I would never say the earthquake was a blessing, because we lost so many people. It was a horrible thing and for those who lost people, they can't get them back. But we also learned our strength. —Berthony Theodor
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Two and a half years ago a devastating earthquake left more than 200,000 dead in Haiti. While the pace of reconstruction has been slow, aid workers say the country is finally turning a corner. This is the story of two people — one American and one Haitian — who lost things in the earthquake, but found themselves in the process.
PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — On the day of the earthquake, Berthony Theodor gets to school early. He parks his car in the shade on a quiet street in Port Au Prince and pulls out a tattered textbook. This is his daily ritual. Every afternoon he comes up here 30 minutes before class starts to study.
He is a meticulous man with narrow shoulders and a small waist, precise in his dress and careful in his speech. Today, like most days, he's wearing a white button up and dark slacks.
He grew up in the Haitian countryside, in a town without running water or electricity. The dusty dirt roads that cut through his village rarely saw anything other than foot traffic.
Life is nothing like that now. Here in Port Au Prince the chaos is so pervasive there's a certain order to it. A cloud of choking exhaust seems to hang over the streets, swollen as they are with cars and flea-bitten dogs and vendors selling fish that give off a rancid, salty odor.
When he first moved to the capital he lived in a hillside slum, where the little drab homes of cinder block are built atop each other, like a delicately assembled house of cards. But now he lives in a middle class section of town with his wife and three small children.
Today, something is off. He feels a premonition that he should move, get out of the car. And so he goes inside the university to study.
He's waiting for his professor when he hears a low rumble and then a thudding boom that shakes the walls. The roof above him his collapsing. Out on the street, windows are shattering and children are screaming. The largest earthquake Haiti has seen in a generation begins toppling buildings, entombing tens of thousands of children beneath the wreckage. A massive plume of dust rises above the city, like the remnants of a bomb that has just flattened a city of seven million.
Berthony tries to stay calm, but he is panicking, his slender frame wedged between two walls that have collapsed around him. "Jesus," he prays, and then he sees a path out of the wreckage and squeezes his way through the building. Under a sky darkened by dust, he remembers to pray first, thanking God for saving him and pleading for the safety of his family, and then begins frantically dialing on his cell phone to reach his wife, but there's no service, and won't be for hours.
He looks over at the spot where he parked his car, the place he studied every afternoon but this one. His car is gone, a clump of steel and glass reduced to sheet metal by a jagged piece of concrete. If he hadn't gone inside the school, he would have died in an instant. Why God saved him, he doesn't know, but he feels there must be some meaning in it, some responsibility that comes with such a miracle.
Three hours after the earthquake, Kathleen Jeanty is in her Boston kitchen when she turns on the news. "There's been an earthquake in Haiti," the anchor is saying. "And it looks really bad." Kathleen laughs — people are always getting Haiti mixed up with other countries; most Americans can't even locate it on a map. Besides, a hurricane hit the island last year, destroying tens of thousands of homes and flooding the streets. The first black republic on earth, the writer Graham Greene once dubbed Haiti "The Nightmare Republic," a voodoo-haunted cleptocracy presided over by one corrupt government after another. The roads are a mess, the health care system virtually non-existent, unemployment so high no it's hard to track. How much bad luck could one place endure?
She calls her aunt who lives in Port Au Prince, but it goes directly to voice mail. She feels the first pangs of dread and turns up the volume. There's Brian Williams on NBC with a map of Haiti behind him. Kathleen covers her mouth and fights back tears as she hears the news. An earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter scale has just flattened sections of Port Au Prince, and tens of thousands are missing or dead. Memories of her childhood come flooding back: mornings spent on the balcony overlooking her yard; the cool, wet breeze when she stood on the beach; the mountains behind Port Au Prince, dark blue and hazy.
Kathleen left when she was 8 with her family, first to a cramped apartment in Boston and then to nearby Babson College, and now here, the mayor's office in the same town where she grew up, working with Haitian immigrants. She knows that in the coming months she'll be busier than ever, helping fellow Haitians track down family members in Port Au Prince, figuring out ways to send money, organizing relief efforts to send blankets, or food or clothes.
