Within mere seconds, more than 200,000 people were killed, and 1.5 million were displaced from their homes. Buildings were completely destroyed. Phone connections were down. The scene was, in short, total devastation. It was January 12, 2010—five years ago today—when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince and forever changed Haiti.
This earthquake would have been calamitous and overwhelming anywhere, but in Haiti—a poor country with weak building infrastructure—it hit at the heart, in the populous capital city, creating a massive urban disaster.
As Team Leader for USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), I deployed in the first 24 hours and witnessed firsthand the perfect storm of challenging response issues: no communication as all phone connections were down; 1.5 million people were instantly displaced, with no shelter; in seconds, children were orphaned; Haitian Government officials and local disaster responders were affected themselves; transportation was severely hampered by the rubble; there was a myriad of health and nutrition concerns; and death was everywhere.
Rubble literally filled the streets. We found out later that the earthquake had generated enough rubble to fill dump trucks lined up from Maine to Florida twice. On the ground, this meant major obstacles to delivering life-saving assistance. It also required our DART to have a large urban-search-and-rescue (USAR) component with over 500 USAR members at its peak. These teams worked tirelessly, crawling through broken buildings, to find and save people who were trapped inside. One of my proudest memories was being on site early one morning around 3 a.m. to see our USAR teams pull people out of the wreckage. It is something I will never forget.
In addition to so many Haitian lives tragically taken on that day, several American colleagues from the U.S. Embassy also perished—the first time I had ever worked on a disaster response where this was the case.
Yet it’s during times like the Haiti earthquake that I am so vividly inspired by the mandate of the office I work for—USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance—which is to save lives and alleviate human suffering. The DART did that in Haiti five years ago, rapidly providing humanitarian assistance and care to those in need. I was honored to manage a team of dedicated people who worked 20-hour days for weeks on end in grueling conditions.
Looking back, I also will never forget the incredible resilience and strength of the Haitian people. They lost so much, and yet were willing to roll up their sleeves amid all the tragedy to work with us in every way possible to build back their lives. The people of Ravine Pintade—one of the hardest hit areas—joined us and our partners Global Communities and Project Concern International to transform their devastated neighborhood into a model community.
Since 2010, USAID has continued to work together with the people of Haiti and their local and national governments traversing the long road from recovery to development and helping mitigate the damage of future crises. We’ve increased communities’ disaster resilience through preparedness and response planning, support to emergency operations centers and evacuation shelters, and small-scale infrastructure projects like retaining walls and drainage systems. We’ve also helped improve local capacity by training locals to handle disaster response efforts—everything from preparing first responders to designating leadership roles to managing relief supplies.
Haiti is vulnerable to many disasters including earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding; but through these disaster risk reduction efforts, USAID is helping Haiti become more capable of preparing and responding to whatever disaster may strike next.