Saturday, January 12, 2013

What I Remember From the Earthquake

We moved to Haiti on December 30th. I was so scared... I had visions of Taken dancing in my head. Our host family the Herseys were nice, and took us to this cute restaurant at Canne Sucre. I remember loving their patio, which had tons of plants. I remember feeling stupid that they asked me what I liked to read and the first thing out of my mouth was "Harry Potter". I mean, it's true, but that's probably not what you tell your boss who has just hired you to teach high school English. I remember bucket flushing a toilet for the first time, and taking my first cold shower ever.

I remember going to our apartment after four days or so. It was so empty. Now I marvel- it is the nicest apartment I've ever seen in Haiti for sure. Then I was unimpressed. We had a bed, a dresser, two nightstands, a kitchen table, chairs, and two stand-up fans. That was all the furniture in our entire apartment. We had to walk about three blocks to school, and I was so scared. The road was so dusty, and I had to look down to not stumble on the rocks.

I remember the first day of school, and looking back I just see mistake after mistake. For example, I took roll by reading the list of names.... and mispronouncing all of them. Rookie mistake. I said, "What do you want to know about me?" Rookie mistake.

We taught for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Monday, and Tuesday.

Tuesday after school Ben and I walked up to Eagle Market, a grocery store, after school ended at 3:00. We needed laundry detergent because the next day was our first day to get to use the washing machine on campus. We felt pretty proud of ourselves for walking all the way there and back without help.

At 4:53 I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a V8 and grading geography pre-tests. Ben was in the kitchen to my left, poking around about starting dinner. We had one pot. We had bought just a few groceries. The ground beef was one day old and was already bad.

I heard a rumbling noise. I thought it was a water truck (a big cylindrical tanker, like the type that carry gas in the States) on our unpaved road. It got louder. I remember saying, "We should get in the bathtub." (Texas girl... disaster = tornado). I remember Ben saying, "It's an earthquake" and jerking my arm hard. I got angry and gave him a face, but them realized he was dragging me to the nearest "doorframe", which happened to be the top of a staircase. We sat on the top step, facing one another. I have no memory of the shaking, or the noise. My only three memories are: Ben's face, Ben's hands gripping my upper arms, and the light fixture swinging in circles on its chain from our tall ceiling.

Afterward, Ben said we needed to go outside because of the danger of gas leaks. Then he said we could go inside, but only for sixty seconds, to get the essentials: cash, passports, cell phones. I grabbed the camera, too. I did NOT want to be outside, because frankly I was scared of being in public in Haiti.

We went next door to the Smiths' house. We stood just inside their metal gate, out front of the house. There was a Spanish-speaking family that had literally just pulled in as the earthquake started. Two years later I would discover that that was the Ovalle family, from whom we would later buy our little puppy Jefe. Somebody said there were people trapped in fallen shacks at the end of our street, where the street joined the ravine. Ben and Mr. Smith ran off to help, and I was not happy to be apart from him. They returned a few moments later. A child had a deep cut on his hand and head, and we poured water and hand sanitizer on them. I remember realizing we had no gloves, and that we were touching blood. I remember seeing a person carrying a dead child.

I remember Steve (our school director) banging on our gate, checking on us.  As soon as he saw we were ok, he turned to head back to campus. He said there were many kids there. It was now dusk. We ran to catch up with him. We saw QCS students huddled all over the soccer field. Kids said, "Remember how we studied earthquakes in geography today, Miss?" to me. Kids said they had been on the basketball court and that the ground has picked up and rolled like waves. Mr. Dekoter (elementary principal) was writing down everybody's names. I saw the other members of the Hersey family and stood with them- I hardly knew anyone. It was nearly dark. Ben made the decision to run home to get our camping lantern, and I was not happy to be alone again. I did not trust being in public, on the streets. I remember eating out of a box of cereal with the Herseys. I remember a bird pooping on my head, and feeling like, "Really, God? This is adding insult to injury."

There were rumors going around. A few people had gotten text messages through the malfunctioning cell phone system. Somebody said the Palace was down. Somebody said the cathedral was down. Somebody said the Montana Hotel was down, and Caribbean, the big grocery store. They were all right.

