All it took was 20 seconds. What felt like a surreal simulation ride within our vehicle had wrought the most devastation on Haiti’s capital the Haitians had ever experienced. Within 20 seconds, the faith driven people of Port Au Prince were collapsing and praising, enraptured by the evidence of God’s presence. A mere 20 seconds, and hundreds of thousands of families were ripped apart, as were the bodies of hundreds of thousands of casualties.
On Tuesday January 12, at approximately 4:55 pm, an earthquake registering 7.3 on the Richter scale, originating in the legislative heart of Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, decimated the city of roughly 2 million inhabitants.
Within 15 minutes of our leaving the Port au Prince airport, 5 members of the Houston Rotary club and myself experienced the first earthquake of our lives in an open field, safely detached from the precarious buildings of the city’s center. Had we left the airport 20 minutes earlier or later, our positioning would not have been so fortunate.
Due to our insulated experience of the actual earthquake, we were blissfully ignorant of the ensuing carnage. There was nervous laughter, the acknowledgment of the bizarre coincidence, but nothing close to a registration of what had just happened to Haiti.
The disaster would be made known to us in successive scenes, each one more devastating than the last as we made our way to the Diquini Hospital. A hospital whose needs we had intended to “assess” in our planning of this trip so many weeks prior. And such an assessment we would have.
Looking out to the streets in a state of shell shock, we came across the collapsed Legislative Palace. Seeing this symbol of governance leveled to the ground yanked us into the realization that this was so much bigger than our imaginations had allowed.
We then knew the realization of death was soon to follow. Vicki spoke to the air; “We may be working triage at the hospital tonight, instead of just checking in.” I knew she was right.
The roads were impossible. Our driver, Mitchell, who had a family of his own, abandoned the main boulevard to try his hand at the winding neighborhood roads. The layout of the city wasn’t unlike the picturesque cliff-side towns you imagine in Mykonos or Santorini. But this city was distorted, distorted by disaster, and nightfall, and a people without in every way outside of their devotion to God. They had nothing, but they knew God was with them in their nothingness, and so nothingness became worship. Panic became psalms and proverbs. Anguish became amen.
After 5 hours in our little van, atop backpacks and luggage and leg cramps, our tedious crawl through the crushed neighborhoods came to an end at Diquini hospital. We were involuntarily relieved to step out of the cramped vehicle onto the hospital driveway. We hadn’t realized how contorted our limbs had been until we stood. Relief was short lived. We knew what we were walking into, but we were nowhere near prepared for it.