An angry mob and an earthquake

Author: Joey Leary ’09

What follows is a shortened version of Joey Leary’s report from Haiti. Leary, a 2009 Notre Dame graduate, was in the midst of the Jan. 12 Haitian earthquake.

I moved to Haiti in August 2009 after graduating with a pre-med degree and a minor in anthropology. My anthropology mentor, Professor Karen Richman, lived in Leogane, Haiti, for two years, studying Haitian immigration and vodou. Before I went to Haiti I deferred my medical school acceptance to Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine so I wouldn’t have to reapply.

While I was in Haiti I volunteered for InterVol and the Notre Dame Haiti Program simultaneously. I had been active in Notre Dame’s Haiti Program to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis as an ND undergraduate. Our 2009 valedictorian, Brennan Bollman, was widely recognized for her work with the program in Haiti. I, in many ways, was following in her footsteps.

The Notre Dame Haiti Program had me coordinating ND alumni doctor trips, guest visits, organizing mass hydrocele surgery camps, and collecting public health data on a GPS device. InterVol had me setting up teleconferencing equipment (InterVol donated this equipment to the Notre Dame Haiti Program) and arranging shipments of medical supplies to Notre Dame’s two affiliate hospitals, Hospital St. Croix and Hospital St. Francis de Sales, in Haiti.

I spent my free time shadowing U.S. doctors who came to visit, playing soccer in the streets with friends, playing basketball, dancing on the weekends at the discos, practicing my Haitian Kreyol, and exploring other cities whenever possible.

I arrived at Hotel Montana in Petionville, Port-au-Prince around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, for the twice yearly meeting of the partner organizations working to eradicate lymphatic filariasis in Haiti. The Notre Dame Haiti Program had a large group that day at the Hotel Montana. The meeting was scheduled to last until 5 p.m., but because the presenters from the CDC couldn’t make it, the meeting concluded early.

Several of us left the Montana at about 4:30 p.m. and headed for Leogane on a route that took us through Port-au-Prince’s largest park, Champs de Mars, which sits adjacent to the National Palace and Parliament. As we drove down a four-lane street adjacent to the Haitian white house/national palace we were thrown into a panic when a mob of 50 to 75 men emerged at the upcoming intersection and began hurling rocks at the nearest cars. The moment that I realized that we were going to be attacked, the shaking began.

The initial earthquake at 4:52 p.m. was reported to be a 7.3 on the Richter scale. This earthquake allegedly lasted 30 seconds, although I only remember the quick moment of confusion that overcame me when I watched at least five buildings collapse simultaneously around the 20-acre or so park. I now realize that had the mob not caused us to come to a stop in the middle of the road we would have been 200 yards further down the road and in between two three-story, buildings that collapsed. Similarly, had the earthquake not occurred, I would have at least had to run from an angry stone-throwing mob for my life.

When the shaking stopped, my world was spinning in a way that I can only compare to the concussion I sustained several years ago, specifically the feeling I had as I regained consciousness. The feeling that something terrible has occurred and help needs to be called for; yet in both cases I had no ability to execute with my body what my mind desired. . . . I managed to get out of the car, carefully avoiding an abandoned jeep slowly rolling by in neutral. My thoughts immediately fixated on the fact that I was alive and lots of people around me were surely dead. My brain, as if in a frantic attempt to keep things this way, began to scheme of other impending threats; namely tsunamis, stampeding, starvation, dehydration, tropical diseases, violent theft, etc.

When my brain finally retook control over my body. I was able to successfully dial my mom’s number. I spoke to her briefly but communicated the essentials: location, state of mind, and love for her. I left a message expressing the same sentiments on my dad’s phone. I texted my friends Kara, Courtney, Meghan, and Marah, to see if they were alive. I only got a response from Marah. It was reassuring to hear from her because I knew she was in Port-au-Prince, but I was troubled to not hear from the others.

