‘HAITIANS HELPING HAITIANS’ - A Boston emigré reports from the scene

Haiti: Residents pitched in by carrying water in Port-au-Prince last Sunday as relief groups and officials focused on moving the aid flowing into Haiti to survivors of the powerful earthquake that hit the country on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull).Haiti: Residents pitched in by carrying water in Port-au-Prince last Sunday as relief groups and officials focused on moving the aid flowing into Haiti to survivors of the powerful earthquake that hit the country on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull).

Richardson Innocent, 36, was on the ground in Haiti, in Delmas, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, when the earthquake first struck. Speaking numerous times in the last week over a cell phone to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry, his close friend and former colleague at the newspaper in Dorchester, he described the devastation and his and others’ activities in trying to cope and help out.

It is now Friday night, three days after the first quake hit, and for the third consecutive night, Rich will be resting rest his head underneath a tree in Delmas, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. There’s a machete and a chisel close by his side and clustered around him are his cousin, Norton, and a frightened family he has known for only a few weeks.

All over the neighborhood, a rumor has spread that another aftershock is coming at midnight. No one will sleep indoors for fear of being entombed in rubble like so many others all around them if another one hits.

Rich isn’t sure what to think any more. A longtime Dorchester and Roxbury resident who moved back to his native Haiti last month, he’s not the superstitious type. But, after the events of the last 60 hours, he’s not taking any chances. He and a group of nine others will sleep under the tree this night, far enough away from a nearby house, one of the few still standing in Delmas.

The next morning, he and his cousin will rise early and hit the streets of this community on the outskirts of Haiti’s destroyed capital city where they will spend their daylight hours searching for survivors and for supplies to help feed their friends and neighbors.
All able-bodied persons in the neighborhood are doing their parts. Without any discernible help from the outside world — there are no rescue teams, no soldiers, no heavy equipment in Delmas yet— Haitians are helping Haitians.

“It’s amazing. Every house you see, there are just regular people going at it with a chisel or a hammer. They are knocking down walls. They are taking their lives into their own hands,” he says.
Rich arrived here a month ago to help his cousin realize a long-time dream: They were going to build a rice mill in rural Haiti to help the farmers of the nation improve their lot. He had long talked of returning to Haiti to build a better future for his homeland. Now, he is doing that in ways he never imagined possible.

“For me right now, I feel like God sent me here for a purpose. Nothing’s happened to me, not a scrape. I’m doing all these things. I thought when I’d see blood I’d pass out. I’m not. I’m carrying dead bodies. I’m pulling people out with my own hands. I feel like I’m in a war basically. Every third building is on the ground, crushed.”
Rich is talking very quickly, pushing out a torrent of information, afraid perhaps that our cell phone connection will end abruptly.
“Every morning, all the young guys in the neighborhood get up and hit the streets right away, we go through the rubble and we try to get people out.

We can still hear the people inside some of them screaming for help, for water. The bodies are decaying and there’s no real aid from anyone yet. We’re doing everything by hand ourselves. I’ve pulled people out, I’ve carried dead bodies. I’ve done things I never thought I’d have to do.”

The day before, he and a group of men had pulled a woman out of a collapsed five-story building just down the street. It took them two days of digging to get to her.

“For me I felt so good when I saw her come out. We could hear her crying for two days. We just kept digging with hammers, chisels. There are people here doing this with no regard for their own lives. Me with my own hands, we all pulled her out of there. It was quite scary. I was in tears.”

The men carried the woman to a hospital in Delmas, only to find that there was no one available there to treat her. Someone gave her some Ibuprofen, then the men left her there to go search for more victims in the same building. There were likely ten or more people trapped beneath the rubble. Rich is certain that most, if not all, are dead.
“There are students all over this town, Delmas, and Petionville who are still screaming. They’re in schools – universities— you can literally hear them screaming for help and for water. If you walk on streets, you’ll see dead bodies everywhere. I’ve seen probably 12 corpses along the roads. They’re starting to come by with trucks to take them away.”

During the daytime hours, people in Delmas are congregating in parks to look for food, water, and a sense of direction. There has been no sign whatsoever of any government officials or foreign aid.
“The park is a big melee,” says Rich. “People just start running when they say ‘water’ or ‘tsunami.’ It’s just chaos. People are getting trampled, there are accidents, people leaving here and getting in car accidents.”

Rich and his cousin said they probably would try to leave, too, but there is no gasoline for their vehicle. A bridge down the road is so damaged that everyone fears it will collapse and homemade signs warn of the likely danger.
The two men were visiting friends in Delmas when the quake hit on Tuesday afternoon. “I was walking out of house and the building started shaking,” says Rich, “and one of the girls and couple of friends started running. I looked at sky and the building— it’s a one-floor house. I grabbed her and when we walked inside, the kids came running. I had them all pinned to ground. Then we ran outside and the shaking came back again.”

Once the first major quake jolt ended, Rich began to run through the neighborhood with other men, frantically trying to rescue neighbors on the street who were pinned under concrete blocks.
“I dug out a lady who had three kids underneath her. She was alive, but the kids were dead. This was right next door. Across the street right now there’s a baby underneath the rubble and the parents are going crazy.”

Rich is anxious to know more about when help will arrive from abroad.
They’ve heard rumors that the U.S. Marines are on their way and everyone is hoping this word is true.

