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En route to Port-au-Prince

Haiti, May 9, 2010

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This afternoon I left a sunny, serene Portland, Oregon. At the ticket counter, when asked my final destination, Port-au-Prince sounded strange coming from my mouth. But here I am, on segment two of my journey, on a plane from Los Angeles to Miami. It’s a quiet crowd now, as everyone tries to get a little sleep.

I’m on my way to Port-au-Prince for the first of several trips to report back to you on Mercy Corps’ work there — what help we have already brought to the people of Haiti, and how we will support them as they work to rebuild their country in the months to come.

Since January 12, when the earthquake hit the news, you’ve probably heard Haiti described as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Today, I said that very thing to my brother, to illustrate how poor Haiti is. And I have to admit, that as yet, I don’t know exactly what that means — in a tangible sense.

As I mentally prepare to arrive in Port-au-Prince for the first time, I am also trying to begin to viscerally grasp the damage of the earthquake. Photos from the quake-zone, and of the survivors’ faces, pained and grief-stricken, have broken my heart many times over the past four months. But I don’t know what the view beyond the camera lens will look like, feel like, sound like.

I am beginning to think about numbers. I lived in New York City at the time of September 11, 2001, and that tragedy — which took the lives of nearly 3,000 people — cast a shadow of grief that hung heavily over the city for a long time. Cities look like they are fabricated from concrete and glass and steel, but fundamentally they are purely human: bodies, hearts and souls. The loss of so many fellow humans clung to New Yorkers, weighed on their hearts, and I suspect it still lingers there nine years later. In Haiti, a reported 230,000 people died in the quake, mainly in Port-au-Prince. I wonder how the mood of this city has changed, and how it will heal.

Since January 12, an estimated 600,000 people have also left Port-au-Prince for the rural areas. Again to try and put that in personally concrete terms: That’s as if the entire population of my home city of Portland scattered to the smaller, rural communities of the coast, the Willamette Valley and eastern Oregon. Even in our much wealthier country, these communities would lack the economies and resources to support such a large influx of people.

Soon, I will be seeing what all these numbers mean for Haitians. And soon, I’ll be sharing that experience with you.

We know that Haitians can recover from this disaster and go on to rebuild lives that are better than they were before. Mercy Corps is working hard to help them do just that. We are able to do our work thanks to your generosity and compassion — and in recognition of that, I look forward to sending you more news from Haiti.