By Helen Hawking, Oxfam Health Promoter
It had been an average day in the office, conference calls, report writing, fighting off the mosquitoes that plague us here in Haiti. My clock showed just 10 minutes until it was time to leave for the day, when without any warning the ground made slight movements, which rapidly became violent. The earth shook harder than I have ever felt before, I ran to the door but could not get out. I hid under my desk, my hand pressed up against the surface protecting my head, hoping it would hold up to the pressure of 2 stories falling on it. If I were buried under a ton of debris, would I ever get rescued? Was this the end for me?
As quickly as the earthquake started, the violent tremor stopped, everything became still again. Covered in dust, I scrambled shaking over the rubble by the office and made it out to the safety of the street outside. People were coming out stunned, some crying, some injured, some silent. A count of heads to check everyone was present showed one member of the team was missing, stuck under the rubble. Companions brought him out and they carried him unconscious on a piece of the gate on their shoulders to the nearest hospital where he later died. Several of the hospitals had already collapsed. Home, schools, offices — the buildings we spend our lives in become our greatest danger.
Cars were left abandoned in the street, roads were impassable covered by collapsed walls, buildings, telegraph poles and crushed vehicles. We walked the long way home not saying much, amongst people praying, crying, hysterical. It was surreal. We made a large detour around the petrol station that had exploded but was still making uncomfortable noises. A couple of people were wailing outside a collapsed building, the broken sign on the wall showed it had been a university.
Communication in emergency situations is often not easy. The phone networks were either down or overloaded so it is impossible to find out if our friends were okay. I had no way of letting my family know that I had survived and just hoped that they wouldn’t hear about the earthquake until tomorrow. We have no idea where was worst hit or how the rest of the country is doing.
Last night we walked home in the dark, slept, or tried to sleep in the space in the garden least likely to have a wall or building fall on it should the aftershocks cause more damage. I lay feeling the aftershocks through the night under a beautiful sky heavy with stars, kept awake by the loud singing, clapping and shouting at what must be a local church and by our local confused cockerel who spent the night letting us know he was still alive!
Today we walk back to the office in the stark light of day. We pass the collapsed hospital at the end of our street. We pass a man carrying his dead child, repeating out loud that he has his beloved dead child in his arms, not knowing where to go. We pass people being carried on all kind of makeshift stretchers, doors, blankets or whatever they can get their hands on to carry their loved ones to medical facilities for help.
We went up and down the main road 6 times today, each time more corpses appeared, some covered in sheets some just lying contorted and stiff and coated in the dust that covers the city. I wonder if their families know where they are? It is impossible to make even a wild estimate at the number of people who have died, are missing or affected by this earthquake, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale.
In Canape Vert Park, hundreds of people are sitting on the street, in the small open space. The smell of urine and excreta is strong. As the days pass the corpses and waste will become increasingly pungent.
Supermarkets have either collapsed, been looted or are closed for fear of trapping people in collapses from the aftershocks. The only food we find for sale is some unappetizing fruit that a group of women are selling on the side of the road. The cost of water has already gone up. Food and drinking water are scarce. I wonder how long we can last on the food we have at home, maybe two or three days. People are currently searching for family members or are in shock. I am concerned about the possibility of unrest related to the lack of food available in the coming days. Haiti is not exactly the breadbasket of the region.
We attend an Oxfam staff meeting, we are a small organization yet 7 people had their homes destroyed and several other homes were damaged. Haitians are heeding the advice that it is dangerous to sleep in their beds because of the aftershocks. Most people are sleeping on the street.
Teams are organized to go to different coordination meetings and collect information about the situation here in Haiti. We suggest that those members who are not coming into work this week help dig out people still alive trapped in the rubble.
We go to the WASH cluster meeting with a group of organizations who work in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene to coordinate the WASH response. In an emergency many organizations come to help so we need to work together and organize who does what and where.
Streams of people with suitcases are leaving the city to stay with friends and family in other parts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The earth moves almost constantly this evening. I feel queasy. This evening is colder. Not like England in January cold, but chilly. Just before midnight a large noisy trail of people pass our house, they are worried by the rumor that a Tsunami is coming and are seeking refuge higher up in the hills. It´s raining a little. Tonight Port au Prince is spending its second night sleeping under the stars.
Haiti is not known for having a good security record. We hear that all the inmates from the huge local penitentiary who were not killed by the earthquake have escaped.
Today we do a rapid appraisal of the communes where we have recently trained teams in emergency WASH (Water, sanitation and Hygiene) response. Visiting the open areas where displaced people are sleeping, the main needs we are told, not surprisingly are drinking water, food, medicines and latrines.
The WASH coordination meeting does not go as planned but in a good way. Several private water companies are offering their services to provide water to key locations in the city, which is wonderful news. These organizations will provide 80 trucks full of water. The international organizations including Oxfam need to organize storage and management of the water, which is an enormous task.
Unfortunately we also find out that our emergency stock, (the materials that we keep stored so that we came respond quickly when there´s an emergency) have become inaccessible following the quake. This is a huge setback as tomorrow we want to start distributing water. People are hungry and people are thirsty.
The most disturbing sights of today were not the piles of debris that just 2 days ago were homes and local schools. The sights that made me draw breath were the bodies. A neat row of 16 bodies carefully wrapped in sheets, the group of 20 at the Canape Vert roundabout some identified with ripped cardboard name tags, a pile with no sheet covering them, just thrown one on top of the other and the two bodies on the corner of a street, an adult motionless under a small dead child.
Today lots of people are covering their faces with scarves and face masks, they believe this will protect them from diseases spread by dead bodies. Red scarves are particularly popular. Red is believed to be the strongest color and helps ward off disease. It is true that dead bodies from cholera victims can spread disease, but just walking past the bodies of the ordinary healthy people that the quake has taken does not. But it is a link that people often make probably because of how traumatic it is to see the bodies.
We are told that a plane is sending emergency materials for us and it should arrive tomorrow! This is great news.
Today was spent preparing to distribute water. I visited a golf course, currently home to about 10,000 people. There are a lot of sick and injured people sleeping out here. I was looking for an appropriate place to mount a portable water storage container (a bladder).
I am really curious about why people are walking around with thick white cream smeared under their noses. I imagine it must be something sweet smelling to counter the bad smells here. In fact it is toothpaste put there supposedly to stop them getting ill!
We are still sleeping outside and will continue to do so for a few days to come. I am not sure what I miss more, sleeping in my bed or eating cooked meals! Tomorrow we have a long but hopefully really productive day ahead of us. We will start installing the water points and distributing drinking water.
Helen Hawking, 36, has been working for Oxfam in Haiti since end-July 2009 as health promoter.