First Person

Slow going on the road to Port-au-Prince

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A collapsed building on the road to Port-au-Prince. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America
A collapsed building on the road to Port-au-Prince. Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America

Oxfam’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort, where they join over 200 Oxfam staff already on the ground. Here’s her latest update, dated January 19.

It’s been one week since a massive earthquake flattened a good portion of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital where about two million people live. Coming over the crest of Mourne Cabrit–Creole for mountain of the goats–we spy the city in the distance, lost in haze at the end of a broad plain. From that height, all looks still below. The road is well-paved, snaking up the side of the mountain, and easily wide enough for two cars.

It is impossible to imagine what we will find ahead, but a hint came soon enough: a landslide, set loose Yves Gattereau says, by the 7.0 temblor. It has knocked enormous white boulders onto the road. Gattereau is the director of the bi-national Oxfam program that works on watershed preservation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This was his second visit to Port-au-Prince since the quake struck. His first mission had been a few days before to find his parents–safe, luckily, and asleep in their car.

We’re quiet as we roll onto the plain and into Croix Bouquet, a community a short distance outside Port-au-Prince. We pass a cement wall that has toppled, intact, onto its side, looking suddenly like an extension of the road we are on. We see cracks in walls and occasional heaps of rubble. But what strikes me most about the approach to the capital is the number of people streaming along both sides of the road, going about their business. Some carry large metal tubs of laundry on their heads. Others have set up kiosks to sell everything from small bottles of caramel-colored liquor to packages of crackers, circles of cheese, and sacks stuffed with roots.

But something else stands out, too: the face masks. The closer we get to Port-au-Prince, the more I see–blue ones, white ones, ones decorated with flowers. Two boys, goofing around, have theirs attached to their chins like beards. Are they to prevent people from breathing the dust from the collapsed buildings? I ask Gattereau.

No, he says grimly. They’re to keep out the stench of rotting bodies.

There’s no way of really knowing how many people lost their lives in this catastrophe.

“You can’t know,” says Gattereau. “There’s no way to figure it out. They didn’t know in the first place how many people were in Port-au-Prince.”

Soon, we find ourselves in a traffic jam, stopped dead in the baking afternoon sun. Horns blare around us. Tap-taps, packed with people pressed into the windows, inch by in the other direction. Two large UN vehicles rumble past. And pickups loaded with more people than seems scientifically possible sag on their chassis. But on our side, nothing moves for a while. And Gattereau wonders out loud: Where is everyone going?

“There’s nowhere to go,” he says. “They’re going to regret wasting all that fuel.”

Fuel has been worrying everybody. Will there be enough to keep the now-decimated city functioning? Enough to truck in sorely needed food and water? To run the equipment needed to clear massive piles of debris from streets and lots? To ferry out the people who want to escape all the sorrow and horror of the last week?

A moment later, Gattereau answers his own question. He knows where everyone’s going: to search for news, any news, of family members still unaccounted for.

Yves Gattereau photo by Liz Lucas / Oxfam America
Yves Gattereau photo by Liz Lucas / Oxfam America

As we start the climb into Delmas–a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince–the scale of the destruction leaves us stunned.  There are three of us in the truck. We don’t speak, except in staccato bursts.

“Pancakes,” says Gattereau looking at the layers of concrete–once the floors of banks and commercial operations, and dwellings–now lying on top of each other. “It’s a grave.”

And he worries about what will come next. Plenty of buildings are still standing, and to the untrained eye they look like they could be fine, save for the cracks–some massive. But Gattereau, who has some construction experience, knows better. He says because of the structural damage, many of them will need to be bulldozed. But that might not happen.

“Some people will just cover some of the cracks because there’s no authority who will say no, you have to tear it down,” he says.

I ask if he thinks the city will ever recover.

Gattereau’s eyes light up. Earlier in the day, as we bounced over the rough dirt road from the border, he had told me his feelings for this poor and struggling country that he has made his home since 1987.

“If you like it, you fall madly in love with it,” he had said. “Or you hate it. But there’s no middle.”

And there’s no middle to his conviction that Port-au-Prince will come back.

“It will,” he says. “And hopefully, it’s a good occasion to build it for a better place to live.”

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