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Open Features: Haiti Earthquake Disaster

Yvonne Lumb brings a first-hand account of the Haiti earthquake.

Yvonne works for the United Nations in Haiti.

This is being written exactly 48 hours after the earthquake struck Ė at 4.53 pm on Tuesday, 12 January 2010.

At that moment, I truly believe I went through one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I had tasted earthquake tremors in Dubrovnik and Japan but never like this. My boss and I were in our office, a small pre-fab, sandwiched between 2 concrete buildings, when there was a loud rumble which increased in magnitude over about 10 seconds, during which the bookcases and filing cabinets started to shake then topple, spilling their contents on the ground, the monitors fell off the computers and to the floor, the table holding our microwave and dishes buckled and the electric cables ripped from their sockets. It measured 7.3 on the Richter scale. We bolted out the door to the open space outside and dropped to the ground, only to see the paving stones beneath us go into a sea-like wave and buckle. We just covered our heads and prayed. Our Chief of Admin later told us that the safe in his office which is over 6ft tall and weighs 750 lbs (it took 10 men with wheels and blocks to get it into his office when it was first delivered) moved across the floor as if it was a feather.

Amazingly not many of our staff at the Log Base panicked Ė there were only a few screams - I think it was all over in about 20 seconds but the effect will leave a mark on Haiti forever. Most people were just in a huge state of shock and in the hours that immediately followed, when more information became known, the extent of the devastation was just too incredible to contemplate.

As the quake happened just at the close of business (we work until 4.30 pm officially), a lot of staff were already on their way home and in vehicles when it struck. Of course, the roads became completely engulfed as motorists panicked, abandoned their cars where they were and ran away in terror. Some of our staff chose to soldier on and make it home, some 30 minute journeys turning into 3-4 hours; others chose to return to the Log Base, for safety and for the camaraderie and company of friends and colleagues. Some made it home only to find the damage so extensive they couldnít spend the night there so they were forced to come back.

Our UN helicopters went up very quickly after the quake hit to survey the damage in the various parts of Port-au-Prince and as word spread after their return, the grim truth emerged. Besides the loss of our HQ, the best hotel in PAP, the Montana, had also fallen. Part of the Presidential Palace also crumbled, and a building containing 4 ministries, an entire downtown hospital was destroyed (which would have been of vital importance in the relief effort), the main prison collapsed, allowing a great number of the prisoners to escape. The huge supermarket, the Caribbean, where everyone shops, was also flattened. The city was in total chaos and devastation. Bodies littered the streets.

It was evident only a short time after it struck, and given the many after-shocks that followed, that no-one could leave the compound any more that night. We hunkered down for a long night. Entry and exit gates were closed and guarded by military with APCs in case of attempted looting or aggression from the local population. Staff whose offices were damaged so much that they couldnít stay inside, brought chairs and a small group gathered on the central pathway of the base, right outside the office of the Chief of Admin, waiting for news or to be assigned tasks. He declared himself the de-facto Head of Mission immediately - our No.1 and No.2 had been in meetings at the Christopher Hotel, our Mission HQ, and we learned shortly thereafter that it had completely collapsed, so we needed to appoint a leader until we knew what had happened to them.

Someone brought a laptop which had Skype access and I was able to get a few messages out to friends in the USA that I was safe. About 10 minutes after the quake hit, I was able to reach my landlady on the cell phone and she told me my building here in Morne Calvaire was still standing with no damage Ė others in different parts of the city were not as lucky. Very soon after that call, all cellular services went down, our landlines were not working and our internet was down. We were completely marooned. Our only connection with the outside world was the Chiefís TV monitor and our only communication with each other by radio. In terms of structural damage, we are fortunate at the Log Base half of our Mission, that most of the offices are housed in pre-fab structures, (we call them Corimecs) which are very light and very porous (manyís the time Iíve complained about the noise from adjacent units, but now Iím glad about it !) as they move and are more flexible than fixed, concrete buildings. There were only about 2 buildings that sustained major cracks and were declared unsafe.

The new Chief gave me some tasks to do with liaison with the UNPOL, logistics, patrols and getting the casualty count and recovering bodies organized and in between that and watching the CNN coverage in his office, making endless cups of tea, rustling up something to eat (our Top Deck snack bar and our cafeteria both took a hit so were out of service) and looking after each other, the night passed quickly. I slept (only about 1 hour between 3 am and 4 am), fully clothed in the back of our office car, which was the safest and most comfortable place. Due to damage to our plumbing, they shut off the water, so with no toilet flushing and no running water to wash your hands or dishes, let alone take a shower, you can imagine the state the bathrooms were in very quickly.

