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Earthquake followed by heartbreak for Haitian family

By Ivan Watson, CNN
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Homeless in Haiti 6 months after quake
  • Michel Clervil's family survived the January earthquake that killed at least 220,000 in Haiti
  • The Clervils lost their livelihood -- renting out rooms -- when their home was ruined
  • Michel's wife Eliane died less than two months later "under extreme stress," said their son
  • Michel Clervil now lives in a one-room hut in a muddy maze of shacks

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- Six months ago, Michel Clervil and his wife, Eliane, looked lost in a sea of makeshift tents. Eliane nervously clutched a small hand-cranked radio distributed by the U.S. Army, while Michel periodically wiped at the sweat on his brow with a rag.

The couple had just taken shelter with their children in the filthy camp that sprang up on a golf course in Port-au-Prince. They were disoriented and almost appeared to be in shock.

In fact, the Clervils were lucky to be alive.

Somehow, everyone in the family escaped unharmed when the walls of their five-story house came tumbling down on January 12. At least 220,000 people were killed in the earthquake. Many more were injured.

But the disaster left Michel and Eliane Clervil facing terrible uncertainty.

Until the earthquake, Michel had managed to provide his family with the Haitian equivalent of a middle-class existence by renting out rooms on the first several floors of his house to tenants. Michel had even succeeded in sending two of his daughters to universities overseas.

With the destruction of the house, Michel and Eliane lost their only source of income. There was no homeowners' insurance. All of the family's surviving possessions were stored under a tent made out of bed sheets, where the Clervils sat swatting at flies in the sweltering heat.

Dressed in a baseball cap, spectacles and blue jeans, the middle-aged man took a sledgehammer and began singlehandedly demolishing the few walls that still stood on his property.

"I want to destroy this so that I can build a new house," he told CNN in late January. "I don't have any money to hire people to help me."

Six months later

Six months after the earthquake, most of the rubble was gone from the Clervils' small plot of land. No new construction had begun there.

We found Michel several blocks away, dressed in the same baseball hat and blue jeans, but with small holes in his white T-shirt and several days' growth of beard on his face.

He gave a CNN reporter a warm bear hug, and then shared a horrible piece of news.

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"My wife died," he said, his eyes welling up with tears. "She was my wife for 25 years. ... Life doesn't make sense to me anymore."

Clervil's 26-year-old son, Chesnay, offered an explanation:

"It's because she was under extreme stress. She had high blood pressure," he said.

The tall, soft-spoken young man and his father described how Eliane had been listening to news on the radio, and then collapsed when she heard that people would have to move from their camp to a new location. Eliane was hospitalized in late February and died several days later.

"I believe it was because of the aftershocks, again and again," Chesnay said, shaking his body for emphasis as he spoke. "She couldn't take the tremors."

Both father and son led visitors to a small cemetery, littered with garbage and human bones. There, they pulled weeds away from the simple unmarked grave where 55-year-old Eliane Clervil was buried.

Michel put his hand on the concrete block.

"I want to join my wife," he said quietly.

The agony of losing Eliane has been made all the more unbearable by the ongoing economic hardship the Clervils are still facing.

"My [youngest] daughter asked me for 500 gourdes (about $12) for school yesterday," Michel said. "I had nothing to give her."

At dusk, a heavy rain began falling as Michel and Chesnay led visitors through a muddy maze of shacks. Michel lives in this new camp in a one-room hut built out of scavenged wood and sheet metal. Rain clattered on the leaky roof, a blue plastic tarp that had been distributed by an aid organization.

With the exception of the tarp, Michel claimed he had received no assistance from the government or the United Nations. Chesnay, an engineer by training, had been working for a government program to assess the structural integrity of buildings hit by the earthquake. But the program had just come to an end, and Chesnay was once again jobless.

Homeless, penniless and heartbroken, Michel sat in his shack in the dark smoking a cigarette, his face lit up periodically by flashes of lightning.

"The last six months have been very difficult," he said. "The next six months will be even harder."

It is impossible to quantify the impact one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history continues to have on millions of Haitians. Michel Clervil may never fully recover from the day the earth shook Port-au-Prince.