The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2020

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2020 55 In the Rubble It is impossible to adequately explain the effect of the earthquake on myself, my colleagues, the U.S. embassy and the city of Port-au-Prince. Every single person in the city lost close friends and family members. The final death toll was estimated to be 230,000, out of a total population of three mil- lion. Most individuals lost their houses entirely or experienced significant damage. Everyone slept in the open air out of fear of being inside when one of the interminable aftershocks took place. Port-au-Prince and the nearby towns were covered in piles of rubble; and within 48 hours the city was permeated with the smell of rotting flesh. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that access to the city was severely restricted: The airport was nonfunctional (the control tower and the runways were damaged), roads had become impassable and the port was unable to service ships and containers. The U.S. government knows how to deal with disasters. Within days, the U.S. Army, under the command of a three-star general, had arrived. They repaired and reopened the airport, cleared the roads to the Dominican Republic (a source of sup- plies) and made the port functional. Working in close collabora- tion with them was a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team that, with dazzling efficiency, set about distributing emergency supplies—food, water and tents to desperate survivors—while working in close collaboration with hundreds of volunteer medi- cal personnel who treated the thousands of wounded survivors under less-than-ideal circumstances. The patience and empathy exhibited by these individuals cannot be overstated. At previous posts, I had been responsible for managing large programs. I was mission director in South Africa, where we established and implemented HIV/AIDS programs worth hun- dreds of millions of dollars and issued housing guaranty loans that resulted in the construction of tens of thousands of houses and associated urban infrastructure. In Haiti, I and most of my USAID colleagues were in a state of shock. We found ourselves tip-toeing around the building and checking with each other as to whether every aftershock was real or imagined. Most U.S. direct-hire staff members (above all, those with children) chose to leave immediately, once the airport was reopened. Some came back once things had calmed down. Others, who had not been initially posted to Haiti, volunteered to come and help us manage the $1 billion in funds we received for earthquake relief. It helped immensely that our ambassador, who had been posted in Haiti previously, spoke fluent Creole and was on a first-name basis with everyone: from the country’s leaders to the parking attendant at the local supermarket. His calm demeanor throughout the entire post-earthquake period was a critical element in keeping us going. Like the rest of us, he had sent his family home and was living in his office with a small beagle named Sophie, who would lie on his desk and listen attentively during staff meetings. A Drop in the Ocean Under normal circumstances, a billion dollars will go very far. In Haiti, it was a drop in the ocean. What it did was keep people alive post-earthquake by providing the absolute basics, the above-mentioned food, water, tents and porta-potties (things that are fungible and not easily catalogued). This point was brought home to us when a number of congressional del- egations visited Haiti and announced that they saw little to no evidence of U.S. government money that was supposed to have been spent on reconstructing the areas that had been hit. I should point out that since most residents of Port-au- Prince lived on hillsides around the city in settlements that lacked properly constructed roads and basic services, the earthquake produced mountains of rubble because of the Local workers clear the rubble brick by brick. Inset: This is what the terrain in Port-au- Prince looked like after the earthquake. The houses, built on hillsides around the city, all had cement roofs to withstand hurricanes, but the walls were not properly supported with rebar. As a result, they collapsed—“pancaked” was the term used—killing whoever was indoors. USAID/KENDRAHELMER