a backseat as it worked to prevent a more imminent threat. “The real priority of the government is to protect the population from the next hurricane season. And most of our effort right now is going in that direction,” Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said.
Haitian officials have taken small steps to begin resettling camp dwellers to outlying areas, but without work, social services, schools or medical facilities, those we talked to say they’ve gone from bad to worse. At Corail-Cesselesse, some 15 miles from the capital, about 7,000 Haitians have been resettled to an arid, rocky, desolate plain, where residents say they’re baking in the sun. The camp was touted as the future of Haiti. Officials envisioned an area away from Port-au-Prince’s congestion where people could start anew. But Corail sits on a flood plain, and a summer storm ripped through the camp, causing injuries and leading 1,700 people to seek emergency shelter overnight when their existing shelters blew away.
The International Organization for Migration, one of the managers of the camp, said the incident highlighted the need to step up hurricane season preparedness. Haiti ultimately avoided devastating hits from the season’s storms, but flooding from Tropical Storm Tomas early in November threatened to turn a dire cholera epidemic worse by contaminating drinking water. As the storm struck, there were nearly 8,000 cases of cholera reported in Haiti, and at least 500 deaths.
How the situation will ultimately unfold is difficult to say. Presidential elections were scheduled for November 28, and the results could change recovery plans already under way. With dozens of candidates running and some disqualified candidates — including hip-hop star Wyclef Jean — challenging the election commission’s decision that rejected them, uncertainty ruled the campaign.
Ayiti pap mouri — “Haiti will survive”
The disaster prompted an unprecedented global charitable response from individuals and big donors who pledged more than $5 billion to Haiti in March. But as of late summer, few of the donor funds had materialized.
As Haitians wait for all the attention and promises to bear fruit, they do what they’ve always done: summon their extraordinary will and forge ahead.
What I found encouraging when I returned six months after the initial devastation is that Haitians were in the throes of World Cup fever. Music wafted from all corners. Art galleries and restaurants in Pétion-Ville were open for business. One afternoon, I stopped at my favorite bakery, Patisserie Marie Beliard, and it was bustling with activity. Most encouraging, schools had reopened. To see children in their pressed uniforms, clutching their book bags on their way to class, let me know all was not lost for my country. It’s like a beautiful Haitian folk song says: “Ayiti pap mouri,” which means, “Haiti will survive.”
“The worst wind has gone and our hope has returned,” it goes. “All the children will laugh, their misery gone. O…O, Haiti will survive. My country is not finished. Haiti will survive.”
After Deadline, Reaching Out for the Lost
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.
Edvige Jean-François ’90 is a producer for CNN International’s special projects unit, based in Atlanta, and produced many CNN post-earthquake reports from Haiti, where her language skills and familiarity with her native country contributed greatly to the network’s coverage. At Hamilton, she majored in English and minored in Spanish, winning a number of literary prizes as well as the Samuel F. Babbitt Kirkland College Fellowship. She earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and has garnered more than 20 awards, nominations and commendations for her writing and producing, including seven television Emmy nominations.