I will never forget that moment: 4:31 a.m., January 17, 1994. Like millions of others the Northridge earthquake shook me to my core. The ground which always seemed so anchored and firm was now was in turbulent motion. The Northridge earthquake (6.7) devastated so many people's lives in the Los Angeles basin. The economic toll was enormous, the emotional impact was immeasurable, and the collapsed structures reflected the enormous damage that had been brought in just a matter of seconds. In a county of ten million people, it is estimated that 33 people lost their lives and 8700 were injured. For these families it became a tragedy. Thousands of people took refuge in shelters, schools and the homes of loved ones. As we know, life went on pretty much the same way it had before.
On January 12, 2010 at 4:53 in the afternoon a massive 7.0 earthquake struck near the capital of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I would imagine that the people who lived through it felt much the same emotions as people all around the world who experience the nightmare of such an earthquake. The capital area has about three million people in it. It is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 people lost their lives and that approximately a million and a half people lost their homes. The powerful image of the National Palace half collapsed reflected the near collapse of a country already riddled with problems. When the violent shaking had stopped life was not to begin a path to normalcy but to an unimaginable nightmare.
Natural disasters do not discriminate between race, religion, age, gender, economic and social conditions, nor do they choose where they will strike. Yet when a natural disaster occurs, its impact varies based on the structure and infrastructure of the community and the personal safety net of the people who inhabit the random place that is affected.
I went to Haiti to be with the people who live in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. I went to Haiti to see the plight of our neighbor just 700 miles from Miami. I went to Haiti to the work that is being done by the NGO community. I went to Haiti to see how a government was trying to address a monstrous challenge. I went to Haiti because I was fortunate enough to just lose some glass and personal items in the Northridge quake, live through something very unpleasant and then return to life. In Haiti, I might have lost everything: my house, my life, my loved ones. I went to Haiti because I could see in the pictures the eyes of the people living in the tents my own eyes and the eyes of the people I know.
I found in Haiti a country with little infrastructure, one road running through the capital, lack of access to clean water, minimal sanitation work taking place, tens of thousands of buildings that are uninhabitable, minimal access to health care, most children not in school, a history of corruption in government. This poorest country in the Western hemisphere gained so much with its freedom from France in 1804 and its emancipation of slaves. Yet over the last two centuries the price for that freedom has taken an enormous toll on every aspect of the nation.
I also found a country filled with resilient people. Individuals and groups who are doing their best with minimal resources to rebuild their shaken, fragile country. I heard from so many Haitians a deep commitment to reshaping their country and to exceptional projects that are being done in nearly every sector. I saw the support of the international NGO community and the groups that are focused on listening to the Haitian people and building sustainable health care, educational and social systems. I saw the eyes of the children who sit in weather beaten tents yearning for a better future.
The Creole poem by Emmanuel Ejen offers great insight into the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people:
You can cut me off/uproot me, toss me away/you can roll me,/ burn me to cinders/ but birds won't quit/nesting in my roots and /hope doesn't wither/but instead blossoms in me.
That feeling of hope is palatable as well as a feeling of hopelessness. It is clear that there are no easy answers or just one path. In Haiti I see not the face of a horrific earthquake but I see the faces of the poor and the face of humanity.
Clearly we cannot stop the storms of nature, but I go to sleep tonight in Port au Prince wondering whether we can stop the storms of inequality and poverty? For me I choose hope, because it is that choice that provides life with meaning and fuels the fire within to create a world where wherever the storms do hit, they find people with access to the necessities that will allow them to rebuild their communities and lives with human dignity.