Author’s Note: This week marks the 11th Anniversary since I made a spontaneous decision to join a small group on a humanitarian trip to Haiti to help earthquake recovery efforts in whatever way I could. A few days after I returned from what was a totally surreal experience, I wrote the following essay on my Facebook page. A year later, I composed an updated version for the local Brooklyn newspaper Caribbean Life. I’ve added a postscript with updated information on the post-earthquake situation in Haiti 11 years later.
When I finally arrived home in Brooklyn at 5 a.m. on April 1, 2010, after eight days witnessing the despair, destruction, and devastation of the approximately 30-second earthquake that ravaged the country of Haiti less than three months before on January 12, I felt as exhausted and hungry as I’ve ever felt in my life. But after observing the determination of a courageous and proud people to survive and overcome their trauma, I also never felt so compelled NOT to complain about it. In fact, my Haiti adventure, coming on the heels of losing my job as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of a magazine, was the first period in a very long time I didn’t feel almost entirely self-absorbed.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t ecstatic to finally land in my own bed after not sleeping more than three hours a night for a week (which culminated in an almost 16-hour ordeal on the return trip to New York). I was especially looking forward to squeezing in one Passover meal before the holiday week ran out, and my wife Bea and daughter Jean had planned a special dinner for me for Saturday night, which was just about the time I finally woke up since arriving home on Thursday.
So after the traditional Passover seder feast, I camped out beach-whale like on the couch in front of the television to partake in another Jewish holiday tradition—watching the 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments for the umpteenth time and reveling in how much of the script I could recite before the actors delivered the lines (“The strong make many, the weak make few, the dead make none!”). But there was another reason I wanted to watch the film post-Haiti trip. I was searching for some kind of parable in the story line that might relate to what I had felt and experienced before and during the mission, which was sponsored by a Non-Governmental Organization called “Orphans International Worldwide” and included 11 assorted NGO folk, photographers, journalists, and people like me who had a compelling urge to make a difference and do something—ANYTHING—that might help the people of Haiti.
The groups of NGOs ranged from well-financed and organized outfits like that led by the actor Sean Penn, to well-meaning, do-gooders who really didn’t have a clue. The “Orphans International” NGO I signed up with fell somewhere in between. Although short-staffed, under-funded, and a tad disorganized, its ambitious agenda included finding and financing foster parents for children orphaned by the quake, creating a tent elementary school, and interviewing hundreds of high school graduates who might be eligible for college scholarships being offered by a university in China. All of this was being organized out of an outpost in Léogâne, 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince and which sat on the epicenter of the quake. But the town was more like Leo-GONE, as the place was in ruins seemingly everywhere.
In The Ten Commandments, after the movie Moses (Charlton Heston) performs the various small miracles to achieve the ultimate miracle of freeing the Hebrews from the clutches of slavery, the flock gathers with everything they own at the gates of Pharaoh’s Egypt. They are ready to embark on a journey that will take God only knows how long. Moses, who up until this point has been pretty confident in his use of the Almighty’s power (except for the lame staff-into-snake trick), now has to make a speech to the Hebrew Nation. But he has that “What do we do now?” moment. Moses gazes upon the Chosen People and whispers to God something along the lines of, “How the heck am I going to find food and water [and perhaps clothing and shelter] for this multitude?”
That’s basically what anyone with a pulse would feel the minute they left the Haiti airport in Port-au-Prince and drove through the city and up through Léogâne, about 20 miles west and which was close to the epicenter of the quake. You’d see tens of thousands of people without food, water, clothing, and shelter in every direction and all you’d want to do is hold out your staff and make a miracle. That you can’t makes the frustration palpable, but giving into it is not an option. The macro is not achievable by any one person or even a group of people so the focus has to be on the micro.
When you can’t feed or clothe the multitudes, you pluck canned goods, baseball caps, t-shirts, and whatever else you can spare out of your suitcase and give it to a homeless family living in a tent city.
When you can’t build a shelter that would be impervious to the rainy season, you haul out of a small tent the cinder blocks and stones that served as the mattress for seven people, including a 17-year-old National Team Soccer goalie that lost both her parents in the quake.
When you can’t give the hundreds of beautiful teenage girls who remind you of your daughter a nice allowance and stylish new clothes, you slip one a couple of bucks and some men’s clothes that she can barter for a clean blouse or a dress that isn’t three sizes too big.
When you can’t give a gaggle of athletic children a team’s worth of sports equipment, you gift a baseball glove and authentic major league hardball to your new 10-year-old friend from a tent city, and you play soccer with some orphaned kids who scrape by on one meal a day, little water, and the kindness of strangers.
When you can’t help a bunch of young men rebuild their Léogâne radio station destroyed by the quake, you visit the one operating out of a small tent and tell them you’ll contact radio stations back in New York and urge them to send used equipment.
When you can’t create a new school to replace the thousands that were destroyed, you spend two days processing and interviewing almost 200 high school graduates—some of whom are in their late 20s—for potential college scholarships in China.
When you don’t have the resources to rebuild devastated homes, you stand humbly in front of a church congregation in a city that looks like London after a World War II bombing and you tell them how beautiful, strong, resilient, and heroic they are.
