10 things I learned from being in Haiti during the earthquake

1. Everything I learned about how to react during an earthquake from growing up in California does not apply in developing countries. Forget standing in the doorway. Get outside and get outside fast.

Apartment Building on Delmas 33
Apartment Building on Delmas 33
Collapsed building on Delmas 33
Partially Collapsed building on Delmas 33
Collapsed building

2. You can be in an impromptu IDP camp, your world can be turned upside down, but if your family is safe, you still can find happiness.

Us and Marc Orel's family in a spontaneous camp in Jacquet, Port-au-Prince

We (Marc Orel, Sasha Kramer, Wisnel Jolissaint, Paul Christian and myself) drove down to Port-au-Prince from Cap a few days after the quake. Our second stop after dropping off our things at Matthew 25 house and picking up our friends Elie and Berto was Jacquet where we found Marc Orel’s family all safely accounted for.

3. Humanitarian responses are far more chaotic then you would ever believe and logisticians are totally underappreciated.

Health Cluster Meeting at MINISTAH Log Base
A chaotic health cluster meeting at MINISTAH Log Base
NGO internet refuge on Log Base

In the early stages of the humanitarian responses, aid workers crowded in this room to get reasonable high-speed internet access. Télécoms Sans Frontières were responsible for setting up the internet.

4. Stories of looting and violence however rare are news. Stories of people banding together to help their communities however common are human interest pieces. TV news by design does not show a representative sample of life on the ground. It only shows what reporters think will maintain viewer interest and ratings with far too little regard of the larger scale effects that such practices will have on society at large.

Inside St Claire's soup kitchen

Inside St Claire’s soup kitchen. After hearing so much about the trouble the larger agencies and NGOs were having with large scale food distributions, Sasha and I were very surprised when we visited this well organized and peaceful soup kitchen at St Claire. This feeding program, which has been in operation for 9 years, has been serving 2,500 to 5,000 people a day since the earthquake, according to Lavarice Gaudin. Though Father Gerard Jean Juste, a strong advocate of liberation theology who headed the church, passed last May, his staff and partners try to “carry on his legacy” of serving the poor.

Community members unload food to be distributed to sick patients and IDPs in soccer field behind Matthew 25 House.


Photo by Elie Happel

5. Music, art, and play are more important in crisis situations than people fully acknowledge. It takes more that food and water to nourish the human spirit.

Ti Rose serenades

Our friend Rosemond Jolissaint, serenades a small crowds before he and friends and family members are evacauted to Cap Haitien from Pap. (I’ll try to post an mp3 of my favorite song of his later).

Girl jumping rope at St Claire
Girl jumping rope at St Claire

6. People will allow you to take their photograph even when in despair if they think the story of their pain will help others or serve the greater good.

Mother and child at the field hospital at MINUSTAH logbase
Mother and child at the field hospital at MINUSTAH logbase

7. There is no UN agency charged to deal with engineering issues before and after disasters in the same way that say the World Food Program or the World Health Organization deal with food and health respectively. [Update: After of a few months of scrambling in Haiti, UNOPS has now taken the lead and is helping the government perform 1000’s of structural assessments.]

Engineering team inspects Matthew 25 House
Engineering team inspects Matthew 25 House
MCEER's director, Andre Filiatrault, inspects the collapsed Ministry of Justice

Part of AIDG’s response to the crisis has been to recruit earthquake and structural engineers to assess buildings on the ground in Port-au-Prince. The 2 teams, one fielded in close cooperation with the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the University of Buffalo, assessed nearly 200 government buildings, schools, orphanages, residences and food distribution warehouses during their stay in Port-au-Prince. Above MCEER’s director, Andre Filiatrault, inspects the collapsed Ministry of Justice to determine whether it is safe enough to enter the basement to extract important legal records. I’ll be writing a lot more about these fantastic engineers in future posts.

8. You can ride in the back of a pickup in the middle of Champ Mars and not get mobbed or shot at or caught in a riot. I’m talking to you CNN. Their reporting, which largely misrepresented the situation here, is a big reason why some teams of foreign American doctors are not allowed outside the gates of the General Hospital without escort.

Dr Steven Keller in the back of the SOIL truck on his way to a community hospital.
Dr Steven Keller in the back of the SOIL truck on his way to a community hospital.

9. Fate has a sick sense of humor.

Members Only
The Petionville Club. Private Club. Members Only
IDP camp
Internally displaced persons camp at the Petionville Golf, Tennis and Country Club.

10. Even when the apocalypse comes, life goes on…

Having a friend braid your hair
Having a friend braid your hair

and on…

Friends in Cap

Friends in Cap: Magistrat Jhonny Estimable (Mayor or Borgne and brother of AIDG’s Edline Estimable), Tony (SOIL), Paul Christian Namphy (SOIL, Oxfam), Marc Orel (SOIL), and ?

and on.

Waiting for a tap tap
Waiting for a tap tap
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