What makes the apocalyptic earthquake that ravaged Haiti on Jan. 12 especially "cruel and incomprehensible," as U.S. President Barack Obama put it, is that it struck at a rare moment of optimism. After decades of natural and political catastrophes including the violent 2004 overthrow of then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and four deadly hurricanes in 2008 a U.N. peacekeeping force and an international investment campaign headed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton had recently begun to calm and rebuild the Caribbean nation, the western hemisphere's poorest. "We were hearing more positive things from Haiti for once," says Danielle Romer, a Miami social worker with family in Haiti. "Things were coming around."
But what Romer heard on her cell phone on Tuesday evening was horror instead of hope. A relative in Carrefour, a suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince, described the quake's devastation during another powerful aftershock and the sudden blackout: neighbors were buried under the rubble of their collapsed homes, while shrill cries pierced the darkness and explosive fires were the only light amid the vast gray clouds of dust that were enveloping the city.
The 7.0-magnitude earthquake, the strongest to hit Haiti and the Caribbean basin in more than 200 years, swallowed the country's positive momentum as viciously as it razed the flimsy concrete buildings of densely populated Port-au-Prince, where 2 million people live and where tens of thousands may now be dead. "My mind can't conceive it," says Romer, who has not been able to contact her relatives again since their call was cut off. In the capital, just 10 miles from the quake's epicenter (and only six miles above it), even the National Palace, the parliament building and the U.N. mission collapsed along with countless houses, businesses and hospitals. The earthquake severely injured the leader of the Haitian Senate, Kelly Bastien, and killed the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, as well as the head of the U.N. mission, Hédi Annabi. Haitian President René Préval said, "There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them." His wife Elisabeth said she was "stepping over dead bodies."
Port-au-Prince's streets were just as rife with the walking wounded, as stunned and battered residents wandered aimlessly in any open space they could find. One woman described how the quake had struck as she was driving her small pickup truck home to the affluent Pétionville suburb. The Route du Canape Vert, a major artery into and out of Port-au-Prince, began buckling so violently that it took every ounce of her strength on the steering wheel to keep on the road. "I could still feel the vibrations in my arms for six hours afterward," she says. She almost turned into a roadside gas station for refuge until it collapsed before her eyes, burying everyone inside. She has remained outside ever since. "It's the only thing I know for sure to do," she says.
The quake destroyed much of the Route du Canapé Vert, according to eyewitnesses, leaving both Haitians and relief workers arriving from the U.S. and around the hemisphere with one fewer piece of infrastructure that was actually serviceable. Even in good times, services like potable water and sanitation are primitive in Haiti. But in the quake's aftermath, in an e-mail to friends and family, an official with an international organization based in Port-au-Prince wrote bluntly, "The city [now] has no infrastructure for health care, no security forces, all roads are full of debris and [fallen] walls. My hotel has totally collapsed." He said there was "nothing on the ground to support relief," and added, "I will need help to make it through the next few days. I am faced with a decision to evacuate or stay here to help." He signed off somewhat ominously by noting, "There are already people knocking on our gates for help."
There were other ominous developments: the head of the national police told CNN that he believed there may be 1,000 criminals on the loose after the country's main prison collapsed in the quake. Port-au-Prince is already vulnerable to gang law during emergencies like this, and it will be hard for relief workers to do their jobs if they do not feel secure. Meanwhile, buildings continued to totter in the wake of the temblor. Ian Rodgers, Save the Children's emergency response adviser, wrote on the group's blog, "We could hear buildings still crumbling down five hours after the earthquake." And the destruction wasn't just confined to Port-au-Prince: officials say the quake affected at least a third of Haiti's 9 million people.
Help especially water, medical supplies and fuel for generators was en route on Wednesday from countries like Venezuela, Brazil and the U.S., which was dispatching helicopters, the U.S. naval hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort and Coast Guard cutters including the Forward and the Mohawk. The Forward is providing air-traffic control, allowing planes to land, since the airport tower is not functioning. On Wednesday evening, however, air-traffic control was still sparse. "We can't afford not to help," says Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida's 20th Congressional District, which has the second largest population of Haitian Americans in the U.S. "The more dire that things get in Haiti, that's when we see an uptick in Haitians taking to the seas on rafts and washing up on our shoreline. And we can't afford that. We've got to make sure that Haiti is stable enough and that we can help them restore and improve on their quality of life so that they have a reason to remain in their country."
Still, Haiti experts like Jocelyn McCallan, a Haitian-American development consultant in New York, say that if there's a silver lining to the disaster, it's that it occurred at an unusually optimistic time. Before the quake, McCallan notes, Haitians were experiencing an unusual sense of common purpose and material upgrade traffic lights were even working 24/7 for a change and the international community "was stepping up for Haiti in ways it hadn't before," giving the world a glimpse of a Haiti that might be redeemable after all. That, he believes, "could accelerate recovery." That is a welcome outlook at this dismal time. As desperate as Haiti has been, it has never felt this hopeless.
With reporting by Jay Newton-Small / Washington