On January 12, 2010 one of the deadliest natural disasters in the past 100 years struck just west of the capital of the small island nation of Haiti. Figures of the death toll range from the low-end estimates of 100,000 to the upper-end government figures of 316,000, causing massive damage to families, the economy, and infrastructure immediately, while the lingering effects persist still. The five year anniversary of this disaster is today.

Five years ago I traveled to Haiti with a small group in order to help take supplies to a school on the northern side of the island, serve as a translator, and help assess what teachers needed in order to better do their jobs. After a productive week, we journeyed back to the capital in order to catch our flight, leaving on what was supposed to be the 13th of January. We arrived the day before, the 12th, around 3:30 p.m., about an hour before the earthquake struck.

Ask me anything. I am happy to respond, but please keep in mind that I will tell it from my point of view. Please keep questions directed to me, and let's try to keep the conversation away from controversial political issues, if at all possible.

I will be around for a while able to answer questions, and will try to respond to as much as I possibly can. Thank you!

Proof: https://imgur.com/DOyJo2p

Image of my arrival to Port-au-Prince, eventual evacuation to the Dominican Republic, and departure back to the U.S. Mods, if you require more proof, please PM me.

Edit: I have to take a break for a bit, but will return to answer unanswered questions. Thanks for your thoughtful input and great questions thus far. Be patient and I will be sure to respond to your question.

Edit 2: I am answering some more questions right now, so don't despair. Thanks for your questions, and to those of you that were there or are helping to disseminate information for those that wish to help, thank you. Some of the organizations listed below for those that are interested: http://www.haitiemergencyrelief.org/Haiti_Emergency_Relief_Fund/home.html





Edit 3: I will continue to answer questions, if there are more, later. I'm out of here for the time being! I hope that this is helping to understand some of the complex challenges that still linger from this disaster, and helps to paint a more realistic picture of what it is like first-hand after something like this happens. Haiti isn't alone in facing the challenges of coming back from something so horrific, and we often forget once it leaves the mainstream news outlets. Thanks again for all of your thoughtful feedback and questions!

Comments: 235 • Responses: 58  • Date: 

Senor_Tucan55 karma

Can you give a general description of what you saw? Were there any issues that someone from the outside wouldn't normally think of? (people's immediate thoughts are no food, water, shelter, etc.)

smithjam04135 karma

To be honest, initially I had no idea what had happened. I was sitting on an upper-deck/roof of a building when the ground began to tremble. I did not notice the movement at first, but rather heard the sound.

The structure that I was on began to sway back and forth. It was probably about 6-7 meters in height, and moved back and forth maybe 1 meter. I have no idea how long it actually lasted, but it felt like an eternity. In reality, I would assume that it was no more than 30 seconds due to the fact that I think anything greater than that would have caused the structure to collapse completely (we were in a structure that actually contained reinforced construction (rebar), so floors, walls, tile, etc cracked and were damage, but the building itself did not collapse.

When the event was over, I had no idea what had actually happened. It seems like it would be obvious -- but it wasn't. I looked out over Port-au-Prince and saw several large smoke clouds, that looked similar to stereotypical descriptions of bombs. I had honestly wondered to myself whether or not someone had bombed Port-au-Prince, or there had been some kind of attack. I later found out that it was the primary hospital and schools that had collapsed.

For several hours we had no idea how severe things were. Keep in mind that this event caused incredible damage to the only international airport, sea port, and land transportation to the city itself was not an immediate reality. The guest house in which I was staying had a somewhat reasonable quantity of medical supplies (bandages, pain medication (advil/tylenol), a few suture kits, and some gloves. We also had an open field next to the guest house.

As I said before, we had no clue. Eventually, as darkness began to fall, a man, woman, and their child walked up to the fence of the guest house. They spoke no English or Spanish, but held their swaddled daughter out to us to reveal her crushed hand below the wrist. There was little that we could really do, but tried to clean the wound. At this point, one of the people that I was there with and I ventured out to see how we could help. It was incredible. The number of collapsed buildings all around us that we had no idea, people organizing groups to try to get people out of danger. We tried the best that we could for 90-120 minutes, then realized how severe the situation was, and how much worse it would get.

We both returned to the guest house to speak with everyone about what we had seen. Remember, we had a reasonable supply of bandages, a still working diesel generator, and a bit of food. We ate some food with everyone, and helped to organize supplies that hadn't been broken.

