Reporter Amy Bracken is currently in Haiti on assignment. She knows the country well, having lived and worked there in the past. We asked her to keep a notebook of her experiences during her current reporting trip. This is her first entry.
Hearing these words breaks my heart. Canado was a large high school on the corner of the nearest main street. It was the landmark for the neighborhood, the building I always referred to when explaining to people where I lived. But Canado is no more. It’s a pile of rubble. No one seems to mention this in the phone conversation.
A psychiatrist at a local clinic told me the other day that the most common symptom of trauma she sees is ‘l’oublie,’ or forgetting. It’s a problem of disorientation, where people forget what they’re doing. But then there’s the good forgetting, which I experience having a drink on the porch of the miraculously intact Hotel Oloffson, or contemplating accepting an invitation to the beach. But you can only take this game so far. Through the collapsed wall of the Oloffson are streets lined with rubble. And the beach? Any road out of town is spotted with improvised camps, and nearby the seawater contaminated with corpses.
The building I’m in now is mildly cracked, and the owner is working on the foundation before he can allow tenants back in. Nearby houses are gone, and neighbors living in tents on the street.
This is my second trip to Haiti since the January 12 earthquake. I came to Port-au-Prince January 16 and stayed eight days. It was before commercial flights were running, so I bused in from Santo Domingo. It was the ‘phase de secours’ – the rescue, or emergency, phase. People were still being pulled from the rubble. Relief flights were bottlenecking in the skies, rerouted to the Dominican Republic or forced back home. People anxiously awaited news of the missing. Injured faced amputations with minimal tools and anesthetics. It was Hell.
Before flying back down almost two months later, I learned President René Preval had declared that the phase de secours was over. This was the start of the construction phase.
By now, commercial flights into Haiti had recommenced, so I flew from Miami to Port-au-Prince, as I had done a dozen or so times in the past decade. But everything was different now.
I had never seen a flight to Haiti so full of foreigners, many of whom had never been to Haiti before, many wearing t-shirts bearing the words ‘hope’ and ‘Haiti.’ I was part of the blan invasion. This gave me mixed feelings: I admired the first timers’ desire to help out in a country they didn’t know. But I felt sad that for them Haiti was synonymous with tragedy. I wondered if they could fall in love with the country the way I and so many other foreigners had in the past.
The descent had always shown the worst of Haiti – the seaside shantytowns, rusty-roofed shacks and piles of trash. I never imagined it could get worse. But now it was clear from the air that Port-au-Prince was a city of encampments, of multicolored sheets and blue tarps, every bit strung tightly over crumbled concrete walls or erected sticks, filling all available space.
Because the airport building had been destroyed, the U.S. military had redone everything. We deplaned onto a jetway – something I had never before done in Haiti – and took a shuttle bus to a hangar to go through passport check and customs.
It took an hour to get our luggage. Alas, some things hadn’t changed.
The rest was painful. As I was checking out my rental car beside the airport, a young boy approached me. He wore a yellowing cast on his arm and a heavy expression. He said his parents had died in the earthquake and he was living in the ‘aviation’ camp, by the airport – the biggest camp in the city. He said he needed to be adopted so he could go back to school. He was 14 years old. I exchanged information with him and said we’d remain in contact. then an old man approached.
“We’re starving,” he said. “Can’t you help us?”
The adrenaline-filled days of eye-rubbing and saying, “I can’t believe it,” was over, but this is still an emergency. The difference is the emergency has become normal.Driving across town to my house, I saw that most of the “We Need Help” signs, once scrawled on sheets and boards along the streets, had been taken down. But provisional shelters remained – some still flimsy and defenseless against wind and rain, and some clearly growing roots – with roofs and walls now fortified with tin and wood. When I stopped and walked around, I could hear the tap-tap-tap of hammer and nails everywhere. The reconstruction phase has indeed begun, but it’s happening in what’s supposed to be temporary camps. People want to move back to their neighborhoods, but with homes full of rubble, they have no choice. They are protecting themselves against the next phase, which will be a disastrous one: the rainy season.
(All photos by Amy Bracken)