Haiti quake: diary of an aid worker

Port-au-Prince Cathedral. Credit Jos de Voogd/Cordaid

By Michelle Hough, Communications

We were talking about bladders over dinner and I just wanted to laugh. Every time someone mentioned the word “bladder” I started to giggle. We weren’t talking about internal organs, of course, but the massive water storage balloons that Caritas is installing in communities so people have access to water.

I don’t usually laugh at the word “bladder”. Nor the word “WATSAN” (Water and Sanitation), which was also making me giggle. Up until a week before, a bladder for me was an organ and “WATSAN” was Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick.

It was then, on Tuesday night, that I realised that I was over-tired. That the fifty hour-plus journey from Rome, the jump straight into 18 hour working days, the major communication problems, the heat and noise, the constant reminder of the dead and the people who were desperate for us to help them had been a bit too much. Little did I know what Wednesday would have in store for me.


My alarm goes off at 2.30am but I’m already awake. I’ve had two hours’ sleep. The night before I volunteered to go to the airport at 3am to help unload 35 tonnes of German Caritas aid arriving. We would then take it straight to Léogâne, the town outside Port-au-Prince that had been massively damaged by the earthquake.

The pilots who bring the aid from Belgium have volunteered their services for free, as have the people unloading. It makes me feel a bit better about my early start. As we watch the plane unload the ground begins to shake. It’s only for a few seconds but it’s very strong. We later find out that the epicenter of the 5.9 magnitude tremor was near Petit Goave the town we visited for an assessment on Saturday. It’s the strongest aftershock I’ve felt so far.

With the UN peacekeepers

We travel to Léogâne on the back of one of the UN peacekeepers’ trucks carrying our boxes and tents. As we drive through Port-au-Prince some people raise their hand to flag us down and they shout to us. They want to know why we aren’t giving the aid to them.

I see the decimated cathedral for the first time. So many houses and businesses have collapsed. There are people still in there. It seems insane that the piles of rubble are still there. Those who survived try to get on with their lives.

Just over a week ago I would never had imagined that I’d be staying in a city with tens of thousands of dead people lying under rubble. I wish they could be buried. In part so they can have some dignity, but also because their loved ones need it. While they’re still in their temporary graves I’m sure many of their families convince themselves that they can still be found alive.

The state of the roads and the traffic mean that the 30km to Léogânetakes two and a half hours. It’s hot on the back of the truck and I have to cover up so I don’t burn.

On arrival we all pile off the truck. There are people waiting for us and slowly, more and more come. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. I feel a bit anxious about the amount of people surging towards us. At one point I find myself separated from my colleagues and surrounded by a group of people asking for food. It’s quite scary but I eventually manage to get into the distribution area.

Things get a bit easier in the walled car park that the UN peacekeepers have sealed off, but there’s still tension in the air that feels as though it could easily tip over into a riot. There are a couple of fights and people peer over walls and try to get into the distribution. They seem desperate for the tents, plastic sheeting, water purifying tablets, blankets and water containers we bring.

The Argentine peacekeepers do a fabulous job of keeping order firmly but with courtesy. They bring a steady flow of people in through one entrance and out through another. They have to throw some people out. And some incident outside makes them stop the distribution at one point.

Another two and a half hour journey back to Port-au-Prince. As night falls, many people light fires. Even though it’s well over 30 degrees each day for them it’s winter. They find the nights particularly cold so it must be extra hard sleeping outside.

The peacekeepers take us to a depot for a cup of tea (fantastic! I’ve only had a few biscuits today but this makes up for it… maybe I’m too English) and then to the UN base. They feed us with chilli and chat with us. The commanding officer of the mission to Léogâne can barely speak after all the shouting he had to do.

We don’t get back to Caritas Haiti until after 11pm because Caritas has no available transport for us. I’ve been up for 21 hours, I’ve experienced an earthquake, I’ve seen dead people on the streets, I’ve not been to the loo for 13 hours and I’ve nearly been caught up in a security situation at the distribution. As I try to tell my colleagues about my day, the only thing I really want to tell them about are the two escaped goats that I saw running past the gates at the UN compound in the middle of the night.

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Haiti, Haiti, Latin America

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