And when you get the tightest hugs you have gotten in your life from the tent family, the soccer goalie, the teenage girl, the 10-year-old boy you wish you could adopt, the radio station guys, and the pastor of the church, you come away knowing you have accomplished something small but significant and you feel like a citizen of the world.
I thought about Haiti and its incredibly resilient people often over the next year. And in March 2011, almost a year to the day I had arrived there, the phone calls I was welcoming and dreading came in what seemed like rapid succession. The first was from 17-year-old Stephanie, who with just a few English words in her pocket, was asking me to send her a few dollars so she could enroll in a nearby school. The second was from Pastor Raymond, who wanted to meet me when he came to New York and ask how I could help him repair his crumbling church. I had befriended Stephanie and the Pastor during those surreal eight days in their earthquake-ravaged country.
A year later, I listened to the pleading voices of Stephanie and Pastor Raymond and my sense was that little in Haiti had changed for the better. Those fears were only confirmed when reading the sad facts in Internet stories. The world’s biggest afterthought, Haiti still had two-thirds of its 1.5 million people living in tents and only five percent of the up to 22 million cubic yards of heavy debris had been removed. This in spite of the $1.15 billion pledged to Haiti by the U.S., and the $9 billion pledged by other donor nations. The rebuilding of Haiti is in its infancy and at this rate could take decades.
My 2010 trip to post-earthquake Haiti was probably among the most sad and surreal, exhausting and exhilarating, gruesome and gratifying experiences of my life. I only hope I can figure out a way to help Stephanie and the Pastor and perhaps, in that small micro way, I’ll be helping the whole country.
Postscript, March 2021:
As it turns out, I would not be in contact with Stephanie or the Pastor again, let alone visit Haiti. I was actually hoping to make a trip there last year during the 10th Anniversary of the disaster, but the worldwide Covid-19 Pandemic catastrophe put an end to that possibility. Had I been able to return, I’m sure I would have been profoundly dismayed by the situation in the country 10 years later.
The 2010 Haiti earthquake was a magnitude 7.0 and because it occurred at 6.2 miles below the surface, a shallow depth, its energy had a devastating effect at ground level. Once a series of aftershocks had stopped, it was determined that more than 200,000 lost their lives and about 300,000 people were injured. More than 1.5 million Haitians were displaced, as more than 400,000 houses crumbled into broken slabs of concrete and twisted steel. The earthquake decimated the southern portion of Haiti, leveling more than 100,000 buildings in metropolitan Port-au-Prince (a city originally designed for 3,000 people, but was home to almost a million), and the cities of Jacmel and the quake epicenter Léogâne. Hundreds of thousands were forced to live in makeshift internally displaced person camps, otherwise called “Tent Cities.” Nearly 4,000 schools were damaged or destroyed. A post-disaster assessment by the U.N. estimated the destruction at $7.9 billion.
Haiti currently ranks among the world’s least developed countries because of political, social, and environmental insecurity. Recurring disasters, such as Hurricane Matthew in 2016, have made it difficult for Haitian families to overcome entrenched poverty. Some of the issues Haiti faced prior to the earthquake persist today, including weak political governance, lack of infrastructure, and limited access to basic resources. The country is currently gripped by skyrocketing inflation and fuel shortages. According to a new report by the UN’s disaster relief agency OCHA, rising prices mean even basic supplies are now out of reach for the poor. Nearly 60 percent of the population is living below the poverty line. In fact, half of all Haitians are undernourished and 100,000 Haitian children under five suffer from acute malnutrition. Forty percent of Haitians are facing food insecurity and for at least one in ten Haitians, food insecurity has reached “emergency levels.”
In January 2018, almost eight years to the day of the earthquake, President Donald Trump in a meeting with Senate members, referred to African nations, including Haiti, as “Shithole Countries.” “Why do we need more Haitians, take them out,” Trump said, according to sources. Someone else in the room responded: “Because if you do, it will be obvious why.”
Apparently, it wasn’t the first time the racist former President had disparaged Haiti and its people. When Trump visited Miami’s “Little Haiti” during the 2016 presidential campaign, he told the Haitian-American community: “I really want to be your biggest champion.”
But minutes later, according to Bob Woodward’s 2018 book, Fear: Trump in the White House, he was calling Haiti a shithole.
Thankfully, America has a new President. Let’s hope that for Haiti’s sake, the Joe Biden Administration can start the country on the road to revival.
To help Haiti in 2021:
CORE: The actor Sean Penn was one of the first to respond to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, helping to set up and run the largest tent city in Port au Prince. Penn’s Community Organized Relief Effort is still helping Haiti through “Community Building,” and CORE is supporting one of the largest municipalities in Port au Prince through education, vocational training, community health, programs targeting women, and a dynamic community space. https://www.coreresponse.org/donate
Grown in Haiti: Operating from the mountains of Jacmel, Grown in Haiti is spearheading sustainable, community-based reforestation efforts. Deforestation is linked to local poverty, so supporting reforestation efforts is an effective way to provide a gift that keeps on giving.Folks who would like to support have the option of donating via www.growninhaiti.com
For the Kids: This organization works to improve the daily lives of orphans in Haiti. The best way to keep track of the organization’s activities is through its Instagram profile. Every year, For the Kids organizes toy drives, end-of-year celebrations, blood drives, summer camps and more, all over the country. www.forthekidsofhaiti.com
Photos by Stephen Hanks