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Haiti Earthquake Survivor MAG
Shelby interviewed Alicia, who was on a mission trip in Haiti last year when the earthquake struck.
Can you provide a little background about your trip to Haiti? What were you doing before the earthquake?
This was my third mission trip to Haiti with an organization called Mission E4. My dad, sister, and I were part of a group of 37 who were going to build a new school in Léogâne, register kids at another school, open a medical clinic, put on skits for the children in three schools in Léogâne, L'Acul, and Fauche, and see our sponsor children. But a lot of that changed after the earthquake.
Can you describe what Haiti was like when you arrived, before the earthquake hit? What was the land like? The weather? The people? What were the biggest differences you noticed between the U.S. and Haiti?
When we arrived in Haiti it was, of course, really hot and humid. Along the streets were endless heaps of trash. All around were Haitians outside their concrete or tin houses or on the side of the road selling food, clothes, or anything else they had.
On the bus from Port-au-Prince to our compound, Haitian children would come up to the windows, speaking Creole, asking for money. Passing by open markets, we could smell the delicious food being cooked and sold there. Though the living conditions weren't great, Haiti had made a lot of progress since my first trip in 2008.
The biggest difference between the U.S. and Haiti is the level of poverty. When you think of America, you really don't think of people living in tin huts among piles of trash, or a family bathing in a stream. But that's what it's like in most of Haiti. There is starvation, homelessness, and even bone-thin goats and pigs roaming through the trash, eating whatever they can find. Even though people don't always acknowledge it, living in a land like ours that is clean and free is a total luxury.
When did you realize that you were experiencing an earthquake? Can you describe how you felt?
I first noticed something was wrong when our bus started rocking violently. It was a very bumpy road, and at first I brushed it off as a pothole. But then, of course, it didn't stop, so I knew something was up. I looked around, and everyone seemed just as confused as I was. When I looked through my window I saw that the trees were swaying and pelting mangoes as if there was a huge gust of wind.
Suddenly, a telephone pole fell in front of the bus, and its wires came down right against the window. Shocked, I looked over at my dad, and behind him I saw a massive wall crumble and fall just inches from his seat. It was then that I realized it was an earthquake. I thought, What are we going to do? What does it look like beyond this small dirt road? At that moment, I worried most about our safety.
We were afraid to go into our rooms because of the constant aftershocks. As selfish as it sounds, I was terrified and just wanted to go home!
What happened right after the earthquake? What did you do? What did you see? How did you feel then?
Right after the earthquake we all got out of the bus and waited for the other half of our group to arrive. While watching all the people go by, I couldn't help but cry. I was so scared and I didn't know what to think. With each aftershock, I grew more and more afraid.
On that one small road alone there was so much destruction! Telephone poles were down, homes had collapsed, and the air was gray with dust from the cinder blocks and concrete. On other streets the destruction was even more apparent. Large buildings were reduced to rubble, and those still standing were drastically lopsided and cracked.
All around were crying Haitians who had lost everything and didn't know what to do. The destruction that an earthquake can cause is completely unbelievable.
What happened next? What did you do? What did you see?
Eventually the other bus came. A couple of men searched the kitchen for food and found some undercooked beef stew that the Haitian kitchen ladies had been cooking. I had totally lost my appetite, but my dad said I had to eat because we didn't know the next time we'd be able to.
Part of the wall around the compound had collapsed and the rest was cracked. Some rooms had cracked walls and we weren't allowed in, even though they were pretty sturdy. When we first went in our rooms they were a mess! Things had fallen from the dressers and nightstands, off the bathroom shelves, and even the pictures had fallen off the walls.
Can you describe the aid you provided in the aftermath of the earthquake?
The day after the earthquake we divided into two teams; one went to the orphanage, and the other went out on the streets with as much medical supplies as they could carry and helped whomever they saw. I was with the team that went to the orphanage and helped rebuild the walls around it and played with the kids. A lot of the people who were at the orphanage had lost their homes so it turned into a refugee camp.
Before the earthquake, we had been building benches for the schoolchildren. After the earthquake, men used this same wood to make splints and crutches. That just goes to show how in an instant everything can change and you do what you've got to do!
I spent most of the time playing with the children to get their minds off what was happening around them. We gave them coloring books, jump ropes, and balls, and even though they had lost everything they still managed to have a great time. Since I don't speak Haitian Creole I wasn't able to talk to them, but by the looks on their smiling faces and their joyful laughter, I knew I'd done my job.
When we went back to the compound at the end of the day, the other team told us what they had seen out on the streets and what they had done. Some of their stories were unbelievably sad – amputations, setting fractured bones that were literally sticking out of bodies, and so much more. Though the number of people our team assisted didn't even compare to the thousands in need of help, I feel we made a huge impact.
Is there one moment or image you recall that epitomizes the experience for you?
What really hit me the most was the aftershocks during the night. Everything would be calm, even peaceful; then a violent tremor would start shaking my bed, waking my sister and me. We would jump out of our beds and run out into the courtyard. The darkness outside made me feel even more scared and vulnerable. The fact that it was scary wasn't why it was so memorable; I knew that no matter how terrified I was being in this foreign land, it could not compare to what the Haitians must be experiencing seeing this happening to their country! The moments when I was the most afraid were when I truly felt for the people of Haiti.
In this time of terror and chaos, did you witness any moments of human kindness that were particularly striking?
There were a lot of moments like that, but one that really stuck with me was about a woman at the orphanage, who was staying there because she had lost her home. She was going from child to child putting toothpaste on their upper lips. She was playing like she was giving them a mustache, and I didn't understand why she was wasting toothpaste like that. Then I was told that the bodies on the street and those still stuck under the rubble were starting to decompose and smell, but with toothpaste under their noses, the children wouldn't notice. It was so heart-warming that amid all the sadness, she found a way to cheer them up without them even knowing the morbid reason she was doing it.
How has life changed for you since this experience?
Every day I think about Haiti and my experience there. Occasionally I have nightmares about it. My life is forever changed, but not entirely for the bad. Since the earthquake I have come to appreciate what I have. Not only am I more appreciative of food, water, and all of my possessions, but also the architecture all around me. I realized that I am extremely blessed to live in a sturdy, well‑built house and not a cinder block or tin hut. This experience opened my eyes to how truly blessed I am.
The earthquake was a tragic event to experience, but what I have learned I would never trade. I am forever thankful that we stayed in Haiti because we helped a lot of people both emotionally and physically.