Lent in Port-au-Prince: Reflections on Devastation and Hope

by Joanna Pritchard

"We have lost what we didn't even have."

-A citizen of Haiti

It is Sunday morning, March 14. I returned from an open air church service a little while ago. Jocelyne and I walked there at 7am, and the priest was already delivering his sermon. It was an enclosed area with about a dozen tents on the periphery serving as homes. Probably 300 people were attending. The priest and about a quarter of the congregants were sheltered under a tarp-and-pole gazebo, the rest in the open; some seated and the rest standing. The space was almost full so Jocelyne and I stood at the edge. The sun was still low enough that we were shaded by the steep hill to the east.

The priest was encouraging the people not to be defeated by the earthquake—"the event of 12 January" as he referred to it. Un etap sou wout la, men pa fin. A stop on the way, but not the end. He said that the Haitian people must rise again. That they will be raised to life again. He compared God to both a mother and a father. A father who is stern and yet a mother who embraces her children and holds them tightly to herself. He reiterated that part about holding them tightly several times. Anbrase-li a vant-li. He said it is a time to begin again, to be generous and to share. He talked about the foreigners and how they come, they look, they do a lot of talking about the situation, but next year they will be gone. It is up to the Haitian people to stand up and put their hands together and work together. God understands our sufferings.

The congregation was quiet and serious. Everyone listened attentively. Jocelyne wiped her eyes a once or twice. The dog, Saskia, had come with us (uninvited); Jocelyne had said "li gen dwa." She has the right to. Saskia sat at her feet then went off to explore the other people. We were standing, and the sun was getting a little higher in the sky; Saskia wanted to find some shade under a chair.

There was music from a keyboard player and very talented guitarist. Both were young men. The music was uplifting and most people were joining in with the singing, softly. An elderly lady in a white cotton blouse and a dark blue skirt patterned with leaves came in slowly, using a stick. There weren't any more seats so she stood. The seated members were mostly women, and at the back there were many men standing. When it came time to give the peace, everyone exchanged handshakes quietly and with a smile.

The priest announced special services of prayer that will be held across Port-au-Prince on Good Friday. In front of collapsed schools, hospitals, homes, buildings, there will be prayer for those who died. I think it will be at 3pm, the time of Jesus' death. There will be one at the hospital on Debussy, just a few steps from my office.

Dear God, what has happened here? The city is in ruins. A quarter of a million dead in a day. Those left behind have had everything taken away. Homes, families. "When are we going back to Port-au-Prince?" asked a disoriented elderly man who was living outside the rubble of his nursing home.

I stay inside my office night and day to help get as many projects underway as possible in my short time here. And it protects me against the dreadful reality of the situation. If I open myself to the destruction it gets into my body and fills me with a despair that dissolves my concentration. So much that was good, destroyed. Lives, homes, families, hospitals, churches, schools. Records, government offices. Those 50 lines on my project sheet that say "rubble removal" all represent schools that collapsed. I stare at the list. The words are bitter. This city, this country did not have spare resources to lose.

I talked with a colleague at length last night. She told me about the bodies she saw, a little boy outside the hospital down the street. No visible injuries, but apparently he was brought there for treatment and must have died there by himself. He had a bottle of Gatorade with him that he had not yet finished drinking. About 8 years old. Another pile of bodies she saw with a mother and baby on the top.

Another colleague talked about fleeing the office, running through the dust, picking his way around bodies, and finding his brother alive running towards him. They embraced tightly and cried with relief at finding each other.

Our program director, Rodney Babe, was outside Port-au Prince, in badly hit Petit Goâve. One moment walking across a field, another he was thrown through the air as the ground convulsed. Another man was thrown towards him and he remembers looking into the other man's wide-open eyes during those awful seconds. His wife, miles away in Port-au-Prince, was buried alive in their pancaked five-story apartment building, but somehow crawled out with a broken back and multiple other injuries, was found by a friend and finally, after hours of waiting, delivered to medical facilities to begin a long, uncertain road to recovery.

Buildings are not supposed to move. The ground is supposed to be solid. You have to count on the ground not moving. It simply is not supposed to give way. How can you build a life on ground that you cannot depend upon?

