PORT-AU-PRINCE – I have been covering my beloved homeland for about 20 years. The assignments have ranged from coup d’etats to elections to flooding, to carnival and festivals.
Those were all assignments that had nothing to do with me or my family. My family members who remain in Haiti do not dabble in politics nor the music scene. The floods, for the most part , have occurred in the Artibonite plateau and Central region, my kinfolks hail from the south of Haiti.
For the first time I was personally and deeply affected by the story, devastation brought on by this earthquake that shook this mountainous nation of roughly nine million people to its core.
No immediate family members died in the calamity, but many friends perished. They are too numerous to mention here, this column would not end. My story is not unique; it is the story of every Haitian. For years to come, Haitians would talk about Tuesday January 12 in the same way they remember January 1, our independence from France.
The moment I heard the force of the earthquake, I knew deep inside that the country is going to be forever altered, not only because of the physical devastation, but the human casualty.
My phone began to ring less than an hour later. I was at home trying to fix a broken pipe in my basement that had left us with no heat on a frigid January evening. Yet, I felt hot.
At first the calls were from friends who needed to know if I had more information. Then calls came from colleagues in the mainstream media who wanted to interview me about the situation in Haiti. I, like everyone else, had no idea of what had happened. The earthquake had knocked down the phone service and calls were spotty if you could get through at all.
I glued my television set to CNN and watched in horror. I don’t like to comment when I don’t have any information so I shied away from doing the kind of interviews that I cringe when colleagues do. They go on and on about an issue with a sliver of information.
But their line of questioning began to change. Now they wanted to know how my family was, had I heard anything. I had developed a stock answer, a trick learned from my Public Relations days. No, I replied, I haven’t heard anything, but one thing I know is it’s not good. Either they’re dead or they’re homeless.
I didn’t know how prescient that would be. I told my wife Donna that I had to be in Haiti. I called Dr. Jean Claude Compas, a Brooklyn physician and community leader and asked him if he would come down as well. Without hesitation, he agreed.
The next night we were on a plane bound for the Dominican Republic, hoping to charter a flight to Haiti from there. The earthquake had knocked down Port-au-Prince airport’s control tower and commercial flights were not landing there.
We went to the municipal airport in Santo Domingo and we were told that from this often reliable spot, there was no flight as well. There were hundreds of rescue workers trying to get in.
I realized quickly that option had closed and we decided to drive. After a seven hour trek, we made it into the capital under darkness. As we drove in the outskirts of the capital, people seemed eerily unaffected. Some were even laughing. We felt it strange. Did CNN and other networks pull a fast one on us. This couldn’t be. The houses had not crumbled with a few exceptions.
It wasn’t until we got near the center of town that we saw the devastation. We drove around for about three hours, surveying the damages. I couldn’t think about writing. I drove by my uncle’s house and saw that it was standing, I gave a sigh of relief and drove through Carrefour Feuilles where my colleague Darlie Gervais’s father lives. The road was impassable with fallen homes. An alternate road was a giant bedroom with the entire neighborhood sleeping there. He was alive but sleeping on a school yard after barely escaping.
Then we went to Dr. Compas’ house in the Christ Roi neighborhood. His home had become my residence in Haiti. Whenever I was in town, this was where I stayed. I had become part of the family. The Compasses and my family have known each other for more than 100 years in the village of Chalon, outside Miragoane. My uncle and his father, Edrigue, or Pe Compas – as he is known affectionately – are close friends.
We were horrified when we saw the three-story cement abode flattened like pancakes. There was no way that anyone can survive this. Some did, but three people died, including, Pe Compas , who had returned to Haiti from New York a couple of hours before the earthquake. An 80-year-old, he could not get out. He was under the rubbles. Dr. Compas’ brother Lesly was home and died as well.
Dr. Compas, our friend Georges Boursiquot and I drove back to Pacot from Christ Roi to visit some of Dr. Compas’ members. We learned that he had lost an aunt and uncle. He finally broke down and cried. Georges and I held him tight as his other family members cried along.
Exhausted we slept at a friend’s yard the first night. The dirt bed was too hard, despite my sleeping bag so I opted for the car. At dawn, I got up and we went back to our mission. I drove by my uncle’s house only to discover that while standing it was severely damaged. I walked into the backyard and found my cousin Manno and Enide and her daughter along with Uncle Bob there. It was the happiest I had ever been to see them, despite the fact that they were visibly shaken. The usually quiet Manno was loquacious. I didn’t have to ask him what happened, he began telling me where he was when he heard the tremors, his next move and how he went from the third floor to the first to fetch his father to safety.
From there I was off to La Plaine area to see the whereabouts of my sister and my father’s side of the family. They were all alright, though living in the backyard of my sister Choupette’s house.
After my survey, I drove to the Dominican border and bought food, water and other provisions for everyone. I dropped them by each house and then went off to work, reassured and grateful that the survivors in my family were fine, I set about the task of documenting other peoples miseries.