PORT-AU-PRINCE – Marjorie Louis and her two small children are sleeping in the street. Their home is in complete ruin. And Louis has no way to let her mother in Les Cayes know that she survived the deadliest natural disaster to hit this country.
“I lost everything and don’t know what to do,” Louis said, while waiting at a bus depot, en route to Les Cayes. “I have no place to live. My daughter has heart problems and I want to make sure she continues to get care. I don’t know when I will return here. But as soon as it gets better, [I will].”
Louis and her children were part of an exodus out of the ravaged capital city that began as early as Jan. 13, one day after the 7.0 magnitude quake struck. As the death toll mounts every day, government officials are urging people to evacuate the city so that rescue workers can have unfettered access to those still buried alive. They also want to remove the bodies of the death to minimize the public health crisis that is sure to follow this catastrophe.
The survivors need little urging. Millions seek refuge from the smell and destruction engulfing Port-au-Prince. The entire city smells of rotten body and the formaldehyde – sprayed to neutralize the stench– gives it the air of a giant funeral parlor.
Throughout the week, American and Canadian citizens have been airlifted out of the city on chartered flights. People with residency in those countries have lined up outside the airport to be evacuated. Diplomats of various nations have allowed children of Haitian parents born in their respective countries to be accompanied to the embassies so they can be reunited with their parents abroad.
Jean Rousseau, a metal worker, was heading to Les Cayes as well, where an uncertain future awaits him. So like many others, he talked of returning to the city that gave him a means of feeding his family.
“I have no electricity to keep working,” Rousseau said. “ There is nothing. Plus I have to let my mother know I’m okay.
“I hope that things will be fixed very soon so I can get back to work in Port-au-Prince,” he said.
At the U.S. Embassy
Under the smoldering heat, more than 400 Haitians lined up outside of the United States Embassy for hours, hoping the Americans would rescue them, that America would be the hero.
U.S. officials told them to show their passport and get on the line. The Haitians with no prior authorization to enter the U.S. did not ask: “How long will this take? Can they really help me get out of the country? Where will I be dropped off?”
“We love our country, we saw it getting better, said Joanne Gautierre, who owned a beverage warehouse. “[The year] 2009 showed promise and hope. But now after this happened I am really afraid of an epidemic. All of these dead bodies around us and not enough people to move them out. We don’t want to get sick and die.
“Now I have nothing and I have to get my children out of Haiti,” Gautierre said. “As long as I am out of the country we will manage. I have my brother in law who lives in New York.”
Heading to Canada
Hundreds more people gathered outside the gates of the Canadian Embassy on Delmas, hoping to be put on a flight to Montreal. Many of them lost their passports and prayed that somehow they would be allowed to leave.
Like most people interviewed, many of the people said that while they would like to leave Haiti, ultimately they want to return to their homeland.
“We don’t have a choice,” said one young man who did not want to give his name. “But if things get better, we want to come back. This is our home.”
At the Bus Stops
Haitian government officials, under pressure to clear the city, provided buses for free to people who want to join their families in the provinces. Blue and white school buses are stationed throughout the city and people scramble to obtain a seat.
Others who cannot wait for the free buses head to stations with busses bound to the provinces.
“Everybody is worried about me, “ said Marie Petit-Homme, bound for Cap-Haitien. “I’m fine, but we lost everything.”
Petit-Homme, a mother of three, said the house collapsed just before she walked in with her children from school. It was 4:53 PM. She watched in horror as their home crumbled, turned away with her children, and has not returned to her Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood since.
“It’s too much, so many people dead,” Petit-Homme said, clutching the youngest of her three children. “Oh, what has Haiti done to deserve this?”