“I Am So Happy He’s Not Dead”

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I arrived in Port-au-Prince as dusk was falling two days after the earthquake hit. People had been warning me that parts of Haiti looked like a war zone, but I found that to be an understatement; Port-au-Prince was far more destroyed than Baghdad or Kabul ever were. Everyone had to improvise. In the hotel compound I stayed in, there was little food and no power. I charged my camera batteries using the cigarette lighter in a rented truck and slept in the vehicle at night. Most Haitians were sleeping outdoors as well. By sunrise, most neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, such as this one, were bustling with the displaced going about the business of survival.


Port-au-Prince's central business district, a historic area of French colonial storefronts, had once been the shopping and cultural heart of the city. Now it looked like a movie set for a film about the end of the world. Block after endless block was smashed into rubble, and looters were frenetically crawling over the twisted concrete piles, looking for anything salvageable.


Those first few days in Port-au-Prince, there was no escaping death. Bodies were everywhere: on sidewalks and streets, buried in rubble and trapped inside smashed cars. The main city morgue was quickly overwhelmed. There were thousands of bodies, overfilling the building and spread out over a huge parking lot, sometimes stacked two or three high. People would come to hastily search the piles for relatives' bodies. I also visited mass graves newly dug outside the capital.


Burial rites were denied to many of the dead and closure denied to the living. Many Haitians even now aren't quite sure who made it and who didn't. While driving me around Port-au-Prince, my Haitian driver, Marco, would often see someone he knew and with a quick apology stop the truck and give them a long embrace. "I am so happy he is not dead," he often said afterward. In Port-au-Prince's existing cemeteries, as above, gravediggers were working overtime.


The final death count is still unclear, but estimates now hover around 200,000. To put this in perspective, the Haitian quake killed roughly the same number of people as the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which struck 14 mostly larger countries. Haiti has also essentially lost its capital. Several days after the quake, some unidentified bodies remained pinned down by rubble in central Port-au-Prince. To remove the bodies, neighbors began burning them in place, leaving charred remains.


The many horrible things I've seen here are balanced somewhat by other scenes of immense charity and bravery: Haitian students standing in the rubble of collapsed colleges, stone by stone removing debris to save friends trapped underneath. Burly U.S. troops carrying heavy cases of water two at a time on their shoulders and loading them into helicopters. Young Haitian men serenely escorting old Haitian grandmothers to the front of food lines, while others wait politely.


One such inspiring moment I witnessed was of a U.N. peacekeeper carrying away a pregnant woman who had fainted in the hot sun at a food distribution site. Meanwhile, doctors and nurses from around the world converged at the central hospital complex in Port-au-Prince, tirelessly working out of tents and in the open air to save lives.


At this hospital in Port-au-Prince, doctors earmarked the most serious cases for helicopter airlift to a premier Navy medical ship floating offshore. One was a boy named Paul with a broken leg who winced in pain whenever he was moved; another was a brave girl named Narlee, pictured here, who had been caught under a collapsing wall in the quake. U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were tasked with transporting these patients from the hospital to an improvised helicopter landing pad on the grounds of the destroyed National Palace.


Meanwhile in central Port-au-Prince, Haitian boys were soaping themselves down with the flowing water of a broken water main, improvising a new life and finding reason to laugh and enjoy themselves even amid the destruction.

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