"A sea of devastation"

Aid workers on the ground in Port-au-Prince paint a grim portrait of the Haitian capital

In that first fleeting moment, as the walls shook and a rumble coursed through her second-floor office in mid-town Port-au-Prince, Magdalie Boyer thought a transport truck must have somehow breached the surrounding walls, and struck the low-rise building. But as ever in Haiti, the truth was much worse than anything the rational mind might summon.

As Boyer and her co-workers at World Vision gathered in the courtyard below their building, the extent of tragedy about to engulf their city began to sink in. “The neighbourhood behind our building—one of the nicer ones in the city—was a mess,” says Boyer, a communications director for the international aid organization, who is permanently stationed in Haiti. “The walls around it had crumbled into the streets, so cars couldn’t get through. There were fallen trees, streetlamps hanging, roofs that had collapsed completely. Imagine a parking garage with the decks collapsed. That’s what a lot of the buildings in this neighbourhood looked like.”

Through the course of the day, says Boyer, residents of the city’s worst-hit area—a low-lying district downtown known as La ville—could be seen making the two-hour hike into the hills above Port-au-Prince, their possessions on their heads, to stay with relatives or friends. When asked for damage reports, many look back with empty eyes, saying, “There is no more downtown. Everything is crushed.” “That may be an exaggeration,” adds Boyer. “But it’s a pretty good indication of how they’re experiencing this, the loss that they feel.”

It’s a loss aid workers are sharing more acutely than usual, as many of their number were already stationed in Haiti, a country of nine million plagued by poverty, political upheaval, insurrection and hurricanes before yesterday’s devastating, seven-magnitude earthquake struck. Those workers have provided some of the most gripping accounts of the destruction in the first hours after tragedy, while doing their utmost to get relief efforts started on the ground.

In particular, the collapse of the UN headquarters in the city, and the death of mission head Hedi Annabi, brought home the challenge of providing relief while coping with tragedy and chaos afflicting many of the aid groups themselves, says Jean-Pierre Taschereau, senior manager of international emergency response with the Canadian Red Cross, who has been tasked with organizing the early response of Red Cross societies around the world. “It’s one thing to arrive after the fact,” Taschereau told Maclean’s moments before boarding a flight to the country. “When you go through the event yourself, it’s a different ballgame. You not only need to work as a professional. You need to go through it as a person.”

One of those may be Sophie Perez, country director in Haiti for the CARE. All of the global aid agency’s staff members got out of their offices safely, she said in a written account provided to Maclean’s. “But most of their houses have collapsed and I’ve heard other aid workers from other agencies are still missing. Everyone is trying to find their families.”

Perez could not help but be affected by the scenes of tragedy around her. She wrote of residents sleeping outside last night out of fear that aftershocks would collapse their damaged homes. Worse, she said, many children were still in school (in Haiti, kids attend class in the afternoon) when the tremors hit just before 5 p.m., so “there are many children trapped. It’s horrifying.”

Boyer describes similar misery, which intensified as night fell left many Haitans searching for lost loved ones in the dark. She and her colleagues toured the hard-hit area of Pétionville by car during the night, weaving as people with dazed expressions stumbled through their headlight beams. Average Haitans clawed at broken concrete with their bare hands, calling out to lost people. “Every once in a while you would hear this wailing go up,” she recalls, “from someone who had heard bad news or couldn’t find a family member.”

About the only good news came in the surprising level of order, co-operation and selflessness on display in a country so well-known for factionalism and violence, says Boyer. Because the quake hit Port-au-Prince proper, most government officials spent yesterday attending to their own needs; the United Nations peacekeeping force was trying to quantify its own loss of staff. “The capacity of average Haitans to help each other is quite limited, but they’re stepping up,” she says. “You’ll meet groups of people saying, ‘Good evening, what are you looking for? can we help?’ They’ll offer maybe a flashlight or a cup of water. That has been, in a sea of devastation, something positive to hold onto.”

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