Haiti Earthquake – Personal Account by Michael Ritter

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The cook and I were the only ones in the rectory at the time of the quake.  I was on the second floor and didn’t know what was going on when the place started shaking.  I sat on the floor until a break in the shaking, at which time I went part of the way down the stairs with laptop in hand, only to be stopped by lots of dust rushing up the stairway and concrete blocks crumbling at the doorway.  I returned and looked out the upstairs porch to hear screams from nearby hillsides, indicating that it probably was an earthquake rather than a structural problem or some sort of attack on the building where I was. 

After deciding it would be better to go through the entryway immediately rather than wait, I escaped unscathed through the crumbling entryway that is picture here

The cook was in a different section of the building and emerged after me looking something like the other victims you may have seen on the news – black face and hair with white dust all over and a bit of bleeding on her forehead and feet.  She was tended by a former health agent and is doing fine.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Each aftershock sparked a round of hymn singing and praying in which virtually everyone participated.  This was inspiring, encouraging, not surprising, and also not at all conducive to sleeping.  When Haitians sing and pray, they sing and pray.  We didn’t reach a period of sustained silence until about 2am.  This lasted until about 5am when most people were ready to arise at their normal time to beat the sun.

Today we were able to enter the rectory and seize my “house” (ie hiking backpack), which made for a better pillow than my sandals did the night before. 

I was flooded with emails and Facebook messages from many of you, and it was quite overwhelming.  Please know I am receiving them and have tried to read every one but won’t have the time to respond to all right now.  What impressed me was the connectedness between us despite gaps in time and space.  I haven’t spoken with many of you in awhile, and some of you I hardly know beyond being Facebook friends.  But you were concerned because you have a brother who was in danger, and you responded.

Tonight went better than the night before.  Since the rectory and other buildings were not safe enough under which to sleep, we began that night around 8pm by staking out a somewhat flat space of rock to lay our heads.  We pitched two tents that were stored in the rectory.  The tents went to older women and the cook at the rectory.  There weren’t any rumblings of a magnitude strong enough to wake everyone until about 3am, when one elicited a round of “Amazing Grace” and prayer.  Even as the prayer turned into joking and talking and eventually less noise, we are in rural Haiti, which means the chickens, dogs, and mules chimed in as well.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It’s that common brotherhood that hit home for me, and I know it works both ways.  I was reminded that even though I often feel disconnected from life in the states and many of you, we are very much sharing the same story.  On the flip side, I’m sure you feel disconnected in a sense to what’s going on here.  Many of you know several people in Haiti by name, but for others I’m the only one.  The truth is that all of us have about 9 million sisters and brothers in this country.  Even before Tuesday afternoon, a not uncommon response to seeing life in Haiti would be to ask, “did an earthquake just hit here?”  The truth is that our sisters and brothers needed our prayers, solidarity, and “kout men” (helping hand, roughly) before Tuesday, need it more now, and will still need it after the emergency efforts are over and things return to some sense of “normalcy.”

In terms of ways you can help, hang tight and I’ll keep you informed.  I’m working with a friend from CDC and some contacts via internet to try to get connected to what’s going on with respect to the response.  Personally I feel I can be of most help sharing maps and geographical data, connecting people on the ground, and assisting with a water and sanitation response.  As we get more information, the role that Deep Springs International can play should become clearer.  Until then, thanks for your concern and support.

Tonight was better, at least for most of it.  Some people returned to sleep in their houses, we found a third tent, and we had a better system with a tarp and SUV rigged up to block wind and potential rain.  When I returned to the sleeping area around 9pm from the place where I can get internet signal, everyone was already asleep and the priest directed me to one of the tents.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti is full of paradoxes.  A friend told me that “the Haitian people have learned how to master misery.”  Like so many things in Haiti, this comment is simultaneously one of the most depressing and most inspiring things one can hear.  People here are getting the job done – the job of survival.  Their efforts are remarkably creative and effective, like setting up A-frame shelters with the boards and tin they have salvaged from houses.  The camps I’ve visited in Port-au-Prince and Leogane are quite organized and often have signs posted visibly which say “We need help” in multiple languages.

That’s not to say that the problems here are not extremely urgent.  Things like access to food and safe water, which were bad before, are now even more pressing.  Those of us trying to aid the Haitian people make it through this are faced by the same challenges we’ve faced for awhile, like logistics and coordination, but on a totally different level.

Deep Springs International is continuing to do what we do best, which is providing people with a way to treat their water.  Now we may be called upon to do that on a larger scale, and instead of “treating water in the home,” we’re thinking in terms of “treating water where people live.”

The largest component of the water treatment system that we distribute is a 5-gallon plastic bucket, and fortunately our bucket supplier in Port-au-Prince is still functional.  Yesterday I rode from Port-au-Prince to Leogane with an initial shipment of buckets, and we’re continuing to pump buckets out of the factory.  Other supplies are being trucked and flown in through heroic efforts of those willing to do things such as land small planes on a stretch of “highway” barely wide enough for both wings to fit which has to be cleared by the police and UN every time a plane lands.  Much of today will be spent assembling buckets and starting the process of producing chlorine for water treatment so that we have some in stock when our emergency supply runs out.

The last week has been the craziest of my life, but we’re keeping on.  We felt a pretty strong aftershock this morning in Leogane, but I didn’t notice any additional damage or injuries.  I actually got some good news as I found that a small bag of clothes I had left here the weekend before the quake had been salvaged, which will bring me over the hump of two outfits.

For many of us on the ground here, it’s very difficult to think beyond the next meal, next drink of water, and next step we can take to help those around us.  For those of you outside, though, that’s where you can come in.  I’ve said before that Haiti will need our prayers, solidarity, and helping hand long after things return to a “sense of normalcy.”  Things here will never return to the way they were before the quake, and for many they will be substantially different.  We pray that our efforts will make it possible for people to make it through the urgent and pre-existing challenges and come back to a better life.  Specifically, we hope that we can give the generation who won’t really remember “life before the earthquake” a chance to avoid dying from preventable causes like diarrhea from unsafe water.