Through the night, more and more people started arriving from HQ, with torn and bloody clothes, injured, shocked, covered in cement dust, some barefoot, some hardly able to walk Ė it was very unreal. Two canvas tents (Rubb Halls) were set up with cots to serve as First Aid centres. It was like M.A.S.H. By the time daylight broke, there were 60 people in there, with the most badly injured being taken to the Argentinian-run UN hospital across the road. Some were in so much pain they were screaming. It was just awful. I tended to some of the people as they were short-handed, everybody was exhausted as no-one could sleep due to the repeated tremors we were having and sheer volume of work to do. They also brought in 11 dead bodies of UN staff and we needed to convert a refrigerated reefer, usually used for food, into a makeshift morgue. I attended a video-teleconference with the big shots in UNHQ/NY to assess the damage and agree on strategies Ė our former Head of Mission, Edward Mulet, is coming back to take charge as of today.

Another tremor just happened as I am writing this. My laptop is shaking.

The Log Base, seemingly the only functioning centre in the city, became very crowded the day after the quake, and we were allocated drinking water and rations as nobody seemed to be going home and more and more people headed to us for help and sustenance, as well as the first arriving donor organizations, NGO reps, journalists, etc. The bathrooms became worse and worse, unusable practically, and they finally managed to turn the water back on towards the end of the day. I decided to strike out for home yesterday evening (Wednesday), taking advantage of some colleagues who were going in my direction, as I was frantic with worry wondering how Kofi was doing as he had been without food and totally alone since Tuesday morning and to see if there was any damage inside my place, as well as take a shower and get some rest. I hadnít been outside the compound for 36 hours and people who had been out on the streets were telling us how bad it was, but I wasnít prepared for what I saw on the way home. Buildings completely crumbled like a pack of cards, some fell on cars which were lying crushed beneath them, a shopping centre just opposite the American Embassy with its top half just blown away, bodies just covered with makeshift sheets lying on the sidewalks, with family members squatting by their side. I just cried at the destruction and hopelessness. Parts of Petionville were also badly hit. As we drove through the 2 main squares in Petionville, Place Boyer and Place St.Pierre, they had turned into temporary refugee camps, with the homeless having camped out on blankets, with the few possessions they had left. As desperate as it was, those hundreds of small assemblies were calm and orderly, whole families just sitting, waiting, almost hypnotized. It was very eerie. We had expected anger or aggression at the UN, accusations that we were not moving fast enough, not doing enough to help, but this was model behaviour.

When I unlocked my door, there was fortunately very little damage : some bottles had fallen off the top of the fridge and smashed, some paintings had gone askew on the walls, the contents of both bathroom cabinets had spilled out into the sinks but apart from that, nothing major. No structural damage at all. So I was very lucky indeed. The buildings in this area, Morne Calvaire, are built on solid stone and so very little damage occurred here. For that I am so grateful.

Kofi, instead of greeting me at the door with his usual miaow, emerged very slowly and gingerly from the depths of the apartment, no noise, again almost as if he was in a hypnotic trance Ė very bizarre. I was overjoyed to see him, so now I cried with happiness. It was a very emotional day.

I stayed at home today, warned not to go to the Log Base, as all the international community had arrived, rescue teams, Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres, CNN and it was becoming an absolute circus. I am, however, completely cut off and writing this as I have time on my hands. TV is out, no signal, no cell phone, no internet, only the UN radio to keep up to date on what is happening. So many aircraft came today that the airport is saturated and they are having to rotate the planes to make maximum use of the tarmac. Planes came to evacuate French nationals, relief operation planes came today with inflatable, instant hospitals and medical staff. From the French radio stations Iíve learned that 7,000 bodies have been picked up from the streets, the UN has confirmed 36 dead. There is a Chinese search and rescue team with heavy machinery, digging amongst the rubble at our Mission HQ in the hope of finding survivors but it is looking more and more hopeless as time goes on. My best friend Ann was in the building at the time and I am now fearing the worst.

Friday, 15 January 11.15 am. Local time.

There were many tremors during the night, one big one around 5 am. Iím back at the Log Base. Bodies are still arriving and we are facing the grim task of identifying them and trying to find enough refrigerated space to put them. It is a complete nightmare here, with lots of people running around and a lack of coordination and clear chain of command. Iím just one of a few people who have been tasked with getting a complete list of those who died which involved going to the reefer which is serving as our morgue. They were taking photos of the victims and documenting everything Ė gruesome. The stench of bodies who have been in the rubble in the heat and are just arriving is abominable. Iím wearing disposable gloves and a mask. Iíve never been this close to dead bodies before. This is a humanitarian catastrophe on a major scale.

I think we will remember these days for a long time to come. Please keep us in your thoughts.



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