Food, water, shelter, and power/communication were some of the immediate issues, as you might think. At the time, I wasn't sure what had happened yet. We didn't realize the extent of damage. We were very fortunate to have several days supply of water, some dry goods, and an area to sleep outside. Everyone at this point was sleeping outside away from the structure because we were not sure if it would collapse. The water treatment facility was damage beyond operation. People were injured. The sense of urgency didn't really kick in until the next day.

On the initial night of the disaster, people were orderly and calm. Everyone was trying to help. Once a few hours passed, we established a primary care area in the open field next to the structure. The number of injuries were staggering. There were only three of us (myself included) with any kind of first air or medical training, so we set up on a small table in the middle of the field and tried to see people one at a time. It was incredibly hectic, and as word spread that we were trying to help, we saw more patients than I can count through the night (I became exhausted and tried to rest around 7 a.m. (we began to treat people roughly around 7-8 p.m. the night before). I didn't sleep a wink.

UndeadPremed23 karma

I was in neighboring Dominican Republic when it happened (LDS missionary) and actually felt the ground sway a little. This was in San Cristóbal roughly in the bottom middle of the country. Scary and powerful things, earthquakes. Glad you made it out safe!

smithjam0413 karma

I was evacuated to the DR, and was shocked. It was a completely different situation. I was shuttled from a military base to a hotel in Santo Domingo. There was very little news about the quake once I began to explore the city a little bit. People were pretty indifferent at the time, although the severity of it may have not been fully realized yet. I had spoken with some people there and they said that they were also able to feel it, but nothing severe.

Thank you, though. I'm glad that we all made it out safely as well.

goodnewsjimdotcom33 karma

What do you think are things we can do to help Haiti today?

All I can think of is to donate to help organizations.

smithjam0430 karma

This is a great question, thank you. It is hard to look at the best route for helping and donating. Getting involved with organizations is a great way to do so. After the initial response from the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, things have been out of the spotlight.

One of the major issues has been inadequate medical care and problems pertaining to the ongoing cholera outbreak. The J/P HRO is an organization that has been working with some of the temporary cities to provide jobs, care, and permanent shelter to those in need. Keeping up on some of the news from help organizations is actually a great way to help. They are working the most closely to the current issues, and can help to direct some of your questions.

ilovegoooold21 karma

I'm currently in Port-au-Prince (not from Haiti/just working here for a few days) and can say that there is still a long way to go. There are signs of progress and reconstruction, but lack of money, resources, and a stable infrastructure have made it slow going in the 5 years since the earthquake. From those I've spoken with, the larger organizations are not the ones making these things happen. My best guess is the bureaucracy within these organizations is at fault. It was recommended to me that the best way to make a difference is to provide funds directly to organizations that are actively working, such as the hospitals themselves. However, this can be much more difficult than simply pressing a button on your computer at home. Just my two cents on a topic that is much more complicated than I ever imagined before coming here myself.

smithjam049 karma

Yes, that's true. Getting the money where you actually intend is a daunting task. One great way is that if you know aid workers/personnel that are travelling is to ask them to deliver money directly. Smaller organizations are also a great place to look since they are likely in more direct contact and don't have the top level infrastructure that may become restrictive in the grand scheme of things.

There are a good number of comments in this thread on different ways to most effectively help, if you are interested in doing so.

doobiousone8 karma

there are several things that one can do. you can support groups in haiti directly through donations or volunteer time by going down and helping to rebuild. i went to port au prince in 2012 with a group of students and teachers from the local high school that has a sister school in haiti. we brought medical supplies to donate to the local hospital and monetary donations that went towards purchasing building materials to expand the sister school. we spent a week building the school, visiting and supporting grassroots organizations, and learning about the history of haiti, specifically the colonial roots and the installation of dictators by the us government and the overthrow of the democratically elected leader aristide. if one wants to help haiti then grassroots organizations need to be supported and awareness of how us foreign policy affects political realities in haiti needs to be spread. if one wants to donate money, please donate to local organizations that are involved on the ground in haiti. do not donate to large ngos since this money is wasted and does not go directly to helping rebuild haiti.

appropriate organizations to donate to:



committee organizations raising awareness:



smithjam043 karma

This is an excellent reply. I would also note that it is sometimes difficult to donate directly to those on the ground, and in fact it is hard to be certain that your money is going to the right people.

