Surviving the Haiti Earthquake

Ninety seconds transformed my country—and my life.

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Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010

At 4:53 p.m., Haiti, my country, changed forever. The earthquake lasted 90 seconds. My world, and that of my countrymen and women, became a massive horror story played out on the world stage.

I was in Haiti on home leave from my job in New York with the United Nations. When the earthquake struck, I was gardening, having decided at the last moment to forsake the beach. The earth screamed; a sound of thunder that came from its belly as it violently shook the plants, the car, the walls, the pavement that I stood on. I called out to everyone to walk out of the house quickly. It seemed like a long, long time. Then silence. Then screams from some of the residents of the rural neighborhood. From my yard, high on a mountainside above Port-au-Prince, I looked down at the city below and saw a cloud of dust rise as whole neighborhoods fell like popcorn.

I called my best friend, Florence, to find out if she was safe. I could hear screams in the background as she told me of the massive panic. People were running in all directions and cars were abandoned in the middle of the streets of Pétion-Ville, a suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince but below my location. I asked her to call me when she got home.. I tried to make another call, but the phone had gone dead.

I ran to the house to get my transistor radio and heard Radio France International (RFI) confirm that there had been an earthquake in Haiti. The big news was that it was 7.0 in magnitude and that the national palace, most public buildings, as well as commercial and industrial buildings, were likely destroyed and hundreds were feared dead.

As people walked past my front gate that night, I greeted each one and asked how they were doing and whether they had suffered damage. One woman answered with the vivid imagery that often characterizes Haitian Creole. “God is the most powerful bull. Every once in a while, he commands in a manner designed to show man how small he is.” After several aftershocks, finally at around 10 p.m., I went into the house to inspect the damage. Three wine glasses were broken. The gardener reported that all the walls were standing with no fissures. Standing in the cool tropical night, I could not help but ask, “Why was my house spared? Why was I spared?” I gave thanks. I didn’t know then that there was an apocalypse taking place below.

Wednesday

At 6.30 a.m., the dead phone rang miraculously, and I heard my daughter, Aissatou, in Miami say, “Mommy … thank God you are alive.” My daughter, my mother and sister asked me how I was and told me what they knew from the media, which was covering the event on 24-hour mode. We cried tears of joy and sadness. They promised to call Karim-Daniel, my son in Paris, who was all alone wondering if I was dead as he watched the news on French TV. My sister then asked me when I was coming back, and I said that I would go to the office to see if I could help. The phone went dead again.

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