Jean Marc, Dr. Desir, Dr. Latagnac, Papiyon, Wilfred and I, huddled together in a part of Champ de Mars park where nothing could fall on us. We made a pact to stay together. Papiyon was sent to drive the car to a safer location after we placed our laptops under the back seats. In the park we weathered several more strong aftershocks while debating things like whether or not a tsunami would actually come, whether or not the president was inside the palace and consequently dead, whether or not it would be safe to spend the night in the park, whether or not we had enough food, water and energy, to walk back to Leogane (40km).

Tsunami fears

Basically the debate was: tsunami versus the possibility of more earthquakes. Our discussion was interrupted by the sound of thousands of people standing up simultaneously around the park and starting to run into the surrounding city towards the mountains. Those who were fleeing were yelling, “The ocean is coming!” in Kreyol. We didn’t run. We hung together by a tree. Our decision was the right one in hindsight. The fact that the ocean never showed up, didn’t change the fact that I felt as though I might be trampled in the stampede.

I was able to convince our little group that it would quickly become lawless and unsafe in Port-au-Prince and we needed to leave as soon as possible under the cover of darkness and while people were not fixated on the obvious affluence amongst our group of dress-suit clad professionals. An opportunistic street vendor nearby allowed us to store up some food for our journey back to Leogane.

We set out from Champs de Mars around 9:30 p.m. in the direction of Hospital St. Francis de Sales, where the Notre Dame Haiti Program has offices and supplies, in order to get much-needed water. We walked rapidly. Eighty percent of the people we encountered were walking into Champ de Mars while we were pushing to walk in the opposite direction.

As it darkened,we walked through streets of rubble, impassable wrecks composed of many cars, screaming women, shouting men, frantic people going in every direction. Fear was almost palpable. I tried to focus on Jean Marc’s back as we walked to Hospital St. Francis de Sales instead of the misery around me.

When we arrived at Hopital St. Francis de Sales the courtyard was filled with injured men and women. They fixated on me as I entered the compound, since more often than not white men in Haiti are doctors. Unfortunately for them I was not a doctor, and the real doctors with me were only focused on one thing: getting back to Leogane to see families. I can’t express how uncomfortable it was to enter that compound of suffering and to ignore it all completely while entering the offices that we went to every week as if nothing had changed.

Priority: water

Entering Hopital St. Francis de Sales was scary. It was the first time I had entered a building since the earthquake. Water was a priority. We had only one 5-gallon drum. I opened it and poured as much as I could into my Nalgene bottle. I drank it all and refilled it. I also urged the others in the group to drink heavily. I selfishly went outside and peed on the wall, hoping to make room for more water as I thought of the 20-mile walk ahead.

When we had finished drinking and provisioning we walked like mad men from that time on. It was so dark I couldn’t see the pavement in many places. This was hazardous because there were large potholes, sometimes 2-feet deep, in the road. The adrenalin was finally getting some action.

The guys stopped after about one hour to buy sodas from a street vendor. I couldn’t believe that the man was still selling his supply and not storing it up for the impending crisis. It was as if he didn’t realize that Haitians like him would be starving and without water in less than a week.

I was still worried about a tsunami and secretly wished we were walking parallel to this street but about one mile further inland but couldn’t get my group to agree. I did insist that we all stop at the U.N. base for a few minutes as we walked by to ask for information. One of the guards told me they hadn’t heard anything. About this time Jean Marc was able to get news, via his phone, of Father Tom Streit, Sarah, Logan, Dr. Milord, and Claudy. It was a relief to know that this bunch was more or less okay.

After the U.N. base, we came upon an unusually large crowd. All the people were saying, “the road is out.” The road was definitely out, with a 30-yard in diameter circular piece of road missing. We decided that we would follow the lead of several others and climb around the sinkhole, using the prison-like window bars of the adjacent buildings to cling to.

After the sinkhole excitement, fatigue started to hit our group hard. Every time a car or truck passed by we had to rush to the side of the street so as not to be hit. We would wave at them to indicate we needed a ride in the direction they were going. I wasn’t very optimistic about our chances of having someone stop for us, but I was wrong. A truck with a flatbed in the back stopped and we all climbed on gratefully. Suddenly a new fear of driving during an aftershock arose in me. I had seen plenty of crashed cars on the 7-mile walk leading up to this point to know that it could be a problem. I held on extra tight as I stood up on the back of the truck. We raced down the road between Carrefour and Leogane, swerving for fallen rocks, hitting bumps that were actually deep cracks.

