Yesterday, I was finally able to speak with my sister and father in Haiti for the first time since the quake.
Their perspective is probably one that you are not accustomed to with regard to Haiti. They don’t live in poverty but they’re not part of the “Haitian elite” either. I would consider them well-off, even by American standards, but they are still exposed to the same hardships as ALL Haitians are — hardships that are the result of existing under a completely dysfunctional government and lack of support from external nations.
I spoke a bit with my dad, but his English isn’t very good so I mostly found out about their present situation from my sister, who is 19, in med school and speaks near-perfect english. Here’s a report from their perspectives and mine:
My sister said the aftershocks are still occurring at a regular rate, which you can also see on the USGS website. For those living in poverty with houses made from weak materials, each tremor brings new waves of destruction. It’s easy to read earthquake precaution guides and conclude that it’s best to not remain inside an unstable structure. But what you must consider is that Haiti is consistently, excruciatingly hot.
The average temperature in January is only about four degrees (F) lower than the average temperature in June, and it rains MUCH less. When I was there this past June, I got violently sick from sun exposure, and days later experienced the most painful dehydration — and I HAD access to resources. I just neglected to realize what the problem was and didn’t drink enough water. To not be able to take shelter from the sun for fear of being crushed to death, or be able to go anywhere else to find it will be a lethal combination for those on the brink. Haitians are now at a much greater risk of dehydration in addition to having far less access to water, let alone water that is clean or chemically treated.
With regards to my family, my dad is an architectural engineer and they are not afraid of the house collapsing. But they have been camping out on the ground floor in order to quickly exit when they feel tremors, just in case.
As far as food goes, with something like 80% of Haitians living below the poverty level, tons of Haitians were starving before the quake. In addition to any deaths caused by the quakes themselves, I suspect we will now see a long tail of deaths from starvation and dehydration brought on by these new conditions that will make it even harder to get food to those most in need. Relief in the form of food is desperately needed, and not just for the next week while the whole world is watching, either. Haiti will need a consistent influx of food donated by external sources for months to come just to maintain their previous equilibrium.
Lots of food is generated and circulated by the lower class, who sell products along roads and in the central marketplace of Port-au-Prince. There are grocery stores in Haiti too, which is where my family typically shops. But according to my sister, since the quake the grocery stores are closed. With no electricity there is no refrigeration. Furthermore, nobody knows when the importation of food products from abroad, and the manufacturing and harvesting of food products domestically will resume, so it makes sense for the stores to want to preserve their stock. It’s not just grocery stores either. According to my sister, it’s almost ALL businesses.
“It’s like the whole country is closed.”
It’s not a purely resource-based decision though. In times of crisis, self-preservation comes into play. It is the biological imperative in every living creature to continue to live, despite the odds. In Haiti, those in desperation will do whatever it takes to survive, and it spurs violence as people attempt to take what they need from those who have it. This was already the situation before the earthquake, Now, it’s going to be exacerbated one-thousand-fold.
Because things are so dangerous, people who have resources are not venturing into the chaos on the streets, rendering most businesses inoperable.
Communication and electricity:
My sister said that there is only one phone service working in the country, Voila, which they fortunately has. From what I remember, customers use Voila phone services on a pay-as-you-go basis for sending text messages and calling overseas. Credit for these tasks comes in the form of cards that are purchased with currency on the street via company vendors. Presumably, if the vendors cannot be located or run out of cards, customers will be unable to communicate over seas.
Another factor is the battery life of phones. The electricity grid is completely knocked out in Haiti. Since this is such a common occurrence there, many homes, businesses and other facilities are built equipped with gas generators that power inverters that provide electricity directly to appliances through whatever circuitry is set up. However, the gas that powers the generators, and essentially everything under these circumstances, is EXTREMELY scarce now. According to my sister, gas vendors have hiked the prices WAY up to rates that only the wealthiest could possibly afford. Earlier today, I saw a tweet that diesel fuel was selling for $25/gallon on the black market. Other gas vendors are simply not selling right now, likely in anticipation for even greater demand to come.
Also, no gas and no electricity means no way to charge laptops and no way to power routers >> No Internet Communication. Richard Morse, who runs le Hotel Olofson, where several American reporters are now staying, complained earlier via Twitter that he needs stronger generators and faster Internet. It is a tough problem. To power the routers to provide computing power that is maybe half of what Americans are accustomed to working with means dishing out a lot of money on gas — money that is becoming less and less meaningful as goods become scarce.
At my family’s home, they have run out of gas. I asked my sister how she would charge her phone when her battery died and she said they still have some power in the inverters. They don’t use them at all during the day and only run them long enough to charge their phones and other appliances at night. When the inverters run out of juice though, they will be without a way to communicate with the outside world, and with me, unless they can find gasoline.
When I spoke with my family today, they said that they were able to find a source of food today and bought enough to last them for a while. My sister seemed calm and was telling me to relax, which is only an indicator of her strength and the trying situations she is accustomed to dealing with. “Don’t worry sis, we don’t have to panic yet.”