If you would plan to volunteer, one way is to raise funds prior to your departure and deliver them directly to those that you are going to help. I know that this sounds dangerous, but it is the most direct way to ensure that your money is going where you intend it to go.

We have helped to construct solar food dehydrators for the community that we were working with, in addition to helping them get the most of the resources that they have. Nutrition is very important, and many church groups (or other well-minded volunteers) do not necessarily think about what effect two suitcases full of candy will have. 200 small donations of what people think might be a treat would be better served being put towards a long-term, worthwhile project.

tngy19 karma

How long did it take / is it taking to rebuild, and what is the biggest change since then? (could be feasible as in the city or your outlook on life)

smithjam0423 karma

This is a question that is hard for me to answer.

I do not live in Haiti; I was there initially to help a small community assess/build its primary education program, to build good will, and to deliver school supplies. I maintain contact with those that we stayed with, and folks that work more intensely with them from the United States.

One of the major problems in Port-au-Prince was the lack of reinforced building construction, that led to an estimated 200,000+ residences and other buildings to collapse. I saw this first-hand, but was lucky enough that the structure that I was in only cracked (floors buckled, walls cracked, interior contents were destroyed, but the building itself did not collapse). We were also lucky enough that there were no structures immediately adjacent to our guest house.

This caused a domino effect. Streets became blocked with concrete, heavy machinery was either not present, or hard to get to Port-au-Prince (the only major port able to accommodate large ships also was severely damaged, so it became hard to get immediate aid to the city). The major infrastructure damage made initial response very complicated.

Removal of debris was and continues to be a challenge. There are still estimates of more than 225,000 people that are displaced and living in temporary shelters.

As I said before, it is hard for me to answer. I have not been back to Haiti since 2010. I am able to follow through newsletters, world news, and personal communication, but would like to continue to try to help how I can. There have been several organizations that have had a major impact in trying to help, but I believe the majority of funding was exhausted by the end of 2013.

Noobivore362 karma

The mere use of rebar in concrete structures does not ensure whatsoever that it is earthquake-proof. It has to do with the loads the structure was designed for.

smithjam043 karma

I understand this, however, I am trying to emphasize a point without having people get lost in the details. Is the same amount of concrete with rebar more secure in this situation? Probably. Even adding the ability to handle slightly more stress would be beneficial. Could better construction materials and engineering help, with structures properly designed and load taken into consideration for seismic activity? Yes. Is it necessary for what I saw first-hand and heard from those living there for people to understand? Absolutely not.

swingerofbirch13 karma

What was your impression of communication issues in Haiti? I wrote a paper this last semester on Haiti's language challenges and how it affects their development, but it was not based on first-hand knowledge, just research papers I found. I found that 95% of the population speaks Haitian Creole, with 5% additionally speaking French (bilingual). It seems that French is a dividing line between the elite and the rest of the population, as it used in government and education. The schools have traditionally attempted to teach children French but have not been successful because the teachers are poorly trained in French themselves and mainly just read from books to the students, and most students drop out after several years. There has been a change more recently toward mixed educational policy in which students are taught in Haitian Creole the first few years of school and then transition to French. But the research I found indicated it would be better for students to learn exclusively in Haitian Creole.

My questions are whether you noticed foreign aid workers having difficulty communicating with the Haitian people? What language do they teach in the school you were helping? Did any of the Haitians you met speak English?

smithjam044 karma

This is a great comment, and you hit the nail on the head. Your research is definitely accurate, and reflects what I actually saw while I was there.

The school that I was assisting is very rural and they have fewer than 10 teachers. It also is located far away from some of their pupils, so attendance is not what it could be due to transportation issues, poor roads, and indifference toward education. But that is why they are trying to build. I actually do not speak Haitian Creole at all, and my French is limited. I am a Spanish/English speaker. One of the residents of the community that I was helping used to work in the DR and is a Spanish/Creole speaker. So, he actually translated difficult things or things that I didn't understand from Creole to Spanish, and I would then translate them into English when needed. He (Garry) also spoke some English, but it was extremely limited. He told me that his response often was just to smile and laugh with English speakers, and most of the time they would just assume he understood. He is a great person, and really trying to help his community (his mother lived there, but he was in PaP the last time that I spoke with him).

