"Moments of the Haitian spirit breaking through"

February 5, 2010

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It’s a shock to look at Port-au-Prince from the airplane. As I looked out over the city it looked like a series of children’s sand castles remaining on a beach after a long day — some were standing but many had crumbled into the sand.

The airport feels like a military installation. The U.S. military has set up their tent encampment right off the tarmac. The airport is full of military and cargo planes and helicopters. As you climb out of the plane down onto the tarmac, you see armed soldiers everywhere — all polite and friendly. It does not feel like a war zone, but rather the extensive presence of military — both U.S. troops and UN peacekeepers — creates some order and calm in a very chaotic situation.

I am picked up at the airport by Sean Collins, logistics and security, and Su’ad Jarbarwi, distribution officer. As we make our way to the Mercy Corps office through congested and slow traffic, they point out crumbled buildings right next the totally intact buildings. It is clear that much of the destruction is due to very poor building materials and poor building codes.

The death count from this earthquake in Haiti is now 200,000 and still climbing. The death toll from the 1989 earthquake in California, which was stronger, was 45.

Along the road, I see not only crumbled buildings but also small market stands everywhere. People are selling vegetables, fruits, wash tubs, sneakers. Despite the enormous tragedy, this is an enterprising and resilient culture. There are small tent settlements everywhere. Many families now have no home and those with homes are too frightened to sleep in them. Over a million people are displaced.

I also see sights that surprise me — bougainvillea everywhere, some streets where houses stand intact with gardens. I saw a young couple walking holding hands. Amidst this massive destruction, there are already moments of the Haitian spirit breaking through.