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Experiences in earthquake-devastated Haiti

BY KIRSTIN RIGGS - GUEST OPINION | MARCH 03, 2010 7:30 AM

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I woke up on Monday in Haiti when my bunk began to shake. Actually, a few minutes before when the dogs started barking. Just when I was about to shout, “Just shoot the dog,” the tremor began. It was a small one, only 4.2. As I untangled myself from the draped mosquito net, I wondered if I had imagined the shake. The fearful shouts of Haitians coming from the valley told me otherwise.

It’s been fewer than two months since “The Day,” Jan. 12 — the day when the earthquake hit Haiti.

Many believed the world was ending. The victims of the quake number in the hundreds of thousands.

Judging by my drive through the city, the quake could have been a week ago, not six.

Our team of 13 medical professionals and non-medical “support staff” such as me flew into Port-au-Prince on Feb. 27. For my first glimpse of the ravaged city, I was sitting on a pile of suitcases in the back of a covered pickup. The blue-and-white striped canvas was peeled back in one corner, and I peered through the grated siding to the street.

We were not an oddity — except, of course, the lobster color of our non-acclimated skin and the monetary value of our belongings strapped awkwardly to our bodies. Other trucks were piled with bored passengers. Some people clung to the outsides of overflowing trucks, barely missing other cars moving past.

Three young men wearing sunglasses sat on rubble at the base of a free-standing door that used to lead to a building, now a square of rock and brick.

A young boy — he couldn’t have been more than 12 — took slow, deliberate steps uphill with a heavy 12-gallon bucket on his head.

The scene grew more dire as we drove toward the tent city of Cité Soleil.

As we approached, the wafting stench could not prepare us for the poverty we were about to see.

Garbage rotting in the Caribbean heat was stacked several feet high along both sides of the cracked road. Hundreds of people walked on top of the refuse beside tin and cloth tents — their homes.

A pool of stagnant water held old banana peels and attracted swarms of flies; nearby, a woman sat selling a mound of plantains to passersby. Smoke swirled up from a pile of burning garbage on the side of the street.

The stretch of Cité Soleil lasted miles, and for countless people, this is home.

Despite the tears rolling steadily down the faces of those around me as we continued on our three-hour drive to Petit-Goâve, I still felt distanced, as though I were seeing the pain through more than a physical window. It seemed unreal, or momentary at best. No one should have to live this way.

One thing caught my attention amid it all: the smiles. Joy somehow shone through the horrifying circumstances.

As we arrived and toured the facilities — mostly tents and open-air cement buildings — I felt out of place. As we unloaded medical supplies, I wondered if, as a journalism student, I would be able to help at all here.

But life, especially in Haiti, is full of surprises. On Sunday, I helped deliver a baby.

Kirstin Riggs is a UI journalism student. Over the next week, she’ll share some of her experiences in Haiti with The Daily Iowan.


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