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Open Features: The Earthquake In Haiti

Yvonne Lumb brings further news of the greatest natural disaster of our times.

Yvonne works for the United Nations in Haiti.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Our UN Log Base has been totally transformed in the last four days. It suddenly had to greatly increase its capacity, simultaneously becoming the command centre of all operations, the “new” HQ, housing the senior management who previously used to control the Mission from the collapsed Christopher Hotel, and taking on board all the incoming UN agency personnel like OCHA, UNDP etc.

Any less than vital units have been converted to other functions, for example, my office, the Contracts Management Unit, is now the Stress Counselling/Psychological Aid Office.

We have been playing a game of musical chairs with the space and resources we have. When I came in on Friday morning, I found one of the Stress Counsellors still sleeping on a cot by my desk – she had been working around the clock. Our four workstations, desks, chairs and computers are being used on a rotating basis, for work, communications with the outside world, receiving traumatized staff for counselling, and sleeping. During the day, the four cots which are the temporary beds of people without homes, are propped up against the wall; by night the small office is a dormitory. I think very soon the Stress Counsellors will need stress counselling.

Our new MINUSTAH Chief, Mr. Mulet, arrived on Friday and had a Town Hall meeting with staff, where he promised us his full support, offered the opportunity to leave for Miami for those who wished to and asked for our questions, ideas and suggestions. I volunteered to be the coordinator for matching up people who need accommodation because their places were destroyed, with people who have a spare room, an idea which was well received but which hasn’t taken off yet as our Admin Chief has had many other higher level priorities to deal with.

As you can imagine, our Public Information Office is a hive of activity and a new “Press Centre” has established itself in what was previously the chatting and smoking spot of the Log Base; regular daily press briefings take place from the well-worn white plastic chairs and tables huddled together in the shade. The cafeteria has cranked into gear once more. Cigarette sales must have tripled in the last week.

Many different countries, including China, the US and Iceland, have sent search and rescue teams with the heavy cutting machinery needed to get through the rubble but it is now almost impossible that anyone else will be found alive.

At our Mission HQ, they have been working non-stop but the operation of finding staff has been very slow and in the beginning hampered by the lack of appropriate equipment, motion-detecting devices, trained dogs, etc. Until the next of kin has been informed, no-one can pronounce anyone officially dead, and this is one of the most frustrating and stressful factors about the whole process.

The identification of staff will in many cases be impossible or very difficult, given the circumstances of the collapse and perhaps also the extent of decomposition. Unless the individual had his or her I.D. card on their person, it will now involve going to forensics, DNA etc., which will take even longer. It is likely that the UN dead in this disaster will far outnumber the Baghdad UN compound attack in 2003.

I didn’t have to work very much around the dead bodies, which was fortunate, as I don’t have a strong stomach and by the second body bag that they opened to take photos, I had had enough.

At home I still have no TV or internet and the cellphone service is still down. So I’ve seen no real TV coverage of the earthquake for the past four days, although I’ve heard from friends that it has been the centre of the world’s news. The first chance I had to delve into the media coverage on-line was Saturday and I read some of the reported stories and saw the dramatic photographs.

The number of aftershocks we have had since the big one is very unnerving, easier somehow to live with when in the Log Base and in the company of all the colleagues and friends, but quite a different thing when at home alone in Morne Calvaire. My building is four storeys high and in two halves, each of which contains four apartments. On the ground floor, are two apartments side by side on two levels (ground plus lower floor on the garden/pool level) and the two levels above each have an apartment on just one floor. I’m on the top floor. Below me in one of the duplexes live two Haitian women, sisters, who are extremely nervous about being inside and have been doing most of their sleeping in the parking lot since the earthquake struck.

As I left for work on Saturday morning around 7 am, Kofi was extremely agitated, desperately trying to get out of the apartment and making low growling sounds that I’d never heard before. Around 11 am that morning we experienced a very strong aftershock, which the BBC reported as measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale. I’ve been watching Kofi now for several days and have noticed a pattern; he seems to be sensing it and is most troubled and anxious a few hours before the shock, and so far he’s been right on the money.

So I am using this newly discovered talent to boost Kofi’s value in the local community.

When I first moved here from Kinshasa, and learned that they eat cats here, I was terrified of letting him go out. I spread the word that I had brought him from Africa and he was a special cat – 100% true. Knowing, however, that the Haitians believe strongly in the voodoo spirits, I decided to embellish the story a little bit, and told my neighbours that he was a gift from an African Chief and had special powers and that anyone who was responsible for any harm coming to Kofi would come to a miserable end (said in a menacing voice!). I think I scared the living daylights out of them. Now I can tell the neighbours, including the sisters, that he can be even more useful alive than in a casserole – his new elevated status of Chief, ETF (Earthquake Tremor Forecaster) should assure him continued protection whenever I let him go outside!

The skies are still thronged with aircraft of all descriptions: here in the mountains in Morne Calvaire, what we hear and see are mainly helicopters buzzing overhead. What with those vibrations and the building’s rumbling generator which sits just a few yards from my window, it’s easy to become paranoid and think everything is a tremor.

My “go-bag”, with essentials, documents and money is packed and ready so that if there is any mandatory evacuation, I can leave immediately and Kofi’s travel carrier is also standing by.

Just five minutes’ drive down the road from me is Petionville, and Place St.Pierre, which is now impossible to drive through without not only a mask but something inside it to counter the smell. Hundreds and hundreds of homeless people are still camped out with no toilet facilities, although some relief agencies are getting there and distributing water and food now. The typically resilient Haitians are carrying on with their daily lives, getting washed from buckets and cleaning their teeth on all sides of the square. It is a remarkable sight and a remarkable people.

My maid and her son are safe – she came yesterday and left me a note – but she has lost her house and is living in the street.

All city power (Electricite d’Haiti – EDH) stopped after the earthquake as the city became paralyzed, so we have been running on the inverter batteries, which in turn take their power from the few hours a day that the generator runs. Again, I’ve switched off all unnecessary appliances and am only functioning with one light bulb and the computer at the moment. No lights on in rooms I’m not in. We have to conserve all available energy.

At my place, I noticed yesterday that my water cistern was extremely low, so I ordered a truck full of water (3,000 gallons) delivered today. This normally costs around $60 – now I had to pay $100, with the cost and scarcity of fuel. The truck driver told me that gasoline is now costing them over $6 a gallon. Such price-gouging can be expected in situations like this, but at the end of the day, if you want it, you pay the asking price. I am one of the lucky ones in that I can afford to pay it.

I’m being extremely frugal with the water now – no more leaving the tap running while brushing my teeth or washing the dishes. I’m taking very short showers and using the absolute minimum. We may even have to start using the swimming pool water for toilet flushing or for washing the dishes.

It’s amazing how an event like this can bring you sharply into focus as far as the value of things we take for granted goes and forces you to re-prioritize. Likewise, small things that you thought important before, like how you look, petty squabbles in the office, roosters in the neighbours’ field that wake you up at 3 am, where to go on holiday, in fact probably over half of my ‘to do’ list, all fade into insignificance in the light of this huge catastrophe. I am so grateful that I have my life that I don’t care about anything else.

My mind jumps to all the “could have’s” and “should have’s” that pepper our lives and wonder how important mine would have been if I had lost my life last Tuesday? What will I do differently as a result of being spared?

It is Sunday night, 5 days after the quake and I still have no official news of Ann – it is so heartbreaking.


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