But for Kathleen, that won't be enough. She turns off the TV and begins calling Delta, American Airlines and any other airline going to Port Au Prince. She needs to get to Haiti as soon as possible.
Back in Port Au Prince, Berthony Theodor is making his way to the church in the darkness, the headlights of his truck scanning the rocky road before him. A month has passed since the earthquake, and the city lies in ruins. Some of the roads are impassable, covered in huge piles of rock and detritus, and he can't help but wonder how many bodies are buried underneath all the rubble.
The day of the earthquake, he rushed home on foot, passing heaps of crumbled buildings that still seemed to be smoldering, twisted street signs sticking out of the ground and smashed cars with shattered windows. It was hard not to stop and help dig for survivors but he had to get home first. When he arrived and saw his wife and children standing in the doorway he nearly wept with relief.
After the earthquake a network formed. The leaders of each of Port Au Prince's seven LDS congregations, the bishops, began calling all their members, and when no one answered they fanned out across the city to make sure their people were alive. Those who lost everything ended up at the church's three chapels in Port Au Prince, bringing along friends and neighbors who also needed help.
The church is up ahead, a cream-colored building surrounded by a white fence and palm trees, and tonight it's all lit up by emergency flood lights. Those who lost homes have pitched tents in the parking lot. Because of the aftershocks, Berthony has moved his family into the chapel, worried that their house will collapse. Every night he helps his wife put their kids to bed, and then he comes out into the hot and sticky night to work.
As Berthony nears the church, he can see the doctors helping have flown in from Salt Lake City, fellow Mormons sent by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The food in the back of Berthony's truck came from the church's storehouse in Salt Lake City, too. More of it is coming — pallets and pallets of canned fruit and beans, as well as quilts and hygiene kits and bandages.
At first the church flew supplies into the airport at Port Au Prince, but the streets were so clogged with cars and white U.N. Hummers that they began trucking relief supplies in from the Dominican Republic. To prevent looting, they stored the supplies at a warehouse on the outskirts of town owned by a wealthy member, and then every night Berthony and a few others from the church drive a caravan of trucks full of relief boxes to the chapels.
During the day he works closely with Lynn Samsel, the emergency coordinator for LDS Church Welfare based in Salt Lake. Samsel led the church's relief effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in which hundreds of members poured in to Louisiana to distribute food, rebuild houses and remove fallen trees with chain saws. Over the years, Samsel has overseen similar efforts in places like Ethiopia. In most cases, he's amazed by what's already been accomplished by members. They open up boxes of food storage to share with their neighbors and their doors to people who need shelter. "It's our job to relieve suffering wherever we find it," he says, "and to help people whether they are members of our church or not."
Samsel's been coming to Haiti every couple weeks, rotating in and out a team of LDS doctors and mental health officials. But lately he and Berthony have been talking about moving beyond triage. Hundreds of members have lost homes. Dozens have lost jobs. Schools were destroyed. There is no way to fix all of that, but they can do something.
It takes Kathleen three months to get to Haiti. At first she's overwhelmed by her work in the Boston mayor's office. There are hundreds of Haitian refugees in the city who need her help connecting with family back in Port Au Prince, and dozens more evacuated to live with their families in Boston.
Usually by 9 a.m. there's already a long line of refugees outside her office waiting for help. Some have been staying with relatives, but now need a new place to live. One mother tells Kathleen, "I was airlifted with my five children and now I don't have money to feed them. What can I do?"
Kathleen does her best — reaching out to private charities, networks of friends, government agencies — but sometimes, all she can do is listen.
Through tears one man tells her that a school collapsed, killing his son. They never found him and so they held an impromptu funeral right there on the rubble. "When you hear something like that," Kathleen recalls, "you just listen. I said to myself, 'I'm here helping these people, at least there are resources here. I can only imagine how much harder it is in Haiti.'"
Every night when she gets home, she scans the Internet, hoping to find a job with a humanitarian organization in Haiti.
In April, she arranges a quick trip to Haiti to visit her uncle, who works in the ministry of public health, to see if there's anything she can do.