Now, in regard to foreign aid workers. You would be surprised how far non-verbal communication goes in a situation like this. Garry was able to assist me in our field hospital with translation for a bit immediately after we began to try to help people. Unfortunately, he had to leave eventually to search for his own family as he had been unable to contact them. This left me in the middle of a field speaking Spanish/English in a country when the most English that I had heard were all derogatory terms in reference to the color of my skin. I was able to communicate pretty well with facial expressions / pointing / open and closed hands. Sure, it was not the fastest or best way to communicate, but it was good enough. Applying universal gestures to help people understand, and then asking them to repeat it back to you to make sure that they understand is a great way to go about things. I know that other workers had similar experiences to my own.

Edit: I realize I started typing away without addressing parts of your question. In schools, students are supposed to be formerly taught French, however it rarely happens in practice. In the school that I was trying to assist, they were trying to teach both. There were not that many classrooms that actually had a roof (two story structure, so everything on the bottom had a roof, but the construction was not finished) and also not every classroom had desks/a chalkboard. So, even though where I was, formal education was in French, it was not uncommon for students to ask questions in creole. And most interpersonal communication was definitely creole.

bringoutthedancing12 karma

Are you originally from there? How long were you there after the earthquake? And did you return since?

smithjam0419 karma

No, I am not originally from there. I met a priest who was visiting two friends of mine near where I worked (a small college in Pennsylvania). One of them asked me if I would be interested in helping during our winter semester break.

I thought: "Tropical island in the middle of January... sign me up!" Whew.

Though it seems like an eternity, we were actually only in Port-au-Prince for a couple days after the earthquake. We were advised to try to get to the airport as things began to get desperate and we were not there on an official aid mission. I was in the Dominican Republic longer than I was in Haiti after the earthquake (we were evacuated to the DR and flights arranged home by the US government, at our expense).

I have not returned since. I would love to continue to help, and try to continue to raise awareness.

EverettDalton7 karma

At what moment did you realize that it was going to be a huge disaster? What were you doing? What did you see? etc.

smithjam0416 karma

I hadn't realized for a few hours, actually. But when I did, I knew that it was going to be terrible.

A mother and father asked me for help with their young child. Her hand had been crushed by something, so I helped how I could. After this, I wondered to what extent the surrounding area had been damaged.

I went with one of my companions into the city and saw incredible devastation. Houses literally looked like stacks of pancakes. I saw, and helped, to climb into tight spaces in order to try to find survivors. I took small sachets of food/crackers and water with me without thinking at all to hand out.

It was then that I realized that it was major and that we had just been lucky enough that nobody in our group was severely hurt and started trying to think about what to do next.

EverettDalton7 karma

Wow.. Just wow.. You are awesome. I hope your selfless acts generate good karma in your life. (not only reddit karma) BTW, thank your for the detailed answer! Keep on being awesome

smithjam043 karma

Thank those that are still there and continue to try to work under such difficult conditions. I was happy to lend my assistance, but I feel that anyone with an immediately in-demand skill set would respond in exactly the same way.

RKRagan4 karma

I was there not long after. I still remember pulling into the bay and seeing the debris everywhere in the water. I helped out mainly in the villages south of Port-au-Prince near some missions. The damage there was far less from what I've seen online. The few small buildings they had collapsed. We handed out MREs and cleaned debris. It was my first time in a foreign country. I had mixed feelings about my work there. There were plenty of people sitting around watching us work and having a good time, they would try to steal MREs from us and I even caught a small child trying to pick-pocket me (didn't know our uniform pants had buttons. But I helped some people and made some children's day with gum and some US coins. Even learned how to count to five thanks to some kids.


What was your overall experience like of how they responded to the tragedy?

smithjam043 karma

Well, to be honest, I was out of there before I saw too much beyond the response of simply trying to grasp it all. I offered medical support for a total of probably 24 hours of active time, working with a few local doctors that eventually came to help in the middle of the night and on the second day. Since I was in the middle of a soccer field, at a table with lights, medical supplies, towels, and gloves, I didn't see much fighting/squabbling/pick pocketing/etc. Everyone was very helpful and respectful toward us.

Most people were bringing injured people to us whether or not we could help them. We saw more injuries than I care to recall, some of which we knew we had no hope of saving. On the first evening, we lost only one person, but countless others I am sure did not make it due to the fact that we were unable to sanitize/sterilize anything, and there would be no way for them to combat infection without immediate assistance.

