Dispatches from the Brown Community

Before the earthquake

Danielle Dunlap ’10 worked in a Haitian orphanage last month with children who had lost parents to HIV/AIDS. Days later, such happy moments were only a memory.

Credit: Courtesy Danielle Dunlap

About Haiti ...

Announcements, messages, and commentary from the week of January 31, 2010:

By TAB Staff  |  January 31, 2010  |  Email to a friend

“The dust and insects were nothing compared to the stench”

Victoria Giordani is a Brown junior from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She was in neighboring Dominican Republic when the earthquake struck.

The second week of winter break, I crossed over from my home country of Haiti to the Dominican Republic to volunteer at a clinic, Pequenos Pasitos, in Santiago. I was scheduled to stay there for two weeks and to return home on January 13.

Giordani in happier times: Giordani in happier times On the evening of the 12th, after a long day of work, I was playing dominos with my host family. As we played, my chair started to shake vigorously until I thought I was going to fall off. An earthquake was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I thought my host sister was shaking the chair.

Then I looked up and saw that everything in the house was shaking. My host mother ordered us to get out of the house. At 5, I went to my host grandmother’s house to wait for my mother to call, as she did each evening. The TV was on, and that’s when I saw where the epicenter was located. I never had a chance to talk to my mother that night.

The next day, January 13, I left for Santo Domingo to catch the Caribe Tours bus, only to learn that the company had canceled all trips to Haiti. With two other Haitians I traveled for 14 hours on a Gua Gua (small public van) to Jimani, then a motorcycle to Malpasse (the border), and a Tap-Tap to Croix des Bouquets. Often, tears rolled from my eyes because the other Haitian passengers were crying for family members they had lost, and also because I had no news from my parents and sister. When I finally got home, my mom and I dropped to our knees. I was sobbing and she was thanking God. My mom set up chairs in the front yard with pillows and blankets. This was my first night sleeping under the stars.

The following day, when we opened our front gate the first word out of my father’s mouth was “exodus!” Countless people, some with suitcases, others with pillows and plastic bags, were migrating. We sympathized, gave water to those who asked, and handed out Band-aids. People were hungry, but we barely had food ourselves.

The dust and insects outdoors were nothing compared to the stench of dead bodies. I saw truck after truck of bodies. I saw parents carrying their dead children in bags of rice. I saw bodies at cemetery entrances. I saw piles of burning bodies. I saw too much.

Every now and then the earth shook. In addition to the constant fear of aftershocks, people were afraid of being robbed or looted. The jail broke open, and everybody said, “Vole yo nan lari” – the thieves are on the streets. We doubled the locks on our gate.

Victoria Giordani’s Haitian school lies in ruins.: Victoria Giordani’s Haitian school lies in ruins. As we were adjusting to our life under the trees, sun, and stars, my parents started to worry about how to get my sister and me out of the country. On Sunday, January 17, at 4 a.m., my dad took my sister and me to the airport, where we got on a military aircraft and flew to a base in Florida. My parents stayed behind.

Since January 13, I have not stopped crying. Every day I learn that someone else has disappeared or died. Like every Haitian family, we have suffered many losses. And like every Haitian who has family in Haiti, I worry for my parents and friends. Most of all I worry for the country.

All I have left of Port-au-Prince are wonderful memories. I never imagined that such a disaster would happen. If only I had stayed on the grounds of my school – Institution du Sacré Coeur – for a longer time. I would have enjoyed sitting on the steps of the chapel, studying.

As Professor Patrick Sylvain said in his poem, “Ports of Sorrow,” Port-au-Prince has now become my Port of Pain.

Danielle Dunlap: “I survived, but my heart still aches”

Danielle Dunlap is a Brown senior from Atlanta, Georgia, concentrating in neuroscience. She was staying with her mother at the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince on January 12.

Dunlop at the Presidential Palace before the earthquake: Dunlop at the Presidential Palace before the earthquake Port-au-Prince is my home away from Brown. My mother is a diplomat for the U.S. embassy in Haiti, and I go to see her on school breaks.

