Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On: Earthquakes

We had an earthquake in Port au Prince last week. It was around 10 PM or so and Ella was already sleeping. There was a rumble that lasted maybe 7 or 8 seconds. It was just a 4.6, deep down, and so mild that Ella didn’t even stir.

 Jen turned to me and said, “Was that an earthquake?”

 “No, it was a truck backing up.” I said.

 Xander bolted upright in his bunk, “What do you mean? Was there an earthquake?”

“No,” said Jen, “I thought there was, but Dad says it’s just a truck. He’s been in an earthquake before so he would know better.” I nodded but, in reality, I am the worst person to pose that question to.

To me, every loud noise is an earthquake. It’s always the first thing I think of when I hear a truck hit a bump, or a door slam, or car tires on gravel. I wasn’t in Haiti for the big earthquake, but I was here for a lot of the smaller ones that occurred for a week after. These ranged from short aftershocks to long disorienting quakes to a powerful 6.8 blow that felt like the world had been rear ended. For many of those quakes I was either in a building or hospital. The room would move and plaster would fall and the cracks in the walls would grow and Haitians would scream. They wailed as they relived their fear. I saw Haitian men and women hurt themselves trying to get outside during the tremors.  I shared some of their fear of being inside. As much as I tried to resist the thoughts, I would imagine myself buried. During those days, I saw what concrete and rebar can do to a human body, and I saw what it looked like to be crushed. These sights amplified my fear.

            During that time I sat next a man with a bandaged hand in a hospital in Port au Prince. He spoke decent English and told me about his quake experience. He was in his aunt’s house when everything “moved like the ocean” and the house began to come down. He grabbed his younger cousin and jumped through a window. I think about that scene and wonder if I could react like that, if I could be that fast. I have two children and a wife. We live on the second floor of a concrete building that has already been through one earthquake. Could I get them out before the building came down? Who would I grab first? All sorts of terrors run through my head and have run through my head on hundreds of nights since that disaster. The man had jumped from a second floor window with his cousin and lost all of his fingers and thumb on his right hand.

            And so we’re lying in bed and Jen asks me if that was an earthquake? I have trained myself to understand that it is, of course, not an earthquake. It’s a truck or a door or tires on gravel, only it wasn’t. After the rumbling stopped, I could hear dogs barking and roosters crowing and goats bleating and Haitians screaming. Haiti Libre (an online Haitian newspaper) said that people poured into the streets of Port au Prince for fear of being indoors. It was the same in January 2010, when hundreds of thousands of people slept on sidewalks and streets.

            Here at the orphanage, most of the children slept through the little quake, but there were about 25 who didn’t, and they dragged their mattresses and carried their sheets into the middle of yard. They crowded 2 to 3 to a bed, and prayed. Then they covered their heads against the cold wind and went to sleep.

My family stayed in our room. Xander fell asleep and Jen eventually followed, but I lay awake and remembered things I just as soon forget.