Surviving survival: Haiti's earthquake, ten years on

That’s me. Ten years ago Sunday. January 12, 2010.

At 4:53 p.m., on a balmy winter’s day in southern Haiti, a fault line no one knew about erupted with a force twenty-five times stronger than the first atomic bomb. I was eight miles up and sixteen miles east, on my bed in the Associated Press house, in a suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

I had been living in and covering Haiti for two and a half years. I thought I had a sense of the curveballs it could throw. I’d moved in the aftermath of a coup and spent the intervening time on the lookout for another. A school had inexplicably collapsed behind my house about a year before, killing 100 kids and teachers. In my time on the island (including two previous years on the other side of the border in the Dominican Republic), I’d been through about half a dozen hurricanes, a few of them serious. We were all wary of a direct hit on the capital. But it wasn’t hurricane season.

My first reaction to the noise was curiosity. Then the shaking started and it turned into denial. As my house fell apart around me, I think I experienced resignation. Then it stopped. Thanks to my friend, Evens Sanon, who had been at my desk on the first floor and ran outside when the wall caved in, I made it outside with only a minor cut on my leg. I ran up the hill looking for a phone to call the AP Caribbean desk in Puerto Rico.

It was only when I got there that I realized I’d been holding my laptop the whole time. I opened up the webcam to take a photo of my neighbor’s house, which had pancaked entirely. That’s when I accidentally took the photo above.

I could tell you the whole story of what happened that day, and the days and weeks and months after, except I’ve already done so in a book I wrote, The Big Truck That Went By.

I could answer the questions people tend to have: How many people died? (Nobody knows exactly, but probably 100,000 to 316,000—definitively the deadliest known natural disaster in the history of the Americas). Where did the money go? (Mostly circled around foreign governments, NGOs, and private contractors; very little came close to Haiti). What did the Clintons do? (You know what, just read the book.)

But I’m tired. Ten years feels like yesterday. It also feels like a very long time. For those of us who lived through the quake, forty seconds felt like a lifetime. Many of my friends and neighbors’ lifetimes stopped there. For those of us who somehow kept going, time picked up slowly: The first day after felt like a decade. The first week a year. I remember hearing about George Clooney’s “Hope for Haiti” telethon and thinking it was strange that MTV was hosting a fundraiser for something that happened a month before. It had been ten days.

Part of the reason it doesn’t feel like ten years exactly is that it wasn’t. When something as big and traumatic and unexpected as the earthquake happens, its aftermath drags on. Some of you probably remember the “post-quake” cholera epidemic, caused (once controversially in my world, now infamously) by United Nations peacekeepers. That was more than nine months later, and started in a whole other part of the country from the earthquake (which was one of the data points that I and epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux indepedently used to figure out what had happened.)

But for everyone who survived all of that, it didn’t stop there either. It didn’t stop as they were forced to rebuild their ruined city, brick by brick, home by home, often by hand. It didn’t stop when the U.S. interfered in a shambolic election, helping put an unqualified pop star in the Haitian presidency. It didn’t end when that president presided over the apparent theft of as much as half a billion dollars of loans extended by the Venezuelan government in the form of discounted petroleum sales. It didn’t end when that president oversaw the questionable election of his chosen successor, an unknown businessman who auditors say was part of the embezzlement scheme.

Ten years after foreign leaders and people all over the world pledged to rebuild Haiti (“better,” as Bill Clinton used to say), the upshot is a country worse off than it was the minute before the earthquake struck. Its politics are in turmoil and its poverty is worse than ever. The global inequality that has made Haiti the dumping ground for the most vicious runoff of the overconsuming, rapacious countries of the world, including our own, keeps finding novel ways to screw the Haitian poor and ensure that the worst of its people tend to end up in charge.

Part of the reason that ten years since the date Haitians still simply call douze janvye feels like it was much more recent, in other words, is that the retraumitizations keep coming. They come when a racist presidential candidate in the United States tries to use the Haiti earthquake as a cudgel against his opponent, then repeatedly derides a nation of unparalleled survivors as a “shithole” while showing support for its president (possibly because his levels of alleged corruption pale next to his).

But the retraumatizations also come in smaller moments: when the eye catches an object moving unexpectedly fast just inside the field of vision, when an airplane wavers in a storm, when a piece of construction equipment rumbles the ground. For me, it is sometimes as if the earthquake never happened, and other times as if it never stopped happening. I suppose it will be that way, God willing, for years to come.

So where are we, this January 12? I’m not in Haiti anymore. A lot of Haitians I know aren’t either. I’m married to a wonderful woman, Claire, who I met because the earthquake brought her to Haiti, and me, when I had given up expecting anything good to happen again. We’re building a new life, brick by brick, on the ruins of the old. Ten years after it all almost came to an end, we and I are still going, ever on the lookout for curveballs but also moments of happiness and peace. I suppose that’s the best you can ask for.

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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire through the life of a legendary Marine, Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.