The Year After the Earthquake

All kinds of people rushed to Haiti the year after the earthquake, both old hands and people who never imagined they would go. On the plane down in April, I found myself sitting next to an engineer who’d been sent to prepare a bid on debris removal. He was a Navajo Indian, and he’d only been out of Arizona three times in his life. This job was a big opportunity for him, he said, but still he seemed reluctant. “They asked back in January if I wanted to go,” he said, “but in my culture, we don’t like to be around death, so I said no.” He wondered aloud if all the bodies had been cleared from beneath the fallen buildings. We thought about that in silence.

The newly enlarged airport in Port au Prince was mobbed with boisterous Americans. Almost everybody, it seems, was part of an aid team. Many of them wore matching t-shirts bearing the logo of their church or medical group. One group’s shirts said ‘CSI: Haiti,’ a name suggesting a thrilling vacation to a disaster theme park. Everybody looked happy and excited.

My group of 10 had 32 bags between us, plus an anvil-weight anesthesia machine borrowed from the office of an oral surgeon in Massachusetts. Many teams brought more. Four months after the disaster, some of our supplies were no longer strictly needed, but that wouldn’t become apparent until later. Red-faced in the heat, we dodged freelance baggage handlers and pushed our way into the sweltering smog.

Port au Prince was hot and dusty and wrecked, but at first glance, no more than usual. The Haitians seemed to have adjusted. Boom boxes were blaring and street vendors had laid out piles of mangoes and stacks of flip-flops for sale. Every block or so, mountains of broken concrete had spilled into the street, but people didn’t pay any attention to them. Half-smashed cars and trucks with names like ‘Patience’ clogged the road. Our cameras went click, click, click.

Over the years, I’d seen lots of surprising things in Haiti — dead cows lying on the side of busy roads, pigs rooting with abandon in trash-strewn rivers — but nothing could be more surprising than the crisp new blue and white tents that sprung up at random. Each tent had its own logo: from Taiwan, from the People’s Republic of China, from Switzerland, from the People of the United States of America. The world had been to tiny Haiti, and had been good enough to leave some things behind. A slight party atmosphere prevailed. One day, we saw little groups of Haitians in yellow t-shirts sweeping trash into tidy piles. In prodigiously filthy Port au Prince, it was a strange but heartening development.

Our old guesthouse had collapsed, so we threaded our way through traffic to Bon Repos, a congested suburb north of the city that had been relatively unaffected by the earthquake. In the backyard of a house, among strutting chickens, we pitched our own tents. The next day, we went to Blanchard, the dense rural settlement where our organization had worked for many years building houses and, most recently, a clinic.

The clinic, a white sun-baked square with a central courtyard and mango tree, was crowded every day. One morning, a boy came in delirious, suffering from malaria. Another day, a stick-thin teenager shuffled in, led by her mother. Her blood sugar level was six times normal. There’s a lot of diabetes in Haiti, and the earthquake had disrupted whatever usual care people may have gotten. No one could figure out if this girl, who was nearly blind, had ever been treated at all. In any case there was no insulin in the clinic. The next day, the nurse-anesthesiologist in our group “borrowed” some from the hospital where he’d been volunteering, and the doctor began stepping down the girl’s blood sugar slowly, so as not to kill her.

One day we set up a satellite clinic in a church in Duvivier, a meager little neighborhood not far from the vast slum of Cite Soleil. The church had three walls and a dirt floor, and we laid out our supplies behind the altar. A crowd had lined up the minute they saw us arrive, but most people had only small complaints. They were triaged and seen by nurses, and we hastily counted out baggies of Tylenol and Tums and cold tablets for them. We could see that most of them didn’t really need medicine — what they needed was care, in the more general sense of the word. But could we really care for them, or were we only making it less likely their corrupt and disdainful government would ever start caring itself? It was a question I’d mulled over since I’d begun coming to Haiti. Here, in this stifling church, even knowing for a fact that aid workers and aid money did do real good for individuals, I was beginning to accept the broader, truer answer.

After a couple of hours, I lifted my hands and let the sweat trickle out of my latex gloves. A bunch of dusty children, some of them almost naked, crowded into the back of the church to ogle us. At lunchtime, Shorty, one of our Haitian interpreters, beat out a song on the church’s worn set of drums, and the kids danced and cheered. Shorty, who wasn’t short at all but who hoped his nickname would make him sound like an American rapper, dreamed of going to LA and breaking into the music business. He was talented and charismatic, with a blinding smile; some of us thought he could make a go of it. But it turned out that he didn’t really know where LA was, and chances were that he’d never manage to get a visa anyway. Getting translation jobs with teams like ours was as good as it would get for him. I fed my peanut butter sandwich to a starving dog lurking underneath one of the benches.

One day, as I grunted along with a wheelbarrow full of hand-mixed cement, Madeleine, my 11-year-old boon companion from previous trips, popped up from behind a bush, calling my name. We hugged and squealed, then settled into our usual English-Creole jabber. I pantomimed an earthquake and a sad face, but she shrugged. Her mind was on more practical matters. Last year, as a parting gift, I had given her the sneakers off my feet; this time, I suggested that she work for a reward instead. She didn’t much care for the idea, and day after day, hung out glumly at the worksite, hoping I’d change my mind.

Finally, at the end of our last day, she agreed up pick up trash around the clinic in exchange for a deck of playing cards and some sidewalk chalk. As I handed them over, she let her eyes fall meaningfully on my sneakers one more time. She didn’t push it, though. She knew she was better off than most kids in Haiti. Her house was still standing and her school had finally reopened. Somehow, despite the disruption in Haiti’s already fragile economy, her mother still managed to find enough for her to eat. And besides, another team would come after us, then another. To Madeleine, the opportunities were endless. I wish I could tell her that real opportunity in Haiti will never come from people like us.

Melanie Wilson is Youth Catalytics’ Director of Research.