It isn't the homecoming she imagined. In the year after the earthquake, millions of dollars in aid poured into the coffers of relief organizations — $500 million to the Red Cross alone. All told, an estimated one in every two American households donated more than $1.4 billion to help Haiti, but none of that is apparent yet. To Kathleen, it looks like the earthquake just happened. Tent cities have sprung up everywhere — on roadside medians, in soccer fields, in vacant lots. The roof of the National Palace remains in shambles, and across the street, at the Champs de Mars Park, 10,000 people have pitched tents in what has become a dangerous shantytown.
All over the city, human waste clogs open sewer lines, pigs root beside small muddy rivers and piles of rotting banana peels fester in the gutters. Most troubling, massive piles of rubble remain on every corner. An estimated 8 million cubic meters bury the city, enough to build a bridge from Haiti to Los Angeles and back. Kathleen's childhood home has been destroyed. She worries the country will never be the same.
Back in the U.S., a college friend reaches out to help. He works for a medical supply company that has a warehouse full of antibiotics, bandages and other supplies they'd like to get in to Haiti. Problem is, no planes are allowed in to Port Au Prince for the time being, and they have too many supplies to truck them from the Dominican Republic. The only way in is by boat.
This is the sort of opportunity Kathleen has been waiting for. She finds out that Royal Caribbean is still docking in Port Au Prince, and so she calls the vice president of public affairs.
"We have a warehouse full of medical supplies, and we'd like to get them in to Haiti, how can we make that happen?" she asks. Royal Caribbean agrees to haul the supplies to the dock, and Kathleen's uncle at the ministry of public health arranges for a caravan of trucks to unload the boxes and then haul them to the city's still-operating clinics.
It feels great, but for Kathleen it's not enough. She needs to be in Haiti. Finally, she stumbles on to something — a Denver-based company called Build Change is rebuilding homes in Port Au Prince to make them seismically safe and they're looking for a community outreach coordinator — a person who speaks Creole who can go in to neighborhoods and explain the program.
Kathleen immediately applies, and when she doesn't hear back she sends an email every couple days. "Hey, did you get my application?" she asks. Eventually she lands an interview, and the job, and she's on a plane to Port Au Prince.
When Kathleen arrives, frustration is mounting at the slow pace of recovery. There are stories of sanitation trucks stuck in customs; of shipping containers delayed at the harbor.
Instead of focusing on these frustrations, Kathleen turns her attention to what she can control. Build Change is part of a broader effort called Building Back Better. The idea isn't simply to rebuild homes and roads, but to restructure the underpinnings of the Haitian society itself, leveraging the $11 billion pledged by donor countries and financial institutions into roads, functioning hospitals, and a dependable power grid — in other words, the sort of infrastructure that would attract foreign corporations that would build factories and create jobs. Building Back Better means helping Haiti stand on its own.
The goals of Build Change are much less audacious but they are based on the same philosophy of self-reliance. The idea, in a nutshell, is to go into the neighborhoods most badly affected by the earthquake and partner with local homeowners to rebuild their homes to withstand future earthquakes. "Earthquakes don't kill people," Kathleen tells them, "badly built homes do."
They target three neighborhoods — Canape Vert, Carrefour, and Delmas 32 — blanketing them with posters, fliers and radio spots advertising the program.
As the months pass, the people begin to leave their tents in the LDS Church parking lots and go to temporary shelters the church is building for them. By November of 2011, the rubble slowly begins to disappear from the streets of Port Au Prince. A new government is installed (20 percent of civil servants were killed in the earthquake) and the aid bottled up in customs begins to flow through the city.
In a neighborhood called Villa Rosa, Catholic Relief Services begins an innovative program to recycle rubble in to cinder blocks. By May of 2012, the blocks have been used to build 1,500 homes. In other parts of the city, Sean Penn's JP/HRO charity helps nearly 40,000 people living in camps transition back to their neighborhoods. And in the foothills of the city, an American woman named Shelley Clay begins a business that turns trash in to jewelry, giving 220 artisans from the surrounding neighborhood jobs which enable them to build new homes and pay tuition to send their children to good schools.
Throughout Port Au Prince, there are dozens of similar programs in nearly every neighborhood, sponsored by private charities, churches and government organizations. To the aid workers who have been here from the beginning, it feels like things are finally starting to get better.
