Yesterday was the final day of the three-day national mourning period here in Haiti. We’ve had several new team members come on board this weekend, and we thought today would be a good day to see more of the city and get a sense of the scale of destruction caused by the earthquake. Our country director Bill — who lived in Haiti for many years — and his wife Dominique, who was born and raised here, took us on a tour of downtown Port-au-Prince.
It was the first time I had personally seen some of the worst hit areas of the city and it was absolutely overwhelming. What I had seen on TV and even in the displacement camps where Mercy Corps is working did not prepare me for the sheer heartbreaking magnitude of the damage that Port-au-Prince has suffered.
The heart of the city, once a vibrant commercial center, now looks like a war zone. Completely shattered buildings line every street and the stench of death and burning trash is suffocating, even now a month after the earthquake. What was so incredibly hard to see — especially in the company of a native of Port-au-Prince — was the destruction of national treasures and symbols of this city: the National Cathedral, the famous Iron Market and the Presidential Palace, all broken, twisted and ruined.
Dominique wondered aloud — how do people rebuild from nothing? And we realized, no, this is actually much worse than nothing. There is no clean slate here to start from, they must live in and around the shattered shells of their homes and businesses because there is no alternative.
In this densely populated and desperately poor place, it will take weeks, months and perhaps years to remove all of the broken pieces and start over. Seeing what I saw today, I can’t even imagine the pain of having my entire city destroyed and then having to look at that destruction every single day, reminding me of the people I had lost and the seemingly impossible journey of rebuilding ahead.
As we neared the Presidential Palace, we realized that the crowds around us were all heading the same direction. Very suddenly, we found ourselves in the middle of a very large demonstration. We were forced to stop and park the car as thousands of people filled the main square outside the palace.
But this was, very fortunately, a peaceful gathering with music, song and prayer. We climbed up on top of the car and watched throngs of men, women and children waving Haitian flags and marching towards the palace. People danced and smiled and waved at us and we smiled and waved back.
It was an amazing and deeply moving mass expression of hope and faith, a wonderful sight after the incredibly painful tour we had just taken. Inspired by the unbroken spirit of the people we’d seen, we’ve all gotten a much-needed boost to start this week off with new energy and determination.