Friday, February 12, 2010

Reflecting One Month Later

Today marks one month after the earthquake in Haiti. Last month was the first month since starting this blog that I didn’t write. A couple possible blog topics crossed my mind, but they seemed trite compared to what was being experienced by Haitians. In fact, I thought I could share a story told to me by some individuals in our department who happened to be in Haiti when the earthquake hit. They’ve been interviewed by the local news and the university, so I think I’m at liberty to share their first names here. First, the principal characters are Father Tom and his employees Sarah and Logan. Logan was the one that shared their experience with me.

One of our research faculty members, Father Tom, is head of a program to eliminate a couple of prevalent diseases in Haiti; they have a clinic in Leogane, so he splits his time between the States and there. He and three of his employees happened to be in Haiti last week for meetings. Tuesday's meeting (January 12) was originally supposed to go until 5 PM in the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, but one of the attendees wanted it to end early, so they modified the agenda so they were finished for the day at 3:30. There was some mingling immediately afterwards, and sometime after 4 PM Logan and Sarah were going to join a potential donor in her room on the 4th floor for a drink before dinner. The hotel had only four floors, so they were on the top floor.

Once they arrived, they spotted a terrace and, as the weather was perfect, they made the decision to sit outside and enjoy the view. As she looked over Port-au-Prince, Sarah was commenting how far Haiti had come in the last few years, making visible progress in all areas. They hadn't even been there ten minutes when the earthquake began. At first, the hotel rumbled mildly, and Logan looked around confused, wondering what was happening. It gained in strength and they were thrown violently to the tile floor, spread-eagle with nothing to hold on to, as they felt the hotel pancake underneath them. With one jolt, they fell to the third-floor terrace, then the building shook again, and they were on the second, and again, and then they fell once more.

The first person Logan saw as the dust settled was Father Tom (with the way Logan described it, I amused myself with picturing ethereal visions of Father Tom emerging untouched from the destruction all around). Fr. Tom had been a floor or two beneath them underneath a terrace, but as the earthquake began, he moved to the center to avoid the falling building. They stumbled and climbed over the rubble to reach the ground.

They found one of their Haitian employees had broken a leg. Sarah used to be a first responder, so they tore up Logan's shirt, found a couple sticks, and splinted his leg. After stock was taken, it was determined that not a single person associated with the Haiti program, or any of their families, had died, and the only injury was Claude's broken leg. I think Father Tom said there was still one person they were trying to track down, but those are pretty amazing numbers given the tragedy that took place.

In Leogane, where their hospital is located, 80 percent of the buildings collapsed, but the hospital is still standing (it helps that Father Tom, when he was given his grant from the Gates Foundation, had the College of Engineering at our university review the building plans and make alterations so it would be structurally sound to withstand an earthquake; at the time, he was given grief for spending several thousand dollars when it had been ages since an earthquake took place, but in hindsight, $5,000 dollars spent before building began sure seems like a sound investment given the outcome).

During the aftershocks, Logan spoke of seeing buildings fall around them and hearing all the screaming, but also at night, there were sounds of people praying and singing. He and Sarah made their way to the American Embassy within a day or so of the quake, where the Coast Guard was able to get them to the Dominican Republic, and then they flew out commercially and arrived safely home Friday night.

As Logan recounted the experience in our office, I had to hold back tears. Just visualizing what they experienced and wondering how I would be sleeping or acting after living through such an event is enough to make me emotional. For that moment, I could distantly relate to what Logan's mom, another employee in our department, said she is experiencing. Here, our people were all safe, and yet so many are suffering in the continuing mess. Call it survivor's guilt, or whatever it is when you're only casually connected to several individuals who experienced it and lived. They were on a terrace in a hotel where many were buried and died, and through luck, chance, or providence, their meeting ended early and they were on the top floor, not down below as they should have been.

Here they are, now removed from it all, safe and sound in the States, trying to find ways to continue their work and send aid back to Haiti. In time, they'll resume their disease elimination work in Haiti, but right now, their hospital will be transformed to provide general care. It's pretty staggering, and I don't know how quickly I could reenter my life.

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