So, the general response in the days immediately following was very positive. Everyone worked together, and everyone was respectful. I heard that things changed rapidly within seven days. I would say that I had mixed feelings about the work that I did prior to my arrival in PaP, but I was understanding of where people were coming from with their remarks. Though I was treated unfairly in the one larger city that I visited on several instances, most people were very happy to see/work with me.

sandman6014 karma

What was the state of technology after the quake hit? Did your mobile phone work? Did the internet work? How long did it take for these things to come back online?

smithjam048 karma

I didn't have a mobile phone with me, but we had a lot of people coming to us (we were rationing the diesel fuel by running our generator sparingly during the day) asking to use the electrical outlets to charge their phones. During the time that I was there, it was extremely difficult for anyone to get messages out of PaP via mobile phones, but people remained hopeful.

Our internet worked for a brief period of time immediately following the quake. I was able to log in to my email, cancel my attendance to a meeting the following Monday (at that point I asked to be excused if I didn't make it, because I didn't realize what had yet happened) and to let a select few people know that 'something' happened and that I was ok.

IIRC, I think that we also had brief access the following day, at which point we were advised from someone to seek assistance at the airport the following day, because it was going to get extremely difficult to leave after that.

I was generally trying to work in the makeshift field response center/hospital that we had established in the adjacent field (which after we ran out of supplies, it was mainly trying to keep people calm while we looked for further assistance / information).

After I left, I believe that our guest house was used by Anderson Cooper and SKY TV (?) for a few days, so I think that they were in pretty good shape.

One of the major problems when the EQ struck is that lines were destroyed, in addition to a major increase in people trying to communicate all at once.

benandjerryfan4 karma

What were you thinking while it happened?

smithjam044 karma

I was on a roof with five or six other people. I didn't know what was going on, so I just looked at my friends, told them to get down, and then tried myself to hold onto a railing for dear life. So I guess, looking back on it, I was thinking survival!

IfailedAFF13 karma

I just doesn't seem real when you're there does it?

I was in a flash flood that killed twelve people, I saw one of them washed away.

Then, the only thing on my mind was making sure my girlfriend and I didn't die. No panic. Just a weird, detached, adrenalin fueled sense of calm urgency.

The next day we drove away, in the sunshine. I'll never forget the peoples empty eyes as we passed through that town with all the upside down cars.

smithjam045 karma

I suppose it all certainly felt real, but it was more suppressing the panic. Detached is a good way to put it. I was so focused on helping those immediately around me, especially once I began to try to assist medically, that I didn't focus on anything else until I was out of PaP. I just wanted to keep calm. It was only well after I was back in the U.S. did I really begin to reflect and decompress some.

LeVentNoir4 karma

Do you feel that reinforced building codes should be implemented in all seismic areas?

I say this because I compare your earthquake to mine, in that they were of similar strength and proximity to a major population centre, yet the outcomes were so radically different in terms of overall building collapse and deaths.

smithjam047 karma

A tough call. I think in order to enforce this there would have to be fundamental change from the ground up. PaP is not an area of high seismic activity (in fact, I learned during my trip that the last comparable earthquake to the 2010 earthquake happened more than 200 years in the past).

Now is the time to do it, during reconstruction, but I think it is almost an impossibility. I remember hearing about the Christchurch earthquake, as I had a friend in New Zealand studying at the time. She had contacted me quickly after I wrote saying that it was not a huge deal. I was happy to hear that it was not as catastrophic.

Jam714 karma

My city (Christchurch, NZ) was badly hit by an initial 7.1 quake in Sept 2010, then even more damaged by a 6.3 quake right that was part of the aftershock sequence but was almost right under the city in Feb 2011...

Overall, despite the incredible damage here, we had 'only' 185 fatalities most. I was told by a seismologist who had been in Haiti just prior to our quakes that one of the reasons for the large loss of life was that homes there were built to withstand regular hurricanes and therefore were very top heavy and prone to collapse in large EQ's- is that correct?

mra1014853 karma

I cannot comment totally for all homes that collapsed, but one of the issues that seems to be dominant in building, at least in the areas outside of PAP, is that in order to build for cheaper, much more sand and rock is used than cement. Cement is not cheap, and as you begin adding everything in, the total structure is lacking in strength.

