Archive for February 12, 2010

Day 17. Wonderful Mirebalais

Having set up GPS in Saint Raphael and Hinche, we have finally made it to Mirebalais, the last location where our team needs to make measurements north of PaP. Of course we still have to retreat back north to pick up the instruments we have left behind, but the finish line is in sight. We arrived in Mireabalais last night and are spending a day here allowing the data to accumulate. Mireabalais is a town of 12,000 with another 50,000 in the surrounding rural areas. In many ways it is a microcosm of the Haiti we have grown to know in our 2 weeks in the north. As we approach the town, small stone houses begin to appear along the rocky, dirt roads and people, lots of people are walking in the streets, riding motorcycle taxis, and just hanging out. It is dusty, lots of garbage, and the river we cross is polluted. Life here in this town is tough and I am not overjoyed to be arriving. But then we approach the town square and enter a different universe. There are thousands of people, and they are singing, and they are rejoicing. People are smiling, vendors are selling all kinds of food, and its just one big party. As we pull up to the curve, a little girl, the daughter of a vendor selling sausages, gives us that shy but inquisitive look with just a hint of a smile, which beams oh so much brighter when Sarah offers her a lollipop. This is a community; a close knit group of neighbors that seem oblivious to the hardships that is their daily ritual. We are told that they have been celebrating life every night for 15 straight nights. I continue to be amazed, but the simple fact is that Haitians embrace life and look forward to the future despite what my culture might view as difficult circumstances and dim prospects. The spirit of the Haitian people is amazing and I am humbled.

After breakfast the next day, we get a flat tire repaired (another casualty of the tough roads) and head out to the local high school, unannounced, to see if we can talk to the students about earthquakes. Despite the fact that they are taking exams, the principal is keen for us to talk with them. As a teacher, I am not thrilled with interrupting an exam and suggest that they should each be given a few extra points, to which we hear many “Oui! Oui!” It is again great to talk with the students and hear their concerns and answer their questions. Mirebalais is far enough from PaP that they suffered no damage, but they did feel the earthquake roll by. Many questions focused, as usual, on whether it is safe to be outside in a quake (yes, very), and what to do if inside (get out), and what to do if they can’t get out (get near a strong support structure or under a strong desk).

Teaching about earthquakes to students at Mirebalais' high school.

Later in the day we meet Sammy, a very personable Haitian living in Boston but back here visiting, and his uncle Greg (also very personable), who is a former military officer who spent time training in Georgia, who now owns several local businesses, and who cares deeply for his community and his country. Greg is currently housing more than a dozen of more than 100 PaP college students who are now refugees in this town, as their school and their homes were destroyed in the earthquake. He introduces us to the students and as a group we talk about their experience in PaP, earthquakes, and the future. Their stories are tragic, they have lost many friends, teachers, and family members, and they are concerned with how they will be able to continue their education. Greg and several other people with means are in the planning stages of a new technical college they will try and build here, as a new home to these and other displaced students. I have promised to bring word of their situation to my colleagues and institution to see how may be able to help and Sarah introduced them to the organization Teachers Without Borders (see blog below), as it is likely they will take a great interest. We learn so much from these students about what happened on Jan 12, with one disturbing piece of information that particularly stands out. It turns out that culturally, Haitians have been taught to seek shelter indoors in case of any type of emergency. And many, many of their friends and family members who were outside when the earthquake struck, ran indoors and were then killed when the buildings collapsed. We are stunned. It’s a tragedy within a tragedy.

Talking with college students from PaP that are now refugees in Mireabalias.

Our proactive effort to educate the Haitian population has taken on even more urgency with this new information. And as has happened several times in the past 2 weeks, we are quickly given another great opportunity to educate. We are again invited to go live on the radio the next morning, and this time they are taping the show and planning on distributing it throughout Haiti. With Sammy interpreting for us this time, and the local DJ Tenior (a very bright fellow who had read our 2008 paper and had been warning his listeners about the dangers of an earthquake – WOW!; apparently they all thought he was crazy) asking a series of questions, we spent about 45 minutes talking about earthquakes, what happened on Jan 12, what we know and don’t know about future seismic activity in Haiti, tsunamis dangers in the north and what to do to survive one, and most of all: if you feel shaking and if at all possible, get out of any building and stay out.

Live on the radio in Mirebalais. Tenior (standing) conducted the interview, while Sammy (sitting) translated between English and Creole.

Before leaving town after the radio interview, I stand in the back of our pickup truck to watch thousands from this town gather again, this time in the morning. It is February 12, exactly one month after the earthquake, and it is the first of 3 days of national mourning. The people are praying and they are singing, they are a thriving community. As I turn to leave, a little boy, perhaps 8, says to me “Mister, good morning, how are you?” with a big smile only matched by his fathers. “I am fine, how are you?” “My name is Tony.” “My name is Andy and it is very nice to meet you.” He finishes with “Have a nice day”, which I think perhaps exhausts his English, but not his friendliness.

