A living nightmare – A first-person account from Port-au-Prince

It was a hot evening in Haiti’s tropical capital of Port-au-Prince last Tuesday, January 12.

Scenes of “total terror” were the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Most who work were just arriving home.

Others were preparing dinner in the way that those in Haiti do, most of the time over a fire – doing everything by hand – with fresh ingredients just purchased earlier at an outdoor market.

Ferero Dessources was watching television in his living room, his children and wife in another part of his house, which is in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Delmas.

Suddenly, there was an odd and violent shaking and everything that everyone had ever known in Haiti changed forever.

Dessources (who, for disclosure purposes, is this writer’s brother-in-law) said the shaking lasted for what seemed like 10 seconds – though it was actually longer.

No one, initially, knew what was going on. It was as foreign an experience as a snowstorm.

The 7.3 magnitude quake gave birth to a horrible silence, he said, one that soon erupted into chaos.

“We didn’t say anything at first,” he said, speaking by telephone from his home in Delmas, Haiti on Tuesday night. “It was totally quiet at first because we’ve experienced nothing like that before. Later, everyone started crying and screaming. I heard voices saying, ‘Mama, mama!’ It was hard to tell if people were crying from being in pain or because they were scared. It was probably both.”

Dessources’s home stayed its ground, but others in his neighborhood were not as lucky.

“In my neighborhood, a house collapsed and seven family members died,” he said.

In the ensuing chaos and screaming, Dessources said that people took to the streets. They were running, crying and screaming.

No one knew what was going on.

There were people hurt.

But no one knew why.

Dessources works for one of the largest radio stations in Port-au-Prince, Signal FM, and he said that his first reaction was to call into work to see if they knew anything.

“Outside there was just screaming and I saw everyone running around and they were very scared,” he said. “I kept asking everyone, ‘What’s going on. What’s going on.’ I called the station and they were talking to me and in the middle of the conversation, we just got cut. That’s when I knew it was bad because communication had stopped.”

The following night and the days afterward were something that Dessources was not able to put into colorful words, perhaps too horrible to recount.

“It was total terror, total terror,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this. The people thought that there was going to be another bigger earthquake and they still do now. It’s like post-traumatic stress. People are still waiting for another big earthquake. They all think another is coming at any moment. That’s why they’re still sleeping outside and won’t go inside.”

He also said that there is no exaggeration in the accounts broadcast on the network news. Things are as bad as reported. He said that some neighborhoods – such as his own – weathered the quake better than others. Many, though, were reduced to nothing.

That left people wandering the streets, trying to pick up the pieces, still trying to figure out what happened. In many cases, those outside Haiti – he said – knew more about the disaster than those who had lived through it.

Dessources and Signal FM, though, played an important part in helping people in the initial stages. The station was the only one that was able to broadcast out of Port-au-Prince after the quake. Right now, it is still the only Haitian station on the air.

“It wasn’t until the next day that we heard of the Presidential Palace falling and the extent of the disaster,” he said. “There was no communication, but little by little there was information coming in. The palace and other information like that wasn’t important to anyone, though. No one cared. People’s lives were more important. Everyone was thinking about family members. Buildings were of little importance at that moment.”

Mostly, he said, the night of the quake people prayed that it wouldn’t rain.

“Tuesday night was the worst night of all for everyone,” he said. “We were afraid it would rain. No one wanted to go into the houses because if it rained, those still standing might fall down too. Rain would have made it so much worse.”

Dessources said he and the radio staff have worked endlessly for the last week as people have lined up outside the station trying to find out what happened, trying in vain to get help for family members who were hurt, dying or already dead. It was an endless stream of shell-shocked people.

“Everybody was coming to us,” he said. “They were lost, or looking for people. Most were trying to get help. Everyone had someone who was injured or dying. Some were just trying to make sense of it. We had to stay on the air because everyone was coming to us for help. It wasn’t like work though. We were helping, not working. Everyone was helping each other. In the last three days, I’ve been at the station less, but right after the earthquake we would be there 13 or 14 hours a day.”

In America, the station was picked up by many Haitian American radio stations and broadcast for hours on end. For Haitian Americans, Dessources’s station was the only link to information about family in Haiti. Haitian Americans from Miami to New York to Boston stayed glued to Signal FM for any information they could gather about people in their native country.

Dessources said that right now they still need food and water – the basics.

“We need food; we’re running out – and water,” he said. “There is no food without water.”

Most importantly, though, he said the country needed prayer – especially for those that have been left with no family alive and no place to live.

“Pray for Haiti America,” he said. “There are a lot of families here suffering. They’ve lost everything and they’re still very scared. There are families with just one person left. Pray for them especially.”

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