We were eating dinner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Jan. 12 when the earthquake struck. As Californians we knew the meaning of the distorted room with plates sliding from the table and pictures tumbling from the wall. We grabbed hands and ran outside. The building held, unlike countless others nearby, and we were uninjured.
We spent the night and next day treating people's wounds in our host's courtyard and in adjoining streets. We used what we had at hand - rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, gauze pads, anti-bacterial soap, Vicodin and splints made from pieces of wood and torn undershirts.
We saw Haitian people pull their fellow citizens out of rubble, construct makeshift shelters and cooperate to secure the necessities of life. We did not see Haitian police or U.N. forces - who had already been mobilized for years - direct traffic, provide supplies or perform any other useful social function. Trained medical care was nonexistent, as was municipal electricity.
Hundreds slept in the street, singing throughout the dark nights. The second night was quieter than the first, until crowds ran up the street because they were afraid the ocean was coming. Our host went out and spoke with them, and eventually they went back down the hill. Throughout, we witnessed no violence.
In the middle of the second day, we piled into a vehicle and headed for the American Embassy. On the way, we were caught in a huge traffic jam caused by a mobbed gas station. Civilians, all men, were yelling, directing vehicles to move as little as an inch one way or the other.
Haitian citizens unraveled the knot without a single scratch to a car or truck. We reached our destination and were evacuated late in the night by military transport.
Remember Loma Prieta in 1989? A 6.9 on the Richter scale compared to 7.0 in Haiti. Fifteen to 20 seconds, while Port-au-Prince lasted an endless 35 to 40 seconds. Loma Prieta's epicenter was about 40 miles from downtown San Francisco, and 11 miles deep.
In Port-au-Prince, the epicenter was half as far, and only eight miles down. By the usual measurements, the Haiti quake was the worst of the two.
But what explains this contrast? Sixty-three deaths in Loma Prieta versus at least 100,000 in Haiti, with the number still rising.
Transpose Loma Prieta to a city with no consistent building standards, no effective primary health care, no reliable electricity, no system to deliver potable water to everyone, and no emergency response system. That is Port-au-Prince.
An earthquake cannot be prevented, but this one was so deadly because of a failure of human will. An hour and a half by air from our shores, the descendants of slaves who built so much American wealth live in these wretched conditions because of economic exploitation and neglect by the United States, the French and the Haitian elite. This is the unconscionable truth that so magnified the dire effects of this temblor.
I write this one week after the quake, and those to whom we have spoken in Haiti have not yet received water, food or medical care from the rescuers. As of the middle of last week, CNN's coverage indicated there were still people within a mile of the airport who had not gotten medical care.
Some planes from Doctors Without Borders and other effective humanitarian providers have been turned away and forced to take a time-consuming route through the Dominican Republic. One Haitian friend has told us people came and took her relatives' names but provided no help.
Why is this? "Security" trumps humanitarian assistance when people are pathologized for being hungry, frightened and in pain. Assessing the need takes precedence over meeting it. People die "stupid deaths," as CNN has put it. And so the thoughtless neglect continues.
As for exploitation, who will profit from the rebuilding of Port-au-Prince? Halliburton, as the company has in the past in Haiti?
Port-au-Prince before the quake was the embodiment of defunded government, privatization or nonexistence of essential services, degradation of public space, and a people cheated out of democracy, all in the name of profit.
The first popularly elected president in Haitian history, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, exiled with U.S. complicity, is to this day denied a passport to return to his own country.
This debacle, inconsistent with defining American values, must not be allowed to continue. We owe it to Haiti to rebuild a livable city, using Haitian labor paid a living wage. Otherwise, we compound nature's injury with inexcusable human malice and ineptitude. We can do better than this, and we must.