“Earthquake rocks Port-au-Prince,” read the brief news item.
I let out a yell. The first report Tuesday evening mentioned only some damaged buildings, but I was worried. Having recently returned from three months working as a correspondent for the Haitian Times in Port-au-Prince, I knew how vulnerable the city—dominated by haphazardly built settlements clinging to steep slopes and jammed into stream beds—was to any kind of natural disaster.
Within hours, my inbox was flooded. The BBC, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and others wanted me to file or do interviews as soon as possible. When a journalist decides to set up somewhere off the beaten path, part of the calculation is that when a major story happens, he or she will have the advantage of being one of the only foreign journalists on the scene. I was frustrated to be missing out on the biggest story of my career.
Very quickly those feelings were dwarfed by horror and worry for friends in Haiti as the scale of the disaster began to emerge. I spent the rest of the evening and most of the following day trying to reach friends and putting editors and producers in touch with freelancers and experts in Haiti; people like Jacques Bartoli, a doctor who, with donations of old equipment from the U.S., had been working to set up an ambulance service in a city that has none, and Claude Prepetit, the geologist who’d warned me in October that Port-au-Prince was due for a major earthquake.
With every news report another part of the city I knew disappeared: The UN headquarters at the Christopher Hotel—where I went for briefings by mission head Hedi Annebi—collapsed, killing the Tunisian diplomat and scores of his colleagues; the Caribbean market where I bought my food, gone, along with 100 people who were inside at the time; The Palais des Ministeres, where I spent hours navigating Haitian bureaucracy and sometimes interviewing officials; the courthouse and the National Palace across the street—rare tangible symbols of an almost absent state—reduced to rubble.
In November 2009, I’d spent one of my last reporting days in Port-au-Prince at the courthouse trying to find out what had happened to the owner of College La Promesse, the school that collapsed in November 2008 in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Petionville, killing 100 students and teachers. A year later, the government had largely failed to make good on its promises of support to the wounded and traumatized families and survivors. A listless girl who’d had her leg amputated described being carried on her brother’s back half a mile up a steep path from her house in a slum built on a ravine, just to get to the road. The site of the school collapse where bodies still lay buried was now a garbage dump.
The earthquake that struck Haiti is that tragedy magnified thousands of times.
As the days pass I grow more worried about those I haven’t heard from. Valery, a skinny young reporter with Le Nouvelliste who always helped me out with sources and patiently explained the ins and outs of Haiti’s fractious political scene—a YouTube video on the newspaper’s Web site shows the downtown street, where the daily is housed, completely bombed out. I wait with increasing alarm for news from Jiji, a lovely radio reporter for Scoop FM with whom I grew close. I call her cell phone, it rings and rings.
I fear as well for Haiti’s future; so many of the country’s educated had left years before the quake for better lives overseas. One of those who had stayed was Magalie Marcelin, an astute critic of Haiti’s feudal social system and a veteran of human rights struggles going back to the days of Duvalier and on through the waves of turmoil that have rocked Haiti since 1986. She helped found Kay Fanm, a leading women’s rights organization, and Haiti’s first women’s shelter. On Monday, the Miami Herald reported she was dead.