“two weeks since the earthquake” – Amelia Shaw, UN Haiti

January 27th, 2010


My dear friend Amelia Shaw miraculously escaped from her office in the UN building in Haiti, when the earthquake hit two weeks ago today just before the end of a work day. She has updated friends and family through Facebook and with an occasional e-mail. This third letter she sent this morning and I wanted to share her personal perspective.

“Dear practically everyone,

I got a few requests from people to send out some more news from down here. So here it is…

I was looking at what is left of the commercial district of Port-au-Prince. It’s like walking through a technicolor photo from war-time France. It’s as if the city was bombed.

Today marks two weeks since the earthquake. I have to say, it’s still hard for me to link the words “Haiti” and “earthquake”. I mean, people expect earthquakes in Los Angeles and Mexico City. But what would you say if you woke up one morning and an earthquake had leveled Wichita? Or Pittsburgh? It would be just plain weird.

But if I have learned anything from these past two weeks, it’s that the onward march of time is relentless. Time waits for no-one. Not for the missing, not the dead. And certainly not for the living to catch their breath. People survive. They put one foot in front of the other. They face the impossible and they go on.

The other day on the street, I passed a motorcycle store that had collapsed like a pancake on its display of bikes. The front wheels of about a dozen motorbikes were sticking out of the rubble like a row of crooked teeth. Groups of young men were heaving and pulling on the tires to yank them free. Some people would call this looting. But in another sense, It’s a form of collective recycling – sifting through the debris to look for things that can be transformed or repaired, and used again.

One of my good friends works for an NGO that specializes in building major infrastructure, like bridges and roads. Since the quake, she’s been helping the government to clear away rubble from the hundreds of collapsed buildings around town. She is a tiny Korean-American who just broke her sacrum snowboarding in California over Christmas. She hobbles around quake sites with a cane and a baseball hat, in work boots up to her knees, and directs a team of tractors and bulldozers through apocalyptic landscapes. She is hiring Haitians by the hundreds to pick through the debris, to find things that can be re-used, like wires, or tubing, or cement for building roads.

The grim reality is that there are still bodies in there. So she spends much of her time screaming into her cell phone for somebody to please find more body bags. She told me about a t-shirt factory her NGO supports downtown. It was a major supplier for big American companies. It was also the hope for Haiti to revitalize its textile industry. But it collapsed into a pile of dust two weeks ago with about 750 workers inside.

I stop to think about the tragedy of that. The jobs lost. The lives lost! Each one of those people a wage earner, each one loved by a mother, a lover, a child. All gone. The immense cost of cleaning it up. The factory owner goes to the site every day, exhausted. But not broken. He is determined to start again, and build a factory bigger and better than before. And certainly more resistant to earthquakes.

The landscape of this entire city is in flux. The only thing that is sure is the big question mark on everything.

Geologists expect another big earthquake soon, but when? The dead are still lying in the streets. As people clear out more rubble, they come across broken bodies crammed into crevices, frozen in poses of struggle and flight. How many died, does anyone really know? And the survivors, where will they live? Will they stay in the city, or march like armies of ants back into the countryside to eke out a living on tiny plots of land? Hundreds of thousands of people live in tent camps on every available patch of grass and green in the city. Some say the government might build new houses – but where? And when? And last, what will happen to Haiti when the news fades, when the world loses interest and the humanitarian aid teams leave, off to parachute into the next disaster someplace else in the world?

I have no answers to any of these questions. I don’t even know if I will have a job in 6 months. I do know that in these two weeks since the world here changed, we have remembered what it is to sleep outdoors. To conserve our precious water. To laugh in the face of chance. And to grieve our dead. As I look around this sun-wizened and weary city, I see the small signs of a population beginning to pick itself up and dust itself off. It’s just the first step of the long hard road of cleaning up the wreckage. And soon, people will start building again.

As I write this letter, I feel the first kicks of tiny baby feet inside of me. It feels like a miracle. It is all I can do to bow my head in thanks that amidst this tragic landscape of the destruction and loss, life is determined to go on.”

Her first e-mail sent to family and friends was published in the Daily Freeman, a local newspaper in the Hudson Valley. You can read it here.

Amelia has lived and worked in Haiti for the last five years.

What's this?

You are currently reading “two weeks since the earthquake” – Amelia Shaw, UN Haiti at Larissa Leclair.