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Living Through and Learning From the Haitian Earthquake

Incorporating Travel and Living Abroad Emergency Safety Precautions

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (January 10-14, 2010)

American Survivors of Haiti Earthquake Awaiting Evacuation
American survivors of the Haiti earthquake waiting on the tarmac at the Port au Prince Airport on January 14, 2010 for evacuation.

The ground rolled like a land-based tsunami wave had passed underneath. Immediately afterwards, people with outstretched arms were fleeing from multi-storey buildings that were starting to fall like Legos. The sky quickly thickened to a hazy grey. At 4:53 p.m. on January 12, I was in downtown Port-Au-Prince and my first thought was that a bomb must have exploded. However, after a few seconds spent watching structures crumble on all corners of the intersection and trying to balance in a wildly rocking van, I knew I was in the middle of a major earthquake—and had emerged unscathed.

My group of eight—four mother-daughter combinations including my daughter, sister, and niece—had come to work with children at orphanages and schools, distribute clothes we had collected, and learn about Haiti’s culture and history. We stayed at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in adjacent bunk beds, next to a cold-water and bucket bathroom. Although initially apprehensive due to the State Department Advisory about Haiti, in the two days before the quake, we felt safe as we walked from place to place (with a guide) and did not get sick from comforting toddlers with outstretched arms or eating local food. 

We were not ready, however, for what followed: witnessing horrific destruction and death, spending two nights in the U.S. Embassy, and evacuating to Santo Domingo on U.S. military aircraft. Other than that we were the luckiest people in Haiti—what did I learn? More than six months post-quake, here are my travel insights.

Haiti Earthquake Evacuation
College students Ali Halsey and Marjorie Dodson at the Embassy waiting for evacuation while behind them Corell Moore watches coverage of the quake.

Before You Go

  1. Register with Uncle Sam. When we arrived at the Embassy late Tuesday night, the consular officer who met us was surprised we had registered; apparently few do. It is cheap, fast, and free, and the can be done on this American government website. We found the Embassy before its personnel needed to find us—but if we had been at St. Joseph’s when the quake struck, the Embassy was on notice that eight Americans were staying there.
  2. Pay attention to telecommunications. I had checked with AT&T to ensure that I would have cell phone service in Haiti. My BlackBerry worked well until the earthquake, and the email function worked for about 30 minutes afterwards. My sister wisely had a Digicel Haitian cell phone but had exhausted her minutes. It is critical to have the best available telecommunications when traveling—and this means taking a cell phone with global connections or buying a phone from a local provider and ensuring it is charged and has plenty of time left. The Embassy let us send occasional emails with one of three standard messages. More reliable telecommunication, however, would have permitted us to keep in closer touch with the broader world. 
  3. Get tracked. My suitcase contained a tracking system, which could have been useful in locating us if we had been at St. Joseph’s at the time of the quake and I had left the tracking information with family or friends or registered my ownership with the luggage manufacturer, instead of merely marveling at the cleverness of “findable” luggage. If you have luggage with tracking systems, leave the identifying information with someone at home or register the luggage if you can (or both). Also, some devices now combine satellite phones, global emergency email capability, and global positioning. Such advanced communications devices are worth purchasing for frequent travelers. 
  4. Ensure that your contacts are able to get in touch with one another. Most of our initial emails went through, but my parents had a sleepless night because they did not get theirs. If you are traveling with a group, each group member should have one representative contact on an emergency list, and each contact should be instructed to advise all other contacts when any communication is received during an emergency.

If Disaster Strikes

  1. Go to the U.S. Embassy. We were on Martin Luther King Boulevard in the Nazon area when the quake struck and it took us an hour of aimless driving (and stopping) to decide what to do. We were lucky because our driver, Moliere Elionaire, had a working cell phone, plenty of gas, and the fortitude to stay with us until we got to safety. We could only choose one destination—back to our guesthouse or straight to the Embassy. Although we had left most of our identification, money, and travel documents behind, we chose the Embassy. That turned out to be a very wise choice; not only was the building itself new and solid, but a U.S. embassy is better equipped than other alternatives for handling Americans in crisis in a less developed country.
  2. Be aware that an embassy is not a hotel. Our group was the first to arrive, but we could not enter until someone in consular affairs checked us out. We were then given access to a bathroom, water, and a linoleum floor in the entrance area. Later the Consul General, Donald Moore, brought a few sheets from the in-Embassy jail and led us to a carpeted area that became a triage center the next day.  We slept under tables – but aftershocks jolted us awake. For the next two days we didn’t get toothbrushes, soap, or much food beyond some fruit, water, and meals-ready-to-eat. Our clothes were dirty and we couldn’t take showers. We spent the second night in the courtyard when aftershocks became too severe for us to stay inside. However, we were in the sturdiest building in Haiti and in the queue to get evacuated. At the same time, the Embassy personnel were dealing with missing colleagues, lost homes, and badly injured and missing Americans. If you do not fit one of those categories, do not expect much attention from consular staff—and rightly so.
  3. Be prepared to sign a blank promissory note to be evacuated. As we were leaving the Embassy for the airport, we were handed State Department Form DS-3072 (.PDF document), Emergency Loan Application and Evacuation Documentation, with blank spots for the amounts to be paid and told that we had to sign the form prior to evacuation aboard Coast Guard C-130s. Many were concerned about signing such a blank check, especially after losing many possessions, and Embassy staff compelled even the badly injured to sign the form. This 5-page promissory note, it turned out, is indeed required by the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual before civilians can be transported on U.S. Government military aircraft. So, griping at embassy personnel is useless since they have no choice. 
  4. Know your limits and resist the urge to wander outside your zone of safety. The morning after the quake, Americans started streaming in, including two Lutheran pastoral students who were also staying at St. Joseph’s. I learned that they had been playing cards on the fifth floor when the building partially collapsed; the third party of their group was missing and later confirmed dead. Lynn University students arrived too, with four classmates among the missing. Someone turned on a television set and we saw Anderson Cooper circling above Port-au-Prince, about to land. Over the next 24 hours, in addition to first-hand accounts from fellow survivors, we watched, on CNN, the terrible tragedies all around us—people injured and parents crying for children missing in the rubble of their former homes. We saw the UN headquarters and Presidential Palace in ruins.

    It was frustrating to watch people coming from around the world to help—while we were already there, doing nothing. We wanted to be in the action, dirtied, and saving lives. However, Haiti then didn’t need college girls and their mothers in sandals without special skills wandering around, getting in the way, and perhaps getting injured themselves. In such a crisis, people with no medical or emergency training should stay put—and we reluctantly remained at the Embassy.

  5. Take notes. I do not remember much of our 5-hour journey through Port-au-Prince to the Embassy—just recollections of dazed glazes and extreme fears that the swaying buildings would fall on us during an aftershock. During the next two days I did take notes and wrote down my experiences and those of others. Many stories of personal tragedy and serendipitous miracles emerged. A student’s decision to lounge by the pool at the Montana Hotel instead of nap inside meant survival. A business meeting that was postponed when an attorney was late meant that his client had just exited the office building that collapsed behind him. A couple in their fifth floor apartment “rode” the quake down. A young woman was trapped on top of her boss for ten hours in a small cement space before they were rescued. However, I wish I had written down my observations earlier, right after the quake subsided—but other than my email exchanges I did not immediately record the experience.
Evacuee with evacuation papers from Haiti
Official evacuee is my daughter, Marjorie Dodson, with her evacuation papers that permitted her to return to St. Thomas without a passport.
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