In a few horrorfic seconds, a way of life is redefined

I was sitting on my bed surfing the Internet when I noticed silence, followed by a weird groaning sound. I figured it was a passing water truck. But funny, I thought — sounds more like an earthquake.

The house started shaking. Then it really started shaking. I walked out of my room and kneeled slowly to the undulating floor, laptop in hand, as windows, two years’ worth of Haitian art and a picture of my grandfather smashed around me.

I was not hurt. Not only that, the staircase in the house where I live and work, while completely invisible behind a choking white cloud of drywall and dust, was still standing. I yelled out for Evens, the AP’s all-in-one driver/translator/bodyguard here.

To my shock and delight he answered: “Let’s go.”

I went. Barefoot, over rocks, past a crack running the height of the house, out to the street in my underwear, first to look for a telephone to call in what had happened, then brave any aftershocks and return to the house for a chance at shoes and pants.

It’s been nearly impossible to get an Internet or phone signal since then. So consider it my pure but well-founded speculation that many reports of the destruction of Port-au-Prince include a phrase like, “Haiti is no stranger to suffering.”

In the wake of Tuesday’s magnitude-7 earthquake, which leveled much of the Haitian capital and left perhaps tens of thousands dead, it is both an understatement and an overstatement.

Sure, Haiti is no stranger to suffering: For most people here, tragedy is more common than lunch. And yet this nation has never faced anything on such a cataclysmic scale.

Less than two years ago, the country’s fourth-largest city, Gonaives, was left underwater by a limping tropical storm that would have barely disrupted traffic in Miami.

As our photographer and I came in on a raft with Brazilian soldiers, we passed bodies floating in the street. It was the third of four named storms to hit the country in the space of a month.

Barely two months later, a school fell down in the slum-and-mansion suburb of Petionville, and about 100 people died. The first sign was a noise that sounded like sirens coming from over the hill. They were the voices of screaming parents.

Here, passing a dead body in the streets after yet another storm or political coup merits little more than a passing comment about how properly the face has been covered.

Now we have to try to understand what it means that such a long history of pain pales next to the devastation wrought by 15 to 20 seconds of shaking one January afternoon.

Behind the now-bisected AP house is the same slum where that ill-fated school entered our nightmares two years ago. This time, every flimsy building had caved. The white cloud scratching my lungs hung across the horizon. And the screams were a screeching thunder.

The city is a ruin. Fuel, food and water are running in short supply. Mothers have lost their children. Children have lost their families. Entire neighborhoods are sleeping in the streets. People walk miles up and down mountains, carrying everything they own, with no real place to go.

But here is what is new: You have perhaps seen the pictures of the national palace smashed into a lurching heap over the grassy Champs de Mars. Or of the collapsed twin spires of the Notre Dame d’Haiti cathedral complex, which claimed the life of the archbishop. Or of the collapsed parliament where the senate president remained trapped Wednesday.

Imagine if nearly all the institutions in your life — flawed, but still the only ones — disappeared, all at once.

In a life where the next meal is uncertain, where the next rain may claim your home, where the next election may happen or not — where that is the normal. Think of having those institutions smashed all around you.

At the very moment when you have lost someone, perhaps many people, you loved.

The AP house, a footnote in the devastation, is an uninhabitable mess on the verge of collapse. An entire city is screaming for help. I’ve finally logged onto the Internet long enough to see that some of those calls will be answered, at least in some way.

But what will happen after that help, like so much here, has vanished? Will there be an after?

Jonathan M. Katz is The Associated Press’ correspondent in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He filed this first-person account of the moments after Tuesday’s earthquake, which has redefined tragedy for a nation that knows it all too well.


  1. Carl Nemo

    An even greater tragedy than the earthquake for the people of Haiti is that they’ve suffered under 70 dictatorial regimes since 1804 most of them absolute monsters who abused their people to the max. Haiti is the oldest black republic in the world.

    Setting aside this tragedy and the massive aid that will be involved these aforementioned dictators have siphoned millions of USD and other sources of foreign aid off into French and offshore accounts over the years. Generally speaking these dictators flee their country to France or anywhere else that will tolerate their presence without fear of prosecution.

    Possibly the country can be rebuilt not only infrastructurewise, but to finally get some decent leadership for their nation, unlikely, but possible.

    Carl Nemo **==


  2. griff

    The wife and I went to St. Kitt’s a few years ago, our first and only visit to the Caribbean. It’s truly a shame that such crushing poverty and corruption should be allowed to fester in a place that I can only describe as paradise on earth.