The town of Mirebalais gathers on February 12, one month after the earthquake, for the first of 3 days of national mourning (click to enlarge).


Day 16. A great teaching opportunity

Today we picked up our instruments in Cap-Haitian, Fort Liberte, and Milot, checked that our GPS in Saint Raphael was recording data, then set up GPS receivers in Hinche and Mirebalais – it was a very long day, but very rewarding. In Milot, the school next to the field hospital was back in session. With the permission of the principal, we took the opportunity to talk with several classes of high school students about the causes of earthquakes, what happened on Jan 12 in PaP, and what the students should do in the case of an earthquake. Macly translated for us. The school teacher drew a map of Haiti on the blackboard and showed them where the active faults are located. We talked about building codes, and the importance of building sound structures, which are greatly lacking in Haiti. One can hope that some of these students will some day be in positions of leadership and will be able to improve the manner in which houses are built here. The students were very attentive and asked us many very good questions: Can we predict when the next earthquake will occur? (No, no one can know when the next earthquake will occur). Why do buildings fall down but not trees? (Trees are flexible and have a good root system). Can the ground open up and swallow us? (No). Did the US military cause the earthquake? (No). The students were particularly interested in what to do when the earthquake occurs (get outside if possible or get under a strong desk or door frame if they can’t get outside), and pursued this to the point of asking happens if the ceiling does fall on them, to which there is no good answer. It is a difficult balance to educate about such real hazards without causing alarm. After we expressed our sympathies for the tragedy of Jan 12, they were incredibly gracious to us for coming to speak to them. As we departed one of the students told us that Jesus knows everything, and if we talked to Jesus he will tell us when the next earthquake will occur, and then we can tell them. Andy stated that Jesus does not talk to him, to which they laughed and said that he should try. To which Andy said he would try for them, which seem to please them very much.

Teaching about earthquakes and our field work.

Attentive and inquisitive students.

Andy and Sarah

Day 15. The Citadel

Haitians are very proud of their history, especially their war of independence from France. With all four of our instruments in the field recording data, today we visited the Citadel and San Souci Palace.  The Citadel is a mountain top (3000 ft high) fortress atop very steep slopes, built from 1805-1820 to repel any forthcoming French invasion after achieving independence. The French never came back, maybe because of the more than 300 cannons, many of which were taken from Napoleon’s ship after he was defeated in Cap-Haitian. Our guides claimed that the bigger cannon could reach Cap-Haitien, but that is 17 miles away… Our guide also told us that it took 200,000 workers to ‘almost’ complete the building, and that 20,000 people perished during construction (that’s about 10 a day!) due to the treacherous working conditions. The Citadel was built by Henri Christophe, a key leader during the Haitian slave rebellion, after Haiti gained independence from France at the beginning of the 19th century. Our guides also told us that work stopped when Christophe died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while lying infirmed in his San Souci palace, which he also built down slope from the Citadel.  At the time of his death, Christophe ruled northern Haiti while Alexandre Pétion ruled in the south. Our Haitian guides said with pride that Christophe took his own life to unite the country under one leader. The San Souci palace was mostly destroyed in 1842 by a large earthquake on the Septentrional fault (northern Haiti). The fortress, however, was not severely damaged.

The citadel and a new hat.

The citadel: View from above. Those are cannons captured from Napoleon.

Central courtyard of the Citadel.

Doors at the Citadel.

Those cannon balls are actually pretty heavy!

The ruins of San Souci Palace - destroyed in an earthquake in 1842.

These historical sites are as grand as any we’ve seen in Europe – with one added advantage: we were the only visitors! While it is nice to basically have a fortress and palace to yourself, being the only game town led to us picking up an entourage of more than a dozen locals who saw us as a business opportunity. Our hosts were sure that we could not make the climb without riding horses. After we politely declined, the horses were led up the mountain anyway, as it was obvious to all that we would tire along the way – about a 45 minute hike to the top. The horses returned unridden. Upon our return we were inundated with locals hawking souvenirs. We bought several, though not nearly enough to satisfy the merchants.

The horses we didn't ride in on.

Upon our return to the town that hosts these historical sites, Macly got into a long conversation with some of the residents. They were interested to know whether we were the people they saw on TV and heard on the radio talking about the earthquake. When this was confirmed, they expressed their sincere appreciation not only for our efforts to help them better understand the earthquake, but also for taking some time out to visit their historical sites, which they are very proud of. These kinds of encounters help us appreciate that even if our scientific investigations do little to change the realities of life in this earthquake prone country, our mere presence and efforts are meaningful to the Haitians.

Andy and Sarah

Teachers Without Borders

Teachers Without Borders advances human welfare through teacher professional development on a global scale.”

Teachers Without Borders has a page devoted to helping Haiti.