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On the Ground Report from Haiti

PUBLISHED: January 15, 2010

[Editor’s note: Jeb Livingood, assistant director of UVA’s Creative Writing Program, was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the earthquake struck. Jeb had traveled to Haiti on research funding from the National Defense Intelligence College as part of his work as a commander in US Coast Guard Reserve. Despite the chaos, he was able to shoot the following video and jot down his impressions of the aftermath of the quake. Jeb notes that his video and words should not be construed as being endorsed by the Coast Guard Reserve or the NDIC, just the reaction of an individual, who found himself in the middle of a terrible natural disaster. Jeb returned to Charlottesville the evening of January 15.]

January 11 to 13, 2010

I was staying in the Villa Creole in Petionville. It’s the “elite” part of Port-au-Prince, on a huge hill with narrow, winding streets to the top. Most foreigners live there, most of Haitian rich.

It was a violent quake. No warning. Happened about 4:50 p.m. on Tuesday, 1/12. First a minor tremor that shook a painting or two, followed by one where I could only stand because I was sheltered in the doorway of my hotel room. My butt against one side of the frame, hands holding to other side. It definitely had the “freight train” sound you hear about. Thought I was okay until I saw a part of the hotel wall tumble down across from pool. Don’t know how long it went on. Hard to estimate accurately, but was at least 30 seconds. I’ve heard some people say much longer but when you are scared everything seems longer than it is.

Took a quick video shot, which was dumb. I should have just gotten out. Decided to shove everything in suitcases and grabbed a water cooler the hotel had provided. More dumb decisions in aftermath of quake, but I risked it. Did not know if I was ever coming back to room. Villa Creole hotel was built in 1945 or so, and mostly stayed up. Hotel was in reasonable shape. Dining room wall collapsed, but no dinner being served that early. We had no deaths; one man with injured arm. That was it. One Frenchman ran out of hotel during quake and the shaking threw him into the hotel pool.

Hotel Montana was not so lucky. Near total collapse. I spoke to other Coast Guard members who saw large piece of it slide down the hill. Many people killed, I believe.

This quake was like that. Total collapse on one building, another with only minor damage. Sort of gives you religion to see something like that.

All hotel guests fled into street in front of hotel. Tremendous screaming and yelling from Haitians down the hill. Aftershocks raised even more panic and voices.

An American, “Henry” started treating a few Haitians who had been injured. A man from West Virginia, “Steve,” joined in. Soon the rest of us did, too. Henry and Steve worked like dogs … kept going long after I stopped the next morning. They are heroes. None of us were medical professionals. Henry had taken an EMT class or had once been an EMT. Steve had some animals at home and had some basic vet skills and a calm demeanor. The other huge asset was “Melissa,” an owner of Hotel Creole. You have to understand that the Haitian elite and the Haitian people do not mix. They may not even be able to speak to each other (or refuse to) as the poor use Creole and the elite speak French & English. But Melissa let us start ripping up bed sheets for wounded. Let us break apart furniture for splints. Canadians like “Richard” and “Gerard” helped with translation and gathering supplies. “Alex” a French woman who lives in Cap-Haitien was a huge help. Another American, “Chris” worked all night. “Jim” another American, became a true pro at ripping up sheets. Another French woman whose name I never got.  “Peggy” was an American who also helped.

Soon other Haitians began arriving. We used car headlights to work on wounded. Had to keep backing up the cars to make room for new victims and keep lights on new wounded. We just put them on the street. We were not very organized … but it worked. Must have backed up our two main cars 200 feet by the time all was done. I was an EMT years ago. I remember all the short classes on splints and mass casualties. You think you will never use that stuff … My two years at Western Albemarle Rescue Squad in 1985–86 were a huge help … but we had no equipment to work with.

Most of the injures were from falling debris. The Haitians make most buildings out of concrete and cinderblock in Port-au-Prince and that stuff fell on people. Imagine someone dropping 2–8 cinderblocks on you from six feet above and you get an idea of the injuries that we saw. Over and over again I asked “le bloc est tombé?” (“the block fell?”—or my approximation of it) and they answered “oui, oui.” Reached back to high school French all night. Wish I had paid better attention to Madame Crouch all those years.