“I’m shocked that there’s not worse going on here,” he says. “I have not seen one official come and speak to anyone in Delmas. On the radio they have people calling in, saying, you know, ‘Mom I’m okay,’ that sort of thing. There are no officials saying anything. We’re working and policing ourselves. We are the police.”

The only good news in Rich’s onslaught talk of misery is that his household has enough food and water for the moment. His cousin had stocked up on rice, beans, and spaghetti. At every opportunity, they buy bread and water from street vendors, who are now selling their goods at exorbitant prices.

Still, he and his companions are increasingly worried that their stockpiles will run low if help doesn’t reach Delmas soon. Our conversation provides some of the first actual news they have heard about the world’s mammoth relief efforts. I tell them that help is on the way, although I can’t be sure how long it will take. The whole world is watching this unfold, I tell him.

He doesn’t sound convinced. “Tell them, please, they need to get here. People are dying who could have survived.”

•••
Jan. 17, 2010
In our next conversation, Richardson Innocent tells us he has left the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince and is now in Cabaret, a town north of Haiti’s capitol where the situation is considerably less dire. The Reporter spoke to Innocent on Sunday afternoon just before 3 p.m.
Richardson and several companions made the decision to escape from Delmas on Saturday because they said the security situation there was deteriorating quickly.

“Looting had started on Friday night,” Innocent told us via cell phone from Cabaret. “We heard gunshots all night.”

“We are not from [Delmas] so we agreed that the best thing to do is get out of Port-au-Prince and go to Cabaret, where my family is from. We are safe here, everyone knows me here and the damage is not as severe.”
There was some positive news from Delmas, where Richardson had been stuck since the quake hit on Tuesday afternoon. They saw the first signs of international response in the form of United States Marines, who were securing a nearby hospital. There was evidence of United Nations presence too.

However, the grim and dangerous task of trying to rescue trapped neighbors was still the exclusive job of Haitian neighbors.
“Everyone was still trying to get at people under the rubble with their hands,” Richardson says. “We saw a Blackhawk helicopter and some ambulances moving around, but we think the rescue crews are still in the downtown areas.”

Innocent and his cousin left Delmas in a private vehicle with several other people on Saturday afternoon. They had just enough gasoline in the car’s tank to get to a main road out of Port-au-Prince where they had to pay extortionate prices — $15 per gallon— to fill up for the next leg of the journey.

“The traffic has actually lessened because there’s no gas. Cars are on side of road. People are hording the gas and selling it for huge amounts. The only movement is trucks and buses, we think they are taking people to St. Marc (a city north of Port-au-Prince).”

There was a horrible smell along the road north as Richardson’s car passed open areas where mass graves are being filled with bodies from across the region. Innocent and his cousin helped transport companions from Delmas to safer communities to the north before reaching Cabaret, his hometown.

Cabaret was also hit hard by the earthquake, Richardson says, but the number of fatalities is evidently considerably smaller than in Delmas and other sections of the capitol city. Cabaret is about one-and-a-half hours drive from Port-au-Prince he said.

“I have not heard of any people getting crushed here,” he said. “The schools fell, but school was out already when it hit, so there’s not the mass casualties we saw in Delmas, where they have the universities.”

“We can eat and there’s not as much death,” he said.

Most people across the region are sleeping and living outdoors because there is still great fear of further collapses due to aftershocks. All stores and schools in Cabaret are closed, but some street vendors are selling food and water.

•••
Tuesday, Jan. 19

Richardson Innocent returned to Port-au-Prince on Monday.
“My goal was to see if I could translate and help out with the searches,” Rich told the Reporter this morning from his hometown in Cabaret. “I didn’t have anywhere to go really, but I went to Delmas where I had been before and I found a New York Fire Department crew. They already had a translator there though, so I tried to help for about an hour and they were all set. They gave me a number to call to offer my help but it seems not to be a Haitian number.”

Richardson says that the NYFD crew is using spray-paint to mark buildings that have already been searched, much like responders did in New Orleans during the post-Katrina operations.

Rich reports that there seems to be more people attempting to leave by private vehicles and the lines at those gas stations that are open are extremely long.

“The gas is open in certain areas,” Innocent says. “These guys are selling bad gas, though and they’ve doubled the price. They mixed it with water, so by time we got to Port-au-Prince we ran out. A lot of people are taking advantage of the situation.

“The lines are so long and because of that everyone is back on the road and its tied things up,” he said. “You cant get through certain roads because of the rubble and the emergency vehicles are nowhere to be seen.”

•••
Wednesday, Jan. 20

Two hours ago, at roughly 6 a.m., Haiti was jolted for ten seconds by another earthquake measuring 6.1. Richardson, in Cabaret, tells me that he is fine. A wall just collapsed behind the house where he is staying with relatives. No one in the village seems to be hurt.
“We were on the porch. Everyone was up anyway so we all just went out to the street,” he said. “We’re up with the sunrise here at 4, 5 o’clock. No one sleeps inside right now, so when the sun comes up, everyone’s awake and going to work.”

“I’m going to try and see if I can help somehow,” Rich says.
Rich Innocent will be in touch with the Reporter for further updates throughout the coming hours and days. See bostonhaitian.com for the latest.