Sunday, January 17, 2010

From Port-au-Prince

Its Martin Luther King Day and rather than regale you with yet another diverting anecdote of little consequence, I thought I would share with you an email I just received from my dear friend Amelia in Port-au-Prince, in which she describes what's been going on down there since the earthquake. Makes me feel really, really grateful.

"The entire world here changed in a matter of about 45 seconds. I went to work on Tuesday morning with a strapless maternity dress on that my sister gave me, and little pumps and a red bead necklace. At 4:48 I was calmly sitting at my computer, thinking about going home soon. I had just been talking through the door that splits my office with my cameraman's office, Blago, about leaving in the next 20 minutes. And I hear this noise that I thought was a really huge bumbly truck coming down the driveway by my office. So I stood up to see the truck - I mean, what kind of vehicle makes a noise like that really? And as I walked to the window, my brain computed that the building was vibrating, then swinging wildly from side to side. I wasn't scared, I was just perplexed, and trying to remember what to do in a situation like that - is it "hide under the desk" or "run outside". For some reason, I thought it was "stand in a door jam" so I was trying to get to the door of the building, which is 7 feet from my office. And I kept falling, and Blago was behind me, and I fell, and he laid on top of me to cover me - I guess he thought the answer was "lay on your colleague in an earthquake". And our other colleagues were behind us, one of them, crazy Logan the camera man who runs boot camp classes in his free time, was bounding down the hall, bouncing off walls and screaming "GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!" He grabbed Blago by the neck and somehow I found myself falling down our front steps, landing on our car which had crashed into our building. and then we were all kneeling on the pavement, rubbing our eyes. The shaking stopped. Then started again. And someone said "where is our headquarters?" Because all we could see was dust. No sunlight, no buildings, no thing more than 4 feet in front.

It took us more than 20 minutes to verify that our 6 story headquarters were no longer there. It's the type of thing that just does not compute. New Yorkers will understand this after Sept 11 - the building is supposed to be there, and you look to see it, but your brain can't figure out why it's not there.

In the shantytown outside our offices, the fates were the same. We sat huddled in the parking lot of our HQ, in the dark, listening to tens of thousands of people scream and cry and wail. Wail. I mean really, like a tide. And every time there were tremors and aftershocks, the hills moaned in panic and fear.

I sat there for five hours, and wondered if my family knew what was happening. I know they listen to NPR while making dinner, and was picturing what they were doing when the news broke. And I was wondering how the news would break, because we had no power, no cell phones, no nothing. And people were wondering about the other islands. Was there a tsunami? What? At around 11pm, I found a person in the lot with a small transistor radio. He was listening to Radio France International, which was reporting a massive earthquake in Haiti, epicenter in Port-au-Prince. Good god, I thought, is God really trying to finish this little island - I mean, how much more can it take? It seemed to unfair that Haiti had to take this on. And it was surreal that we were sitting in the center of the mess, and couldn't know what was going on - we had to listen to news reporting from Paris, that was getting their information from CBS in America. very bizarre. Me sitting there in my strapless maternity dress and heels, smudged with dirt and mud, sitting with my knees up and thinking of my family. And I really was regretting my choice of wardrobe in that moment.

I spent the night watching the rescue operations. Which were very sparse. It's hard to pull people out of hundreds of tons of concrete. Maybe they pulled 10 people out, and we struggled to see the faces. Is it anyone I know? Please be one of ours. I sat with a colleague whose husband was missing, and whose 1 year old boy was in her 4th story apartment in the hills above the city. She was stone-faced and silent, eyes wide watching the rubble. She was able to get home and rescue her child at 2am, her husband's whereabouts are still unknown.

We are just now beginning to understand who is not showing up, whose faces have been absent in the little recovery area we've set up in the logistics base by the airport. This is where I am now. It's an awful experience. To know that the people that you meet for coffee, the ones you say hi to at parties and bars, the ones you have stupid arguments with over email about catty, dumb shit - that suddenly those very people could be dead. Or worse, trapped in a small space, without air, in pain.

I think many of us get by right now on these things. First, the notion that "I survived". I survived. I am still alive. That building came down, and by some miracle, I'm still here. So I better be happy about it and not waste it because many people are not so lucky. And second, "there is very important work to do". There is - tons of it. Tons of rock to be moved, tons of people to be saved, tons of bodies to be picked up, tons of food to be handed out - and water. And for me, tons of TV to be sent out to the world. So we throw ourselves into these things, with gusto. It's better than sitting around waiting, and feeling helpless. And last, "miracles do happen". One of the security officers - a guy who would have been on the team that Eduardo was to join next week - was stuck under the rubble somewhere on what used to be the 4th floor. He could talk on his radio. He was awake, stuck in a hole. And the workers couldn't get to him - there was 2 meters of concrete between him and them, constant tremors, and too many fears of dislodging the whole mountain of stuff to get to him. But finally, today, after nearly 48 hours without food and water, he walked free from the debris, unscathed. And promptly resigned from the UN - who can blame him? When we heard this, many of us cried. "Thank you god - and please let this happen again".

So a few more details, and then I go. I am sleeping on the floor in the logisitics base - outside actually, because nobody really feels that comfortable being indoors and asleep. We all have a reflex to stay near exits now. I have my yoga mat and a sheet. I'm ok. I work all day, feeding TV material to braodcasters. Our camera people go out in the field, I am the one who gets the tape, edits it, and sends it off via internet. We have rationed water, and one MRE (meal ready to eat) per day, and we scrounge around for other snacks. So far I am fine. And with the international crews coming in, I am sure we will get more food and help very soon.

The city is... well. I don't really know how to describe it. It's sort of like everyone you know - EVERYONE - getting into a serious car accident on the same day, at the same time. Some come out without a scratch, and others - don't. Many of my colleagues lost everything. Some lost children, others a husband or wife. Logan lost his entire apartment and everything inside it. Me - in the face of all that - I am doing pretty darn well! And very thankful that Eduardo was not here when this happened. I don't know what I would do if I couldn't find him.

I thank you all again for your love and messages, I read them all, every one, and they give me a happy sort of feeling in this sad dark place. So keep us in your prayers. Donate money or - something - to a valid humanitarian organization. And keep in touch with me, I love hearing from you. I send all my love."