Ten years ago today a massive earthquake struck Haiti, transforming capital city Port-au-Prince into a nightmare in seconds. Some 70,000 people would be buried within a week’s time. Hundreds of thousands more would follow them to the grave.
The devastating force of the 7.0 quake on January 12, 2010, split the country’s history into a before, and an after. Before had been a long, tangled history of dictatorship, occupation and resistance, shot through with the pride of a slave revolution that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. After was unimaginable – a blank slate.
“I think they just dropped a bomb on Port-au-Prince,” is what Francoise Chandler, a local UNICEF communications officer, told her daughter after the first tremor struck. She had just picked her up from school.
“Everything was shaking, and there was a lot of noise. I thought it was like September 11 in New York, because I had been in New York in that period,” Chandler says. Thick dust rose in the air around their car.
“Are we going die?” she remembers her daughter asking. Chandler replied, “I don’t have the answer to that, but if we’re going to die, we’ll die together.”
Her daughter stopped asking questions then, she says.
Hope and hopelessness
According to the US Geological Survey, the earthquake itself lasted less than 30 seconds. The immediate aftermath was horrifying. But an outpouring of solidarity within the country, and between Haiti and the rest of the world, gave many Haitians hope.
“The world really did come together around Haiti,” says CNN’s Sanjay Gutpa, who covered the aftermath extensively and even treated injuries while on the ground. “Not every part of the world, but I think if you were to turn on your televisions, if you were to read the newspaper, if you were to talk to your friends, colleagues at work, there was this collective outpouring of support and compassion for Haiti.”
The world sent firemen from New York City, rescue workers from Iceland, hospital tents from Israel, sniffer dogs from China, oil from Venezuela. NGOs that were already in the country leaped into action. Chandler recalls working out of an open-air tent in the days after the quake because the organization’s offices had crumbled.
International donors pledged millions, which eventually tallied up to more than $10 billion for reconstruction. The earthquake had been particularly lethal due to the fragile construction of Haiti’s buildings, which crashed down upon their inhabitants.
“Right after the earthquake I felt a lot of hope, because I thought emerging from the catastrophe would make everyone a better person in the service of this country,” says Harold Prévil, an obstetrician and head of Sacre Coeur hospital in Haiti’s northern city of Milot.
But a decade later, he and many others tell CNN they are now disillusioned and have far less hope for their country than they did in the gory aftermath of the earthquake.
“A lot of money was spent after the earthquake, but the results are meager,” Haitian President Jovenel Moise told CNN in an interview Sunday.
Moise has publicly acknowledged how little Haiti had had moved forward in the past decade. “Despite our best efforts to rebuild after the earthquake, the scars of this tragic event remain,” he said in a statement on Saturday. “Ten years on, we still lack the basic infrastructure and services to support the people of our country.”
Haitians are ‘living with permanent stress’
Parts of Haiti that were destroyed in 2010 still have not been rebuilt, including the seat of government, the National Palace. And there is little sign that buildings which have been reconstructed are structurally sound enough to keep inhabitants safe through the next earthquake.
Whiplashed between disasters both natural and political over the past decade, many Haitians have not had a chance to rebuild mentally or emotionally either, says Marline Naromie Joseph, a Haitian psychologist who has worked with Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) for 12 years. She was on the frontlines of emergency medicine in the aftermath of the quake, working with patients who had lost limbs, children who had lost their parents and colleagues who had borne witness to the quake’s horrors.
Joseph recalls witnessing the first bodies being collected in a city street on the day after the earthquake.
“The sound that the bodies made falling into the truck was nauseating,” she says. Further along that same road, workers were separating the dead into piles of children and adults, she recalls – an image which would return to her every time she walked on that street for years and which she eventually realized was evidence of her own trauma.
“Even though there were no longer the children, no longer the dead, it was as if it were the first day that I was seeing them,” she says. “My brain had saved this image and became stuck on it.”
Some patients still have flashbacks to the sensation of the earth moving beneath their feet when revisiting certain settings – like the hospital’s operating room, she says.
According to Joseph’s diagnosis, the country’s misfortunes over the past decade have piled stress upon trauma. In the years since the earthquake, the country has been pounded with hurricanes, floods and drought. It’s also been betrayed by human error – tied to a devastating cholera epidemic, for example – and government corruption that has sparked Haiti’s current political unrest.
“We can live with stress, but living with permanent stress will not leave the body without consequence. Eventually, you fall directly into exhaustion,” says Joseph, who notes she has observed more mentally ill people living on the streets than before the earthquake.
The country is crippled by hunger, inflation and fuel shortages
One particularly bitter frustration on the earthquake’s 10-year anniversary is how weakened the country’s economy and infrastructure seem to be.
“Ten years after, I am a physician, I am the chief executive officer of a 210-bed facility, but believe me, I am hopeless,” says Prévil, the doctor. “Haitians have not had the opportunity to do things differently and better.”
Some things are better. Haiti’s medical system has widened since the quake, and UNICEF reports that no new cholera cases have been diagnosed since February last year.
But Prévil and Joseph both say that the country’s medical and mental health resources would nevertheless be insufficient for another disaster on the scale of the 2010 earthquake.
“I would not say we have an institution capable of dealing with all the psychological trauma of another catastrophe like that,” Joseph says.