My Haitian phone was totally offline, but I got a few text messages through on my American phone to my parents. They had known immediately thanks to a CNN alert on their phones. I think it was just over an hour between when my mom heard about the quake and when I got a text message out saying we were alive.

There were dozens of kids around, parents unable to get to them. Nobody's phones were working. We all went in the chapel at one point, and I sat with some elementary girl who was crying. We tried to sing. There was a big aftershock. I remember sitting on the concrete bleachers of the soccer field, feeling the aftershocks through the concrete. Haitians were coming in the gate- QCS workers and relatives. A little boy was brought in, severely injured. Miquette was asked to treat him, and I got to be in the huddle because I was holding our lantern. It was the only source of light on campus. I saw his eyes and ears were bleeding. I saw he had wet his pants. I thought he would die. That little boy is alive and well now. His name is Queency and he is a student at TeacHaiti, sponsored by First Baptist Church Richardson.

I remember ending up in one of the on-campus apartments to sleep. I slept on a wicker loveseat and Ben slept on the couch in their living room. Most people were afraid to be inside, but I felt safer and warmer inside. I remember having my first moment alone, first moment to say, "WHAT?" I got out a pen and paper and wrote a bunch of scattered, fragmented notes, which I transcribed last year on January 12 here. I was afraid I would forget important things.

I lay awake on the loveseat, staring at the ceiling and realizing I was under a fan that could fall. Twice that night we jumped up and ran outside when there were aftershocks. I slept with my tennis shoes on. I remember being so angry that I kept hearing the big main gate rattle open. I thought, "Why are they letting people in? It's not safe. Secure the campus."

We woke up to wailing. One of the Haitians who had come to campus had died on the soccer field in the night. Miquette was called out, but the lady was already dead. I remember being told that none of the Quisqueya people were to have anything to do with the body, because then it would become our responsibility and the family needed to handle it. There were still a handful of kids whose parents had not come to get them yet.

I don't really remember anything as distinctively happening the next day. The next week was a blur. I remember lots of things I did or saw, but I have no concept of which day or in what order they occurred. The main events were that many people starting evacuating, that Ben, Jaime and I worked at a clinic at Quisqueya Chapel, and that we helped transport all the baby stuff from Three Angels Orphanage's broken building to our campus. Thirty or so kids lived on the porch of our art classroom, to afraid to sleep inside, until they all got humanitarian parole and were evacuated to the States. We also emptied out the elementary library and the high school buildings so that the US Army could move in and live there. Several people sat us down and told us to leave. We did not eat much, I was always angry when Ben left me alone, and I was super anal about where our stuff was. I blew up at Ben once because he left our water bottle sitting on a table and walked off. I think it was a control issue trying to cope with being totally out of control. We continued sleeping on the couches. I didn't change clothes for three days I think. Els, a coworker at QCS, graciously invited us up to her house on the mountain to have a shower and watch CNN. Ben went on an overnight drive to the Dominican to rescue a stranded truck full of propane, food, and high school kids who thought they were  search and rescue experts.

Here's one thing I've realized. My earthquake experience was not as bad as almost anybody else around me, because I was only experiencing half the trauma. Everybody else was dealing with everything I was, PLUS enormous, traumatic, heavy grief. Everybody else was in clinging to phones, waiting for word about dozens or hundreds of loved ones. Everybody else lost routines, workplaces, familiar stores and places of worship. Not me. I didn't know anybody or any places. I don't say this to minimize my experience, but it certainly does put an important significance on what others endured.

So that's my earthquake story. When I look back at last year's entry, which is where I simply typed out the notes I wrote the night of the quake, it doesn't make a lot of sense. My mind was fragmented, and so were the words I wrote. It certainly won't make sense to you guys without being in narrative form. So I decided to write it this way. I still can't believe it happened.



  1. Thanks for writing this, Katie.

  2. Most people in your shoes would have said, "OK, this is crazy, I'm outta here". You had that option, others didn't. It took real courage to stay. Don't ever minimize that part in your story.



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