    Besides Canada, I had never been out of the U.S. After five days, I did not want to leave.

    Preparing to climb a volcano, our guide was giving us a brief history of St. Kitt’s and its sister island, Nevis (where Alexander Hamilton was born, coincidentally).

    All around the island were unharvested cane fields among the utter desolation and ruin. Our guide said that the cane fields were no longer in production because of the costs of importing labor to work the fields.

    That struck me as quite odd, considering the poverty in which these people lived. I suggested that what they needed was a Mexican border. Then their labor force could just walk across.

  3. Doug Thompson

    Typos sometimes happen, especailly when one gets up at 4 a.m. each day to update this site.

    Most of the time when a reader spots a typo they are courteous enough to send me an email and point it out and I fix it.

    Some, however, just have to be smart asses.

  4. Carl Nemo

    Hi Doug,

    Woody caught the misspelling, but I did not realize you had any involvement with these articles and that they were passed on in their original format from the various news sources.

    So I/we have no idea how many articles that show up on this site have your personal touch other than your own Rant.

    Surely Woody or myself wouldn’t have done so if the source of the error had been known to be closer to home; ie., you.  

    Like yourself I don’t care for folks challenging others on obvious typos. Little did I realize this would cause a fracas.  It won’t happen again. : |

    Carl Nemo **== 

  5. griff

    If you click your ‘my account’ link then click the ‘track’ tab, you’ll see that almost every thing has Doug’s byline.

    Just something I stumbled upon.

  6. Carl Nemo

    Thanks Griff.  I didn’t realize that, although I’ve seen his name in the column for ages.  I simply thought it was his way of “branding” the articles, but never thought for a moment that Doug was involved with titling articles or possibly modifying them in any fashion simply being throughput from the major news sources. 

    Now I know why some regular posters and drivebys attack Doug concerning what they perceive as partisan spin to an article etc.

    I’m really not too sophisticated concerning all this stuff since to me the meat and the potatoes is the base article along with incisive, spot-on commentary to the same. 

    As I’ve said, I loathe correcting folks on typos which is to me somewhat juvenile.  I guess I’ve engaged in juvenile behavior by accommodating Woody concerning the misspelling.  I even corrected you on magnetism vs. gravity concerning the moon’s pull on the earth, but I somewhat paced about internally before doing so along with my dissertation on deep ocean currents affecting climatology.  I hopefully made the correction as gently as possible. : )

    Sorry Doug.  Don’t you know by now “who luvs ya baby?”, Kojak love that is, regardless of typos or whatever else you might do… 😀

    Carl Nemo **==


  7. Doug Thompson

    Basically the system works like this: I review every news article that appears on Capitol Hill Blue and select the ones for publication. News articles from wire services are purchased on a per article basis based on what I think will be interesting to the reader. Once selected, I also choose the photo or other artwork and then decide on placement and write the headline and captions.

    If an article is selected from another web site, we generally run an excerpt with a link back to the site of origin. My name appears as the poster of the article because all this is done while I’m logged in under my account but the article will include the byline of the author.

    I generally get up at 4 a.m. and review the available articles, select the ones we want, and add them to the site. Sometimes I also write a column. I’ll work on Capitol Hill Blue until about 8 a.m. and then work on my local news site (Blue Ridge Muse) and other projects until I have to do others things (like cover court or county government meetings for the local paper). I’ll review news during the day and add stories as needed and update the site at night before going to bed.

    The process isn’t perfect and it takes a lot of work. Typos sometimes happen and when readers take the time to email me and point them out it is much appreciated.

  8. Carl Nemo

    Thankyou sir for explaining your daily regimen. I and no doubt others had no idea what you do every day.  Now I understand your frustration at times.

    You’ve also poured alot of your own money into this ongoing love affair with reporting the news in a reponsible manner etc. 

    I never gave it much thought, simply thinking these articles were gleaned (cut and pasted) from the www, titles and all then simply posted to your site with you having some type of arrangement with AP, Reuters and other sources for doing so.

    Take care of yourself.  I’m 65 and have my own fish to fry, but your daily “rock pushing” sounds like the stress levels might get intense at times.

    Your friend in responsible news reporting and coverage.

    Carl Nemo **==

  9. woody188

    Sorry Doug, I thought perhaps the original author had syndicated a mistake. Email will be used in the future. Get some sleep!