Last month I had been working with a Haitian health clinic called FOSREF, which mainly focused on prevention, education, and medical attention for HIV and AIDS. I spent two weeks shadowing physicians, visiting and playing with children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and going to youth centers to speak to young adults about prevention.

On January 12, my mother was taking me to dinner to celebrate my last night in Haiti. While she got ready, I looked out our front door at the trees blanketing the land toward the sea. The visibility was so good I could see waves on the ocean. Sunlight bathed the city in liquid gold. “I’ve never seen Port au Prince look prettier,” I said as we walked to the car.

We began driving downhill along a curvy path past trash, women carrying water, and Tap-Taps (local public transportation). Suddenly the earth began to shake ferociously, and structures were falling like dominos all around us.

Port-Au-Prince is bordered by large hills. Homes, cars, and other large objects slid down the mountain. People started running, many crying, covered with debris.

As a pre-med student, I found it excruciating to watch panicked, injured people and not be able to comfort and assist them. We had no medical supplies, not even a Band-aid or water. We saw people with severe head wounds, and we saw limbs that were trapped under collapsed buildings. Most terrifying to me were the unexpected aftershocks that erupted as the sun set.

Night fell quickly. We stayed outside because we didn’t know if the aftershocks would claim more homes and lives. There was so much debris, possible live wires, and barbed wire on the ground, we couldn’t reach our house. Falling asleep was hard. I remember laying my head on the cold pavement, the cracks around me growing larger and larger with every tremor. I looked up at the stars, which were so numerous that there must have been one for every soul lost that day. People were screaming in the darkness, some crying and some praying.

The next morning we were taken by car back to the embassy. The ride there was horrific. Bodies lined the street, and people were trying their best to respect the dead by placing cloths over them. Survivors had swollen faces and blood-drenched clothes and limbs. Masses of people sat on the broken pavement, waiting – for more tremors, more death, more pain.

My mother and I were able to leave Haiti that evening. As we headed to the airport, I looked up at the beautiful mountains. I was going back to Brown to finish my senior year. I would have three meals a day, running water, and electricity. But what about the Haitian people? We soon found out: An outpouring of help was on the way for them.

We boarded a massive Coast Guard plane that carried about 70 people. The propellers produced so much gust and hot air, we had to walk at a specific angle to get on, and it was hard to breathe due to the heat. The plane took us to the Dominican Republic for the
night, and then we all went our separate ways – in our case, to Atlanta. What happened in Haiti this winter will be etched in our souls, our minds, and our hearts.

Rick Perera ’87: Après la catastrophe

Alumnus Rick Perera is emergency media officer for CARE in Haiti. This dispatch appeared on CARE’s “In the Field” blog and is reprinted here, slightly abridged, with permission.

Perera: Seeing Haiti’s “9/11”: Perera: Seeing Haiti’s “9/11” You can handle a lot if you keep busy, but watch out when you stop and think. On a long drive one night I had a talk with an exhausted CARE driver and felt for a moment what it must be like to be Haitian.

He spoke with wounded affection for his country, so beautiful and so tragic. “We had a sweet climate. We have smart, hard-working people. We could be every bit as successful as America or France.” The man punctuated his sentences with the phrases “avant la catastrophe” and “après la catastrophe” – before the catastrophe, after the catastrophe. One can almost imagine a new calendar taking root: B.C. and A.C.

It reminded me of my first visit back to the U.S. from Germany, where I was living, in November 2001. At any restaurant in New York City you could hear “nine-eleven, nine-eleven, nine-eleven” emerging from the rumble.

I remember how I felt on that horrible day when I saw the Twin Towers collapse live on my computer screen in Berlin. I walked to the U.S. Embassy a few blocks away. I saw an American flag, and I broke down.

Now, when I ride by the ruins of the graceful Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince – not so different from the White House – my heart breaks again. When I hear the passionate love songs to Haiti and Port-au-Prince playing on the radio, I feel the wounded patriotism of this lovely people. When I see the collapsed police stations with the beautiful Haitian flag at half-staff, tears come to my eyes again.