Today, January 12, 2019, marks the ninth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti that devastated Port-au-Prince and killed over 250,000 of my fellow Haitian brothers and sisters. In honor of those who perished, I wanted to share with you the first chapter of my recent book, Finding Hope in Chaos, narrating vividly my experience from the pits of hell.
“I am not afraid of chaos because chaos
is the womb of light and life.”
~ Frankétienne, Haitian writer
The Earthquake and an Omen
Growing up in Haiti meant living in the shadow of a ticking time bomb. Pope John Paul II, speaking with the moral force of pontification, observed the atrocities that had befallen us and declared, “Things must change.” For too long, Haitians had suffered under the brutal yoke of tyrants, one after another plundering our nation’s vast and valuable resources just as the European colonists had done before them.
I was eighteen years old and attending the New American School in Port-au-Prince when, one day, my teacher showed my class the movie 2012. On the Mayan calendar, they had forecast 2012 as the year the world would end. The film predicted that solar flares heating the earth’s core would, in that year, erupt and devastate the earth’s surface, making it uninhabitable. It presented a forlorn, doomsday scenario that would never come . . . or would it?
Despite significant gaps in the storyline, the lavishly produced film was impressive. When it ended, the teacher initiated a class discussion, asking us what we would do in the event of an actual apocalypse. Run for cover, I thought. What else could you do? Survive, yes, somehow survive. But, like me, few in the class put any stock in the prediction or gave any serious thought to the question.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Baron, an American instructor and writer, visited our school to talk about the importance of education. For almost a decade, he had taught English at the New American School and he enjoyed an excellent reputation. I was especially eager to catch his presentation, as I had always respected writers for their extraordinary talent for transforming complex ideas into accessible, fascinating prose.
Mr. Baron lived up to his billing, not only as a gifted teacher with impressive writing skills but also as a communicator. He had a way of speaking that rang true to the ear, demystifying abstract concepts and arranging them into an understandable, concrete form. By the time he finished working his magic, I had learned a great deal from his speech, and I felt thankful that he had come to Haiti to share his wisdom.
While other students filed out of the class, I approached Mr. Baron, expressing my appreciation for his presentation and telling him how powerfully it had impacted me. His welcoming smile prompted me to take a risk and ask for his help in better understanding the writing section for my upcoming SAT. English being my weakest suit, I was desperate to do anything I could to achieve my dream of gaining acceptance into an American university.
Mr. Baron accepted my overture wholeheartedly, and we agreed to meet after school the following day and walk to his place. That night, I felt so nervous and excited I could barely sleep. After school the next day, we headed to Villa Manrèse, an international home built by the Clerics of Saint Viator as a shelter for traveling missionaries, priests, and visitors, intended to bring Haitians greater social and spiritual development.
It was a hot day, with life swirling around us in a capital city of over two-and-a-half million people. Men in unbuttoned shirts were leaving their offices; sweaty laborers were leaning their shovels against brick alley walls; cars, mopeds, and bikes were buzzing by. Many drivers slowed to sort through sundry goods at the outdoor marketplace while others raced on, eager to return home to their families. The streets were teeming with people, each unthinkingly attending to their daily routines of leisure and shopping.
A normal day was unfolding, with kettles singing as women prepared the evening meals and children laughed and played in the streets, yards, and gardens. Men hunched over tables playing dominoes with their friends or strolled down the sidewalks with their wives and children. The day was sunny, a seasonably warm Tuesday on January 12, 2010, offering a comfortable eighty degrees.
Yet what was easygoing for many was not for others. Businessmen waited tensely in long lines to exchange foreign money, particularly American dollars, calling customers and working to finalize deals. Street merchants selling vegetables and snacks chased after expensive-looking cars on foot in the streets, hoping to make a profitable bargain. Motorcyclists tore through the streets like madmen.
As we approached the Villa, we stopped momentarily as another tap-tap public transportation driver plowed through the streets as if he owned them. Shouts of destinations like “Delmas, Delmas, Delmas!” “Pétion-Ville, Pétion-Ville, Pétion-Ville!” and “Carrefour, Carrefour, Carrefour!” rang out.
Restavek children wearing only dirty, ripped rags held erect by bony skeletons, dashed through the streets cleaning car windows, hoping to receive some spare change.
“Big Chief, please drop something in my hand so I can grab something to eat,” a little boy said as he shimmied between bumpers. “The belly has nothing in it. I have not eaten for days.”
We let them pass and crossed the street to Mr. Baron’s place, where my tutoring session commenced. He assigned me to write an essay based on the Chinese proverb, “In crisis is cleverness born.” Given my loose grasp of English, I had great difficulty choosing the right words to translate this wise proverb. An hour later, I turned in my rough draft, far from satisfied with my effort.
As Mr. Baron reviewed my work, I scrutinized his facial expressions closely for any sign of approval, hoping he would look up with a smile. Instead, he grunted and raised his eyebrows, causing my stomach to twist. At that moment, a giant’s hand slapped both of us violently to the floor, and a mighty VRROOMMM exploded into my eardrums as the entire building shook to its core.