As the director of LDS Humanitarian Services in Haiti, Berthony's focus turns to finding jobs for those who lost them in the earthquake, and making sure the kids are in school. He works with LDS bishops to identify those who lost work because of the earthquake and makes sure they're going to the church's employment center, which offers classes on résumé building and interview techniques and tracks job openings throughout the city. They also offer small loans to entrepreneurs and send others back to school through a program called the Perpetual Education Fund.
He often thinks back to how he was saved. "I wasn't better than anyone else," he says. "But since I'm here, I have to do what I can to help others." He can't fix everything, but collectively small things make a difference, he believes.
It's spring in Haiti, more than two years after the earthquake. Kathleen is trudging up the muddy slope of a neighborhood in Villa Rosa, where Build Change is retrofitting a half a dozen homes.
Near the top of the hill, on a small plot of dirt, a man named Pierre is using a wood-handled trowel to spread cement between two cinder blocks of his house. A local engineer trained by Build Change watches from a few yards away. Sticks of rust-colored rebar support the blocks, a feature Pierre hadn't seen in any of the houses in his neighborhood before the earthquake. He's been guiding this entire process — buying the blocks from local merchants, choosing the layout of his house, picking the contractors who help him with the work.
"A lot of times when people come in after an earthquake they build houses that don't really fit the neighborhood, or with materials that aren't available locally, so it's not really sustainable," Kathleen says. "We're trying to change the way people build here permanently, kick-start the economy, and empower (locals) with that knowledge so that when we leave they pass this knowledge on to others."
As Kathleen drives back to her office, it's clear that the work of rebuilding will last for years. Tent cities still occupy nearly every corner of open space in Port Au Prince.
But something about her time here has filled her not with frustration, but with a sense of purpose.
"I've changed," she says. "The things that used to matter to me, that I used to worry about, don't really matter as much anymore."
She has never met Berthony Theodor, but they have likely passed each other dozens of times on the busy streets of Port Au Prince. There are dozens of people like them in this city — aid workers from the Netherlands, doctors from Spain, missionaries from Louisiana. Kathleen says she never wants to leave, even though her friends back in Boston keep asking when she'll return. And in this way, Berthony and Kathleen are the same. To both, Haiti will always be home, and despite its troubles, there's no where else they'd rather be.
After the earthquake Berthony's extended family in the United States asked him to come and live with them in Arizona. Berthony thought about it, but something about the move felt wrong. To leave now? Too many people were counting on him.
Today he's driving out to Canaan, a settlement that sprung up on a mountain slope after the earthquake. It sits 9 miles out of Port Au Prince in the open countryside. It reminds Berthony of the place where he grew up. The air smells of goats and wet grass poking out from beneath the white rocks on the mountain.
It is here that the LDS Church is building 200 homes. Every few weeks Berthony drives out here to check on the project. This afternoon, one of the bishops is supervising the framing of a simple A frame house, and as Berthony approaches the work site the sound of hammers nailing down a metal roof echoes across the valley.
"I would never say the earthquake was a blessing, because we lost so many people," Berthony says. "It was a horrible thing and for those who lost people, they can't get them back. But we also learned our strength."
He looks toward the house his fellow members are building. He thinks of a family now living in a tent who will move here when the work is done. It's a small project compared to the challenges Haiti still faces, but it is something, and it is a beginning. He talks about the other projects he's running for the LDS Church, which includes the initiative to get scholarships for kids not attending school, an employment program for members out of work, and an immunization outreach effort with the Haitian government that will potentially save the lives of millions of children under the age of 10. "The people of Haiti, they will bring this country back," he says. "For me personally, this experience changed me. I spend my days thinking of others, more than I ever did before, and so I'm grateful for that."
"We still have a lot of work to do," he says, looking back towards Port Au Prince. "But we'll get it done."Comment on this story
He still has his personal goals and dreams, despite the earthquake. He has meetings at his church, the duties of his job, and the responsibility he takes most seriously — the raising of his three kids. And he still has his rituals. Every day he gets to school early, parks his car in the shade, and pulls out his tattered textbook to study in the quiet of late afternoon.
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