  1. Broken Bones: Probably what we saw more than anything. We made improvised splints and ripped up Villa Creole’s sheets to splint. Somehow we had hundreds of rubber gloves and I suspect someone from a relief organization had them in their suitcase and donated. Turned out to have double use: After people took off used gloves we filled some with ice and used them as ice packs. Saw many, many compound fractures (bones protruding). We covered and bandaged. Those people are going to be a huge problem in coming days. Infection will set in and we are going to lose many more Haitians. We are going to see a generation of crippled people. Bones will set in awkward positions and legs and arms will have to come off. It’s going to get much worse. The cable stations are focusing on buried people, and that deserves some attention. But the walking wounded are going to be a huge problem soon. There are calls now for heavy equipment. No. What we need is lots and lots of bandages and antiseptic. Orthopedic surgeons/nurses. Lots of antibiotics.
  2. Head wounds/concussions. Many of these. Attended one ten-year old girl who had knot on back of head and was unresponsive. Pupils unresponsive … barely constricted with light. Convulsing on left side and bleeding from left ear, which is never a good sign with a head injury. We tried to keep her still. Parents kept trying to take her somewhere, wanted her better … and I tried to explain in broken French that keeping still and reducing swelling was the goal. A young Haitian, “Teri” helped translate to Creole. Many Haitians look to the “blans” (literally “whites” but the meaning is more figuratively “foreigners”) as being people who can fix problems, and that was the case here despite our lack of supplies and equipment. I had to keep explaining in broken French that there was very little I could do, that none of us were doctors, but Steve and Henry and Chris and Alex and Robert and Jim and I were the best option around. Many of the wounded had tried to go to hospitals but the buildings were either too damaged or the crowds too large for them to get aid … so they came to us.
  3. Internal injuries. This scared me most of all. Many victims had just minor cuts and scrapes—in triage, you just shove them off to the side. But then someone throws up blood. A woman had blood in her eyes and obvious swelling in her stomach. Nothing we could do but keep them still. We had an oxygen tank and used it … but I don’t know that it did much good. I think we were helping minds more than bodies. For the Haitians to see someone, anyone, doing something provided some calm.
  4. Burns: just a few of these. I thought there would be more but did not see burning fires after quake. I suspect the quakes struck before many had started cooking, and that most Haitians are so poor they don’t have much fuel to cook with anyway. Heard from another USCG member that some of the slums down the hill had more burn victims.

World of “les docteurs” at Villa Creole got out and more and more people arrived. We worked all night. Hotel Creole staff brought out Cokes and some food, kept water for washing wounds. Hotel Creole did so, so much. Melissa was an angel. She was calm and collected and helped translate. The oil that kept our lumbering machine running. Hotel Creole could have locked up its doors and gone into a defensive crouch. They did not.

By morning of 1/13 we were all exhausted. Thought it was 8:00 or so and looked at my watch: still 5:30. Kept going for a while, but I gave up about 9:00. I was traveling to Haiti under the auspices of the US government. I knew the embassy would come looking for me soon. So, I got my things ready again, sat with other guests by hotel pool. Henry and Steve kept up their diligent work. One American had a car and decided to try and drive to Dominican Republic. Don’t know: given road conditions, that may not have been a good decision. Roads in Port-au-Prince were okay, really. A few walls collapsed into the street … but only a few. There are not many high buildings there, so they did not often fall into street. Few, if any, abandoned cars. But Haitian streets are very narrow, winding, and jammed with people. You got traffic jams around gas stations.

I was already feeling guilty about stopping my first aid work. But I felt like my job was to let the embassy know I was okay (never managed this: no cell network; land lines did not work) and stay put. And then the Villa Creole chef set up a grill and did steaks now thawed from freezer. VC has a generator, but they had not used it. They were afraid of electrical shorts and I suspect they wanted to conserve fuel for later on when they might need it more. But there I was, eating steak on one side of the wall, bloody Haitians on the other. It seemed overtly symbolic and did not make me feel great about myself. To be honest, part of stopping first aid was because we were almost out of supplies and, by giving aid, we were attracting more and more people to our street. This shut down the street and put a lot of people in a very small area. A few Haitians walked off with a fax machine and the hotel staff finally closed the wrought-iron gates and set up security. Our aid was accomplishing very little, and I decided to try and be ready for evacuation.