My first thought was that the Maya were right. The earth was splitting open and the fires of hell were about to spew forth onto the surface of the city like a volcanic fountain, followed by the falling of the heavens. It was, without exaggeration, like nothing I’d ever experienced or even imagined before and for which nothing in life could have prepared me.
As Mother Earth shook, the inert, reliable four-story building in which I now lay sprawled on the floor virtually dissolved around me. That which had seemed solid, impenetrable cinder block only moments before was now liquifying into quicksand.
Is 2012 happening? I wondered. Is this truly the end?
All around me, the walls shuddered, cracked, and split, sending plaster and dust billowing into the air. We gasped, sucking in a thick mix of oxygen and dust, struggling to breathe in the choking dryness. Anything not nailed down flew sideways, from tables and desks to lamps and ashtrays, crashing and skidding across the floor. The whole building heaved with convulsions and tilted for thirty-six seconds that felt like an eternity when faced with the prospect of instant death.
Throughout the city, the human survival instinct flipped on within seconds. Run anywhere, run away from the falling heavens, run into the streets, run away from certain death. This was the collective conscience. But was anything safe from the throes of the apocalypse, when deep beneath the earth, two tectonic plates were shifting tons of rocks and dirt, releasing the evil souls within?
Mr. Baron and I didn’t run. Instead, we dove under a table hoping it would provide protection if the roof fell. Overwhelmed with fear, I reached out and hugged him as tightly as I could, only to realize he had slipped into a state of shock. Suddenly, my fear disappeared, and I felt an urge to protect him.
As the aftermath unfolded, my body underwent an extreme physiological change. Without thinking, I knew from some primordial sense of survival what was important and what was not. Operating mostly on adrenaline, I did what needed to be done as my involuntary, sympathetic nervous system seized control of my limbs, sending me into overdrive.
Mr. Baron’s glasses had been flung across the floor. They were covered with dust, so I grabbed them and put them into my pocket for safekeeping. Knowing I must save him, I helped him to his feet. He was wobbly and weak in the knees and unable to save himself, but the building could collapse at any moment, killing us both if we did not get out fast.
“Ahh, Lord! What is happening? Please help me!” he suddenly exclaimed.
I drew his arm about my neck, screamed for help, and moved us toward the door, instinctively bracing for the next aftershock. The first hit had been too massive to simply disappear. Expecting another jolt to hit at any moment, I hauled Mr. Baron down the stairs to the first floor, hellbent on getting clear of the building. When we reached the stairway, I saw it had been nearly destroyed, the remnants thrusting up from the ground like the teeth of a long-dead beast. Collapsed walls, fallen beams, and shattered windows lay everywhere, offering no clear path through the wreckage.
I reversed course, looking for another way out. The well-structured building had been erected on a mountain, and now the ground floor was gone, having crumbled into pieces. Our only choice was to jump from the open terrace of the second floor.
The fall might have killed us, but thankfully, we were not alone. Many others stood on the precipice of their terraces facing the same dilemma.
“Please help us! I need help!” I screamed to some fellow Haitians as they were trying to escape. “Please come help us!”
Seeing Mr. Baron’s condition, two men rushed over. We managed to lower him to the ground without dropping him to his death. The rest of our group followed, all of us jumping and putting our lives in God’s hand. To our joy, we all landed on our feet and rolled without crushing our skulls or breaking our legs.
The street was eerily quiet and still, filling me with an odd sense of displacement. It took me a few moments—maybe minutes or maybe only seconds because time was standing still—to comprehend where I was. As my orientation returned, Mr. Baron and I moved zombie-like through clouds of billowing dust, his left arm around my neck, my right hand around his waist, our steps slow and stunted.
It felt like we were walking through a field of landmines. At any moment, the ground could erupt or liquify beneath us. Working against time, I urged Mr. Baron onward, holding his hands tight. Though I too was in shock, I was keenly aware of my surroundings, my mind pulling priorities into view, sorting through our options.
Yet, despite his condition and in the midst of this chaos, the White American in my arms soon became an object of scorn. An angry Haitian stumbled by deliriously and yelled, “Oh! White people! You! Freaking Americans did this! Devil America did this, killing us poor Haitians for nothing! You!”
“What are you saying?” I replied vigorously. “He was with me. This does not make sense. How would he have anything to do with causing this terrible catastrophe?” I tried to reason with the angry man, but nothing I said would change his mind, so I carried on, hoping he would not attack us.
After this frightful incident, I suddenly feared for my family—Ally, my mother, my auntie, and my little cousin. I wondered whether they had survived the quake and were injured or in need of help.
But I refused to think the worst, suppressing the powerful sense of dread that threatened to overwhelm me. Instead, I gripped onto hope, focused on positive thoughts, and willed a safe outcome. My family is full of good people, I told myself. Karma will be on their side and they will prevail.