My colleague Jocelyne buried her 12-year-old son last weekend in Petit Goâve, near a grove of trees he helped to plant. He loved trees and he loved to draw. He loved the patisserie in Petionville where Michelle bought us tartes aux pommes yesterday. I don't think Jocelyne can eat hers for this reason. She says her soul has died since she lost her mother and her son. She carries on her work, she smiles and is very generous to me. Her eyes are sometimes red and moist. Sometimes she is lost in tears and grief. After the earthquake the little dog she calls Saskia showed up and now Jocelyne looks after her. I think it helps a little to have that distraction. She is a sweet little dog but is now pregnant. Jocelyne says Saskia has a lot of boyfriends in her new neighborhood.

The sun is getting higher. Horns are beeping and the hum of the generator is in the background. I am perching in the upstairs office of this deserted building, a quiet corner in which to gather my thoughts. There are boxes on the floor filled with folders, empty shelves, a monitor, cushions tossed askew on the comfortable blue chairs arranged around the coffee table. There is the print of a woman's shoe on the sofa cushion, and a woman's jacket tossed onto a chair. A tiny gold-plated model ship rests in a glass case. Things left behind when the entire office transferred itself to a cluster of dusty tents at the UN base down by the airport. A distracting, hot, noisy place to work. This office is peaceful despite the cracks, with pale blue walls, high ceilings, wooden cabinetry. Posters and brochures depicting wells built, trees planted, lives changed.

Why has this happened here, when there was no excess to spare? No buffer to draw on? Lives lived at the margin? Resources stretched to the limit? Seeds planted in dwindling grains of soil? Homes barely able to sustain existing families? Why have water pumps and roads, hospitals and schools, newly constructed, sorely needed, now been destroyed by the earthquake?

Haitian people are already starting to rebuild them, though. Not many days were lost before the repairs began, the rubble moved, water pipes repaired. No time to stop, just get on with it because people have no water. Precious rural roads—dusty, unpaved lifelines to the market, the doctor, the family—torn up and in need of thousands of dollars to repair. Communities isolated. Shelter and relief inaccessible. Haitian people are already out there with their tools and their muscles, their grit and their songs, determined to put it back together. Women and men hauling rocks, cleaning mud out of flooded drains, rehabbing irrigation canals, looking ahead.

The impact is not limited to the devastation of the earthquake zone—600,000 people from Port-au-Prince have left for all corners of Haiti, where capacity is stretched tight. The Artibonite may have received the greatest number. Its capital is Gonaïves, a bleak and dusty northern city, which was the beloved strategic base of Toussaint Louverture during the revolutionary war. The Declaration of Independence was signed there in 1804. The site of revolutions and uprisings throughout the years. Today it is stark; it seems to lack a heartbeat. Quiet and grim, like a weakened patient getting over a devastating illness, not sure if all the cancer is really gone. Gonaïves is still recovering from two devastating floods. The first major flood, Hurricane Jeanne in 2004, killed 4000 people. A once-in-a-lifetime event, people thought. After that, they said, no this isn't going to happen again. It can't happen again. That was a freak occurrence. Let's go ahead and rebuild. But then, it did happen again. And the water came higher.

But this time, people simply fled, instead of climbing atop their homes and then being washed away as in the first. Many also died in the 2008 flood, but not as great a number. The city filled with muddy water to above the first floor of the houses. Of course one floor is all that most homes had. Concrete homes were torn from their foundations by the surging La Quinte River. Not a slowly rising pool, but a rapid torrent from the hillsides, where four hurricanes deluged the mountains over a period of just six weeks.

The mountainous divide which normally keeps the Gonaïves basin in a rain shadow, directing most rainfall to the north, flooded over and dumped on Gonaïves and its surroundings. The river La Quinte exploded its banks: A river which shrivels to nothing in the dry season became a mile-wide monster. A life's meager savings in blocks and mortar, animals and fields, washed away in a night. And in that water were the precious particles of topsoil from the hillsides that nurture crops, fill markets with food and feed families. Coveted topsoil was now deposited meters high inside roofless homes, clogged drainage and irrigation canals, and city streets.

Rodney Babe pauses on the hilly track winding up the steep slope of Sous Pierreau. We are reviewing ongoing erosion control projects above Gonaïves with the farmers whose families have planted seeds in this earth for generations. Rodney's eyes traverse the surrounding scrubby mountains and he tells us a story of rocks and raindrops, roots and leaves, floods and famines. Expert in agriculture, forestry, hydrology and human nature, he has spent his life in Haiti helping his neighbors tease more from their land. The floodwaters of Gonaïves, he points out, will not be contained at the city level. Control must begin in the high ravines of the watershed, where the force of the flow is still limited and the volume has not yet built to unmanageable levels. The mountains are steep, endless, and inhospitable; a maze of gullies carved ever deeper by annual rains. But the flood control must begin up there to be effective.

