Susan Merten, the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, gave a spellbinding firsthand report of the horrors of the Jan. 16 earthquake in Haiti to a gathering of the Falls Church chapter of Rotary International tonight.
Merten, whose husband Kenneth has remained in Port-Au-Prince since the night of the quake, is now residing in temporary quarters at a hotel in McLean with other members of the U.S. embassy delegation from Haiti. While presented her own eyewitness account of the quake, she praised efforts of the U.S., in particular, and the generosity of the American people from children on up, and the optimism and resilience of the Haitian people in the face of the terrible event and its aftermath.
She said she heard a “horrible groaning from the earth as things started to shake,” she said. The noise became “like a train roaring through your bedroom,” and she described attempting to descend an all-marble staircase in the old U.S. ambassador’s resident and “seeing the stairs rippling like waves on the water.” That building was constructed by U.S. Marines in 1939 and was earthquake resistant, “which saved our lives,” she said of her and her family, while just across the street, she said, the old Hotel Christoph, housing U.N. Peacekeeping forces, collapsed and 400 were killed. Higher up the hill, the Hotel Montana also collapsed, taking the lives of many in the U.S. embassy delegation staying there.
A dust cloud arose over the rubble, she said, the result of shanty towns on the hills above the capital sliding down into the valley. “The night was pitch-black, with no electricity or communications,” and “the city screamed all night long,” she said. The port was destroyed, and the one-runway airport devastated. She described the scene as she was driven to the U.S. embassy after daylight, “crying, screaming, bodies, collapsed buildings with limbs hanging out, including the grocery where I shopped, the school where our two girls attended, the presidential palace and the parliament, and people just walking around in a daze,” she said. Over a million of the nation’s nine million people residing in a country the size of Maryland are now homeless, she said.
After her departure by U.S. military aircraft, she went over two weeks before hearing from her husband, who remained at the embassy which had been turned into sleeping quarters for the U.S. personnel, with most sleeping on the floor, and a makeshift hospital where over 100 operations were performed, including four amputations.
She described how relief efforts were hampered by the lack of access to the survivors, due to the destruction of the port and airport, including of its control tower. “The logistics were terrible,” she said. The U.S. military brought a radio, a folding table and earphones onto the tarmac of the airport, and began bringing in flights that way. The U.S. military also repaired the port sufficiently enough to make it usable, and then bulldozers and heavy machinery began coming in.
“No other country gives of itself like the United States,” she said. “I am so glad to be an American when I see what I have seen,” she said, everything from a benefit concert in Florida that raised $60 million to elementary school students contributing and holding fundraisers, and unemployed Americans concerned about the recession and their own futures asking how they can help.
The Rotary International has been instrumental in providing so-called “Shelter Boxes” at a cost of $1,000 each that provide critical medical, nutritional and sanitary provisions for 10 people for six months. A sample “Shelter Box” will be on display at McLean High School beginning Feb. 16.
Ms. Merten said that the web site for the U.S. Agency for International Development includes a list of humanitarian organizations that are working tirelessly in Haiti, and to which citizens can contribute financial support.
“The problem is not going away. For a country that may as well been hit by an atomic bomb, the recovery and rebuilding effort will be daunting. With a million homeless and the rainy season coming only a few months away, the needs there will be enormous for a long time,” she said.