As we approached Gressier the driver turned off of the main road. He told us he needed to handle something. While we were standing up in the back of his now-stationary truck a strong aftershock ripped through the ground. No one fell off, but we were fortunate to have been parked again. I remember glancing out at the ocean, only 100 feet away, to see if the boats in the bay were rocking in a manner indicative of a tsunami. I was thinking that if I saw a dramatic fluctuation in the water level out there I might have five minutes to scramble up a hillside or at least climb something.

No tsunami arrived. As we stood on the road, parked, changing the car’s tire, it was 11:15 p.m. I again considered ditching the group and running up into the mountains nearby. I had enough chicken from the vendor and water from Hospital St. Francis de Sales to last at least a day. I really thought that each of these aftershocks, not to mention the 7.0 earthquake, could have triggered a tidal surge capable of wiping out the coastal regions. I again chose to stay with the group, but I was very scared.

As we stood there in the middle of the road we decided to try to catch another ride. Our group suggested that I stand in the front because they all agreed that drivers would be more likely to stop for a “blanc” (a white foreigner). A car stopped and its driver agreed to drive us in his van to Leogane. We thanked our first driver and left him to his tire and sped off toward Leogane.

Remarkably all of the bridges between Carrefour and Leogane were still intact. We drove in past the Sri Lankan U.N. base, a pancaked UNPH school, a mostly collapsed Anacauna High School, and more. Remarkably the Union of Voudisants three-story building still stood towering over the roundabout that indicates one’s arrival in Leogane. The van took us to the soccer field, which was being used as a refuge for the displaced and wounded.

Seeking my friends

I jumped out and ran through the pitch black to Hospital St. Croix to look for my best friends Kara and Courtney from the Children’s Nutrition Program, who lived in second-story apartments inside the hospital compound, and Suzie and John Parker, who ran the hospital’s guesthouse and lived on the first floor below them. On the way to Leogane in the van, the radio had broadcast that the hospital had “te crazay net” — “crashed completely.”

I yelled for them as I entered the compound. The whole town was spookily quiet. I heard the voice of Suzie Parker. I wanted to cry. I asked about John, Kara and Courtney. Suzie said she had not heard from Kara and Courtney because they had gone to meetings in Port-au-Prince for the day, but that her husband, John, was all right. I realized that I might not know definitively for weeks about Kara, Courtney or Meghan.

Suzie explained to me how when the earthquake started she was able to run outside but John wasn’t fast enough. He was trapped under a tremendous amount of concrete but, miraculously, was only scratched. Suzie said that two of the Haitian hospital translators who were with her worked for three hours tirelessly with a sledgehammer, breaking open a hole in the concrete to drag him out. The picture of his escape hole is amazing and terrifying.

It was 12:30 am when I looked at my phone again and tried, in vain, to call the States. I tried about every one hour and then turned it off to conserve charge. I wasn’t anticipating seeing electricity for weeks. John and Suzie gladly shared in eating some of my chicken from Champs de Mars. They let me fill up my canteen at their rapidly leaking water pump. They offered to let me snuggle in with them in the courtyard between the collapsed guesthouse, the collapsed apartments, and the still-standing but vacant hospital. I lay down, but my mind was on fire with thoughts of survival, escape, foreign aid, all of my friends in Haiti, family, malaria, clean water, food and more earthquakes.

I sat up most of the night. Life felt like a dream. The stars were beautiful. I saw tons of shooting stars. I wondered why people weren’t screaming in the streets anymore, because I knew there were still hundreds of people trapped in rubble within 500 hundred yards of me. I wondered why I wasn’t out looking for my friends in the streets and was sitting looking up at the sky pathetically. It was so dark, and I was so afraid for everyone I knew. They say fear is paralyzing, but I never experienced it until that night of mental confusion and shock.

The next day I made up for those four hours of inactivity with a vengeance. At 5:30 a.m. the screams and yelling began again.

Part II, I’m not a doctor!