A single raindrop at its terminal velocity can displace soil particles five feet into the air, and on down the mountainside. Multiply that force by the volume of water dropped during four days of hurricane rainfall and you begin to see why the denuded mountains have worn away at an accelerating pace, the vital soil flowing with floodwaters to clog the streets, houses, irrigation works and drains for months to come.

In a successful, sustainable partnership between local communities, the Haitian and US governments and the International Organization for Migration (http://www.iom.int) (IOM), the taming process is underway. Five-year-old soil conservation projects in St. Marc are flourishing, a sign of hope and motivation to continue. IOM is moving ahead to complete critical infrastructure in Gonaïves, funded by USAID dollars. Twenty-five school buildings in the last year, and a variety of soil conservation and rural road programs during this dry season in advance of the rains—and whatever sort of hurricane season awaits. It is a race against time and the people here know it.

Grim resolve is the term that springs to mind on encountering the Gonaïves staff. Drew Kutschenreuter, Gonaïves program officer, seems distracted much of the time as he kindly shows us some projects nearing completion. There is a lot on his mind. Every day hundreds of people labor on these painstaking efforts to raise rocks to the ravines, to place them tightly together in terraces to hold back the soil. The retaining walls create a staircase of flat steps cascading down the gully where crops can grow. The community plants the edges with vetiver, a quick-growing perennial grass whose roots are used for making perfume, but which can also expertly clutch the soil like fingers and hold it there while the rains pound away on the slopes.

Where communities have used rock, root and leaf to hold back the water, breaking the fall of the raindrop and slowing its descent, damming the flow of both soil and water, topsoil is shaped instead into a stairstep patchwork of fertile gardens. Slow moving water soaks in and nourishes the crops, rather than rushing on to destroy what lies below. Where the terraces have been built, the loss of the hillsides has been halted and the community is regaining control over their environment. Rodney, Drew and the farmers of Sous Pierreau envision a landscape transformed.

Madame Exilienne, a petite farmer of perhaps 60 years old on whose steep land we are walking, catches my hand as I stumble on a rock, and leads me to the path. Her hand is ice cold, she has a fever, she tells me, yet here she is hiking with us up a mountainside to review the work with us. These terraces and plantings tip the precarious balance in her community towards food, income, health and life.

The 2009 hurricane season was moderate, a breathing space for Gonaïves while homes were rebuilt, flooded schools rehabilitated, streets cleared of the topsoil and debris that had piled high in every direction. And then came January 12.

 

Gonaïves, 80 miles from Port-au-Prince, felt the tremor. Cracks appeared in poorly constructed buildings. A school from the Duvalier era stands condemned and crumbling, with an unreinforced cement ceiling, like many across the country, that hung over the children like a guillotine. Children are taking classes in a large white UN tent in front of the school while IOM completes the new building. A beautiful airy structure, two stories high, built to meet safety codes. There are large classrooms with open lattice on both sides to maximize ventilation. The schools anticipate holding classes in summer to help children catch up. Thousands of students from Port-au-Prince will now also need places in rural classrooms.

Tens of thousands of Port-au-Prince refugees are here in Gonaïves and its surrounding villages. We do not see tarps and tents, but many small homes are sheltering fifteen or twenty people. On the remote road to Sous Pierreau we are flagged down by a woman who recognizes the logo on our SUV. She is from Port-au-Prince and she and her two children fled here with nothing. She had a temporary job on the soil conservation project but needs more work. The jobs are split into two-week rotations to spread the paychecks around. She explains with urgency that she needs more work. When the conversation ends, she wipes her forehead with the back of her hand and steps back from the car to let us go on.

We drive away knowing that there will not be enough for everyone. That this earthquake has redefined the depth of Haiti's struggle in a way nobody anticipated. For the first time since current damage and loss assessment methods were established, a nation has suffered losses exceeding its GDP. As one Haitian put it, we have lost what we didn't even have. The apocalyptic scenes of Port-au-Prince in the early days after the earthquake are still fresh wounds.

But between flashbacks, grief, and moments of melancholy, Haitian people are determined to get on with rebuilding, to cling to the progress, which has unfathomably become more of a lifeline than before.

Joanna Pritchard is a community health advocate, wife to Creation Care ePistle editor Rusty Pritchard, and mother to three in Atlanta, GA. She worked in Haiti in the 1990s and is currently in a temporary program support position with the International Organization for Migration (http://www.iom.int) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. These comments are personal and in no way represent the positions or opinions of IOM.

 

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