But we were always safe. The Haitians were scared—often praying to God and one woman doing what could only be described as Voodoo—but they stayed calm. The irony here is that the Haitians may rebound from this much better than Americans could. Most didn’t have running water before the quake. Most didn’t have electricity. They lived in terrible conditions. So what would debilitate an American hurts a Haitian, but they keep going.

I did a last check of my room and someone came down the hall yelling my name. It was a driver from the embassy. Lugged out the bags and he took me to an Army staff member’s house nearby—a rally point. Seven other USCG members there. As we drove along, we saw Haitians on the street in their usually improvised markets. Not so many, but it was going on. A man selling silk scarves? Who wants to buy that after a quake? But there he was. A few people in loud arguments with vendors, especially those selling food. I suspect there was some price gouging going on.

In four cars, we drove from there to the US Embassy. That’s where the last video footage comes from (market/mall/theater collapse and men using truck for dead). One of our drivers was amazing. He had heard that his sister was dead, and yet, there he was weaving us through traffic. Heard from other embassy personnel who said the same thing. Their Haitian nannies and guards were on station and refused to leave to care for their own families. The US Embassy, built only a few years ago, looked in good shape.  Talked to my local contact there who said a US Coast Guard C-130 was waiting to take us out of the country. Was very happy to see my own service as one of the first to arrive in country.

The embassy’s job in this environment is to clear the decks. They want all non-essential Americans out. Fewer people to sustain; fewer variables to deal with; fewer people to be under risk later on. All of us were ready to stay, but the fact is that Haiti is barely stable. More stable than in years … but never far from a tipping point.

We are now in a hotel in Santo Domingo. Slept for first time in 50 hrs. Got food. At lunch today, said the traditional Catholic blessing, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.” I was composed until I tried to add a prayer for the Haitians. Sort of lost it for a while. The hostess left me alone until I could eat again. Seeing this changes a life.

I very much want to acknowledge that:

  • Owners of Villa Creole hotel were heroes. “Melissa” was an angel who kept us safe, watered, and fed as we tried to help Haitians. Let us rip up every sheet/towel in her hotel and break apart furniture for splints.
  • I did very little of the work. Two Americans, “Henry” and “Steve,” took the lead. Worked long after I stopped on 1/13 to wait for evacuation by embassy personnel.
  • The other people who did awesome work were the embassies in Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo. They worked very hard to ensure my safety.

Update: Jeb is interviewed by Sandy Hausman of WVTF Public Radio in Roanoke.


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Sarah Firman's picture
Sarah Firman · 14 years ago
Thank you for the report. I stayed at the Villa Creole from early 1980s till 2000. The Staff was so good to me. It was a home to me. I hope all the damage can be repaired. I also hope the large old tree still stands that I ate breakfast under. I am so glad everone was safe. Thank you again as the news didn’t mention the beautiful Villa Creole.
Jeb Livingood's picture
Jeb Livingood · 14 years ago
Yes, the almond tree is still there, providing shade to those who have stayed.
Jeb Livingood's picture
I have heard from Steve who is back at home in W.Va. Robert and Gerard are safely back in Montreal.
Wanda's picture
Wanda · 14 years ago
Very powerful story. Thanks for sharing. I have never been there but was a tourist in the Dominican Republic. Your story made this disaster much more vivid.
Daniel O'Donnell's picture
Daniel O'Donnell · 14 years ago
Jeb, I’m glad to hear that you made it out safely. I don’t want imagine the prospect of not seeing you in class at NDIC next session. Currahee to all of the Americans that helped recover, triage, and bandage up their neighbors down there. I’m definitely buying you a pitcher next session at The Slip Inn.
Vickey McCue's picture
Vickey McCue · 14 years ago
Thanks for sharing your story. I am reading this while doing duty at Western Rescue today. It so sad what has happened in Haiti. I am glad you made it home safely.
Janine Lam's picture
Janine Lam · 14 years ago
Hi Jeb, My name is Janine. I’m Richard’s girlfriend. He and I are very happy that you and the others got home safely. We are very happy to hear that your actions in Haiti will be recognized. Richard and I would like to organize something with you, Henry, Steeve and Gerard… it will be difficult but i believe it could be a great reunion. Please feel free to contact us! Janine

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