Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One year later: re-edited

Septembere 2010. A team of MPP (Mouvman Peyizan Papay--Farmer's Movement of Papaye) members put together sacks of basic food items for families in the Central Plateau area who were still caring for relatives who fled Port au Prince after the earthquake in January. The food was purchased with funds MPP received as part of a comprehensive response and recovery program financed by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA).
It's easy for Jenny and me to remember where we were one year ago today at 4:45 PM. We were in MPP's cyber center, working on e-mail, together with Mulaire Michel, my Haitian supervisor, and one or two other members of MPP (Farmer's Movement of Papay--Mouvman Peyizan Papay). Jenny was the first one to identify the shaking we felt. "It's an earthquake" she said. Jenny lived in Managua, Nicaragua for over half her life, where minor to moderate quakes are common. Managua itslef was hit in December 1972 by a 6.2 quake that destroyed much of the city and killed over 5,000 people.

Before the earth stopped shaking, Jenny and I told Mulaire, "God help us if the center of that was near Port au Prince." More than once we'd looked at the houses built on houses in Port and wondered how they would ever stand up to the earth moving that happens in Managua. "Thank God," I had said to myself, "there are no earthquakes here in Haiti."

Working in Nicargaua for six years, I was impressed by the quality of construction that is required by law there. All buildings have at least the minimal requirements for surviving a quake. In Haiti, construction workers do amazing things with very limited resources. The house Jenny and Keila and I live in in Bassin Zim is a wonderful example of this. But earthquake resistance requires good building materials and solid engineering, not just ingenuity. In Haiti, professional expertise is hard to come by and quality materials are extremely expensive. People flocking to Port au Prince looking for a better life, for health services, for jobs and for decent education, live where they have to and build however they can. And the Haitian government has never cared enough to enforce any type of building codes, whatsoever.

December 23rd, 1972, 5,000 were killed in Managua, Nicaragua, 20,000 were injured and over 250,000 were left homeless from the 6.2 quake. January 12th, 2010, after less than 50 seconds of a 7.0 quake, over 200,000 Haitians had died or would perish under the rubble, at least 300,000 people were injured and over one million left homeless. During the next three or four months, approximately 800,000 refugees would migrate away from Port au Prince, looking for homes and some kind of security. Many came to the Central Plateau area, where MPP has been working and growing for more than 35 years.

In Papaye-Bassin Zim, we started hearing the stories Wednesday morning, January 13th. Lele, the brother of Moceline, the woman who has been working with Jenny in MPP's health clinic, was on his way out of Port when the quake struck. He was in a pickup truck that serves as public transportation, and everyone in the truck, including the driver, thought something was wrong with the truck. So the driver stopped, and everyone quickly got off. Some ran into a nearby building. Lele was blocked by other folks running past him, and didn't get into the building. Seconds later, he told me, pieces of the building collapsed and some of the passengers were killed.

Fenes Louis was in Port when the quake hit. Fenese is the MPP driver who always brings Jenny and Keila and me to Port for errands, or to catch a plane out. Fenese often took naps in an alcove under MPP's former office on Delmas 39. He usually parks whatever MPP truck he's driving in that space, but this time a truck from another organization was parked there. Fenes thought about just climbing in the other truck for his late afternoon siesta. But in the end, he didn't. He left to do some other errands. Half an hour later or so, the MPP office building collapsed and crushed the other vehicle. No one working in that office died, and only one or two suffered minor injuries.

Most of the stories we've heard have been from the friends who survived, and all the stories seem miraculous. But some stories have imbedded in them the anquish of the tragedy. Veline Saintilmond, the assistant coordinator for the Road to Life Yard and Moringa project, told me about her niece, Shelley, who was at school in Port when the quake hit. Shelly is in 8th or 9th grade, and she and her classmates always received their classes on the third floor of the three-story private school building. When the shaking finished, Shelley told her aunt that she came to lying on the floor, with an aching head. The building had collapsed completely, but somehow, she says she doesn't remember how, she mader her way out of the ruins of the building, into the street. There were no stairs left, but she didn't need them. The "third" floor was now at street level. Only those on the third floor surived at that school.

People ask us if we were affected by the quake. In the sense they mean, no. We felt the shaking, but even our house, built of crumbly blocks, weak cement and little rebarb, suffered no damage. When Jenny and Keila and I drove home that Tuesday evening, I fully expected the house to be in shambles. It wasn't, though, and no one else in Hinche, Papay or Bassin Zim lost their homes, either. But for the last year, we have had to live in a country where over 3% of the population perished in less than one minute. Just for comparisons sake, if something like that happened in the States, it would mean somewhere around 8,400,000 men women and children. That is inconceivable to me and to you, and so is Haiti. When I'm asked to talk with people about the situation in Haiti, it is still very hard for me to get the words out, "Over 200,000 people died."

In Nicaragua, with a fraction of the mortality and homeless, the earthquake of 1972 is still seen as one that country's defining moments. I have worked in Haiti for a total of over eight years, and been involved with Haitians in one form or another for some seventeen years, since grad school at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. But I have no idea how exactly the tragedies of this past year will work themselves out. Besides the earthquake itself, Haitians suffered from hurricane Ike in November, and a cholera epidemic that began at the end of October. At last count, over 3,800 people had died from that scourge. Elections in December offered some hope of change, but only brought new despair when current government officials cynically twisted the results in their own favor. And now, one year later, in Port, Léogâne, Petit Gôave, Jacmel and other communities clustered around the quake's epicenter, there are over 1 million people still homeless, or with totally inadequate housing, i.e. a house with a tin roof, but with walls made from the original tarps provided by the international agencies.

As this day ends, and the people of Port au Prince, and all of Haiti, look to the new year, things do look pretty grim. But we can count on at least three sources for hope. One, is the strength of the Haitians themselves. They are the descendants of the a people who threw off the yoke of slavery and declared for themselves the right to live free, in a country of their own making. The people we know are deeply affected by what is happening in their country, but they continue to live their lives with love and laughter. We have often seen our friends and neighbors at their best when they are dealing with the worst.

The second source of hope I see are organizations like MPP, working at the grassroots, helping farmers and their families, providing them with tools to build better lives, including the ability to demand that political leaders act with integrity. Members of MPP voted heavily in December, and it is their witness, together with resistance from many other sectors of the society and the country, that has so far prevented the government from completely and unabashedly stealing the elections.

Finally, and most importantly, I find hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, who died to create a holy space for our salvation, our total salvation, mind, body and soul. Christ's miraculous resurrection calls us to live our lives free from despair. Christ conquered death and we are promised that death no longer has any power over us. Haiti's resurrection will be no less miraculous, and is no less certain. Our friends, our neighbors and our work partners are already witnesses to that reality.

Here are a couple of websites I found that had clear information about the exact location and the extent of the quake.

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