Yet the images around me made it very difficult to remain positive. The streets of Port-au-Prince looked like the battlefield at Gettysburg, the American Civil War’s bloodiest battle: mangled bodies were scattered everywhere—clearly, I was in Hell!
I stumbled and felt nauseous from the sight of all the carnage. Stay strong, I told myself. You must help not only Mr. Baron but also your family.
In the distance, alarm bells rang out incongruently to forewarn of a disaster that had already struck. As I walked and struggled to stay focused, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question we all ask in situations like this: God, our Lord, why would you do this to Haiti so soon after Hurricane Jeanne?
It wouldn’t be long before I would learn that Hurricane Jeanne, which had struck six years earlier, had been a mere nuisance compared to the aftermath of this monster. This was the most destructive earthquake in human history. As I stepped between the bodies, my mind flashed back to Jeanne, during which I had been trapped on a neighbor’s rooftop, the water rising perilously as I had prayed to the same Lord.
The capriciousness of nature, its indifference to human life, meant that it was just by chance I had survived. The bodies between my feet looked like discarded lumber. I saw faces covered in cement dust, plastered masks of death. It was horrific.
We passed a collapsed pile of rubble that had once been an elementary school. Little arms and legs poked up like weeds beneath broken concrete and splintered beams. An air of horror hovered over the milieu, and a mix of stench, filth, and human body odor stopped me in my tracks. Then, from the cracks of light, I swore I saw haunted little pupils peering out, crying silently for help. I had to fight back the vomit rising in my throat.
The city was in shambles. The once-sturdy structures now looked like old bones. I could hardly see the pavement through the ugly chunks of cement and fragments of wood strewn on top of it.
People bobbed around aimlessly, high-stepping over fallen telephone and electric lines mangled into knots that could be live with deadly voltage. Searching for a safe location, we saw a shirtless little boy walking around aimlessly.
“Little boy,” I said, “what are you doing in the street by yourself? It is not safe. Where are your parents?”
“I don’t know,” he replied thinly. “I was playing outside when it started shaking. Our house over there collapsed and my grandma was inside, cooking. I don’t know where my parents have gone.”
He couldn’t have been more than six years old, and already he had experienced a chaos that he could not possibly comprehend. What does he have to look forward to? I wondered.
The weather was becoming chilly, and I tried to comfort him as much as I could. “Take this,” I said to the little boy, removing my shirt and handing it to him. “Wear it and stay close to us until you find your parents.”
From then on, I walked shirtless in the night air, cooled by a strong breeze that penetrated my skin.
We finally reached the backyard of the Villa Manrèse. After I got Mr. Baron settled, I felt like I was walking on the moon. The first of many aftershocks had momentarily shaken the earth again, demonstrating the wrath of a 7.2 Richter-scale quake. It was uncanny, being helplessly suspended above the loose ground below.
The entire lightless night was torturous. Just as we got settled, another aftershock would hit. We knew it was coming, but we could not anticipate when it would hit. Everyone felt tense, fearful that another big tremor would hit at any moment and swallow us into the bowels of the earth.
I thought it was the real apocalypse and that the entire world might be undergoing similar chaos. Hundreds were gathered in the backyard of Villa Manrèse, trying to sleep in the open air under the moon and stars.
Haitian women were screaming, as if the louder they screamed, the more pity God would have for their souls. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Not again! Anmweyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!! Woyyyyyy Jesus!!!!”
The interminable din from the Haitian women terrified Mr. Baron. He could not understand their motive, and it made him cry like a baby in great pain.
“Oh, be quiet! Please stop!” he yelled desperately. “You are killing me. I am dying. Steeve, please make them stop!” he begged.
Mr. Baron bellowed uncontrollably, fearing that the dissonance may give him a heart attack. In response, I tried to comfort and appease him, hoping he would somehow fall asleep. At the same time, I could not blame the Haitians. It was an unfortunate situation, but there was no stopping the women, so I could not aid him in his requests for silence.
Loud, religious songs would abruptly interrupt the screams as Haitians from all walks of life joined in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood to sing together. That part was eerily beautiful, despite the agony all around us.
The next day, Mr. Baron was not as delirious, and the screaming had mostly stopped. Now deeply concerned for my own family, I ensured Mr. Baron’s safety before I set off in search of a cell phone I could borrow so I could call home.
I saw a woman with a phone and asked her if I could use it.
“There’s no signal anywhere,” she said as she stared past me into the dust-filled abyss. “I don’t know if my family is dead or alive.”
“Nor do I,” I replied.
This was the moment in time when all my fears, all my frustrations, and all my doubts grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. The chaos that was all around me was seeping inside like some airborne virus. Would I allow it to continue or take a stand against it? Would I allow my fears to defeat me or overcome those fears by embracing the one emotion that could ward off every negative attack? I made a choice in that moment. A choice to fight back against my greatest foe using the only weapon that could defeat it—HOPE!