Nine months after the quake, Haiti is barely beginning to recover
(Read Part Two of Dean Wing’s journal.)
We arrived in Haiti Wednesday afternoon, October 13, almost nine months to the day after the devastating earthquake. The country is barely beginning to recover.
The weather was stifling, more than 90 degrees and incredibly humid. The lines for customs were not too bad, but the airport was a hastily made hanger that had no air circulation and was filled with people. Baggage was delivered slowly. Outside, exiting passengers were kept behind wire fences for their own safety. There had been problems recently, and the government was intent on keeping travelers safe.
Outside the fence was a large crowd of people. Patrick Moynihan, a Brown alumnus and dedicated educator, met us. I had met Patrick on a previous trip to Haiti in 2005. I was chair of medicine at Brown then, and I was exploring potential sites for an educational exchange with a Haitian medical school. Because of security issues, those plans did not materialize. Now, as dean of medicine, I was back to make it happen.
The ride to Patrick’s house was slow, hot, and incredibly bumpy. We passed collapsed houses, piles of rubble on the sidewalks, and people walking everywhere. The roads were so bad in areas that we could only drive at a walking pace or less.
In 2005 I stayed with Patrick, his wife Christina, and their children at the Louverture Cleary School, a middle school and high school in Port au Prince for poor Haitian students. Interestingly, St. Joseph’s Parish on Hope Street in Providence, R.I., had started the school in Haiti in the early 1980s as part of its Haitian Project.
Patrick and his family were absolutely amazing. They staffed the school with volunteers who taught for a semester, a year, or more. It attracted both experienced teachers and recent college graduates. The courses are rigorous and are taught in four languages: Creole, French, Spanish, and English. Each of the students is multilingual by graduation, and 98 percent continue their education, either at university or trade schools.
The Louverture Cleary students are also imbued with discipline, scholarship, and service. During my visit, I saw students cleaning the streets and nearby areas of trash. Senior students offered classes to children in the neighborhood at 5 p.m. each day. I saw a number of theses classes; they ranged from foreign language to music and math. Students also care for their school. There is a daily time to clean the grounds as well as their rooms.
The first night we met with five senior students who wanted to go into medicine. They were remarkable for their intelligence and seriousness. The earthquake had been shattering for them. One girl said that she did not hear for a week whether her family was alive or dead. The family lived in an area that had been particularly hard hit, and she had no way of finding out. She learned later that her family was fine. Another student said her immediate family was safe but that two cousins had died. It surprised her that she didn’t cry, didn’t feel much. Several weeks went by and she didn’t cry. On a Sunday, two weeks later, in church, she looked over to where the cousins usually sat, and she burst into tears. It seems everyone knew of people who had been crushed or killed.
On the following night we met with students and volunteers about their experience with the quake. One of the U.S. volunteers, a college graduate from Mississippi who plans on a career in psychology, said she had been out on the street when the quake hit. The street was moving in four-foot waves up and down. She ran into the school shouting Earthquake! Students were running out of the buildings and into the playgrounds. A wall surrounding one of the playgrounds fell on children playing there, and seriously injured seven. All survived, but some had extensive hospitalization.
Another student described staying up all night, first walking home to make sure his family was OK, and then performing first aid on victim after victim. He spent weeks afterward serving as an interpreter for foreign doctors. The language skills of the students proved invaluable to the relief efforts of foreign aid workers. Not many Red Cross volunteers or doctors spoke Creole.
I saw homes and shops that had collapsed. Massive pieces of concrete and cinder blocks fell on people and contents of houses. Thousands were killed.
Fortunately, the Louverture Cleary School buildings were solid enough to withstand the quake and none collapsed. The school’s electricity was cut off, supplies couldn’t get through, and there was no way to get out of the grounds. The volunteers and the students organized the school in a disaster mode. Patrick, who was on a trip to the United States for the first time in many months, made a heroic effort to return and got back to Haiti three days after the quake hit. He found an organized, calm, and well functioning school — a credit to the leadership that he had developed in the staff and the students.
Tap water in Haiti can be lethal. We were warned very strongly to drink water only from large tanks delivered by commercial suppliers on a regular basis. You can’t even use tap water to brush your teeth.
That night we slept on bunk beds. There was no air conditioning, so we depended on fans. The windows were open to the street noise — people, not cars — and cocks crowing at 4 a.m. Each of us had mosquito netting to ward off the carriers of malaria, dengue fever, and filiarias (the old elephantiasis). I had forgotten malarial prophylaxis, but was lent some by a fellow traveler who said he did not want to have to explain the death of the dean to President Ruth Simmons. Soon my companions’ snoring mixed with the noise of the fans, the street, and an occasional barking dog to make a soothing symphony of sound. I slept soundly.
Read Part Two of Dean Wing’s journal.