I work 40 miles north of PAP, and this is what I have seen, so I might be nearsighted. Nonetheless, weak block with 3/4 inch of weak mortar and no rebar is common.

smithjam041 karma

That is the same experience for much of what I saw. Many others note this in other comments as well. I know that in PaP, things were noticeably cheaper immediately off of the main concourse. I also saw a lot of slapshod additions to homes, probably due to expansion of a family, etc. and much of this construction was poor quality.

Cement is definitely not cheap, and is also harder to come by in Haiti. Especially now.

smithjam042 karma

From what I understand and observed, it sees more that overpopulation, poor materials, and lack of building code are probably more to blame. Buildings were definitely top heavy (largely concrete structures). Some were just built off of pylons, others were just poorly built.

I'm not quite sure how to go about answering your question fully, but the overall build quality in Christchurch is vastly superior to the build quality in PaP and Haiti in general. Keep in mind that Haiti is the poorest country on this side of the world, and one of the most corrupt. It probably didn't help to have structures so close to one another collapsing at once, damaging the better built structures, either.

krissi003 karma

how did you keep you're self safe while waiting for help?

smithjam046 karma

Actually I wasn't there long enough to worry about safety. Once I got swept up in trying to help, I simply did that. The first two nights were relatively calm and people were interested in helping. After this, people realized how desperate it was going to get.

The guest house that we were located in did have a small iron fence in the front, with a gate. There was direct access to the back of the house from the adjacent field, but we were so busy trying to care for people, and people were trying to keep everything contained, that we didn't (or I didn't) really pay attention.

The worst part that I experienced when I was there is that a rumor had spread that a tsunami was going to hit PaP. It forced people to abandon their search efforts in localized areas closer to the water and seek higher ground. It definitely caused a lot of additional havoc when it wasn't needed, especially considering it was spread by those that were looking to loot those areas.

It was only after I left Haiti that I had learned that a major part of the prison had collapsed, and that relief workers were then having to deal with prior crime lords organizing gangs. Though I was glad to help, and did what I was able during the time that I was there, I was also relieved to be gone once I was able to learn the extent of damage.

Radagascar13 karma

Hey there! I was aboard the second US Naval ship to arrive in Haiti after the quake. I remember seeing lots of smoke coming from the mountains, was it true that bodies were being burned?

smithjam043 karma

I did hear that that was at times the case. I was actually in the middle of Port au Prince, and did not venture too far from where I was staying, except when we evacuated. I know even by the second day, I saw bodies being dragged through the streets, sometimes covered with a sheet and sometimes not. There were no sleds/trailers and often bodies were just placed on mattresses and dragged to more central location. It was horrible to see.

Thanks for your service and response.

bomi3ster3 karma

There is a big one due to hit Southern California, who knows when. If it were to hit soon, what things can a SoCal resident do to prepare that might not seem like common knowledge (storing food/water/protection)?

tilouswag3 karma

  1. Start storing gas
  2. Invest in one or more generators
  3. Consider solar energy.
  4. Stockpile craploads of water and non-perishables.
  5. Buy tents and if possible store one in each car you own. Tents are more comfortable depending on what car you drive.
  6. Make a go-bag of food, water, health kit and valuable documents and place it so that you could easily reach for it in the event of am earthquake.
  7. Buy a handcrank radio.
  8. Make sure your house is up to code and make it a stronger structure.
  9. Have means of protecting yourself against looters (People get desperate when resources are scarce).
  10. There are devices that detect changes in seismic waves and can give you a few valuable seconds to save yourself. Purchase one.
  11. Be prepared for aftershocks. Most of the time earthquakes do not come alone. For example, In Haiti we had a 6.0 aftershock after the original 7.3 quake.

I wish you the best of luck and thank you for your interest in preparedness. Don't forget to spread the word!

smithjam044 karma

Excellent! I will stress the importance of generators and fuel to power them with. Also, if your main concern is earthquake, secured storage.

I would also suggest purchasing a log book to note important information such as: when will food expire that you have stored, what quantity of item do you have in storage, a simple layout of where things are, and any other detail that you might determine to be important.

Finally, make sure that if you're preparing for a long-term outage that you have something to entertain yourself/those around you. I would also say be prepared to at least help some of those around you, because they will come and it will likely be difficult to turn them away.

S_Edge3 karma

How long were you there? Was the embassy open? Did they offer you an evac?

smithjam0411 karma

I had arrive on the 6th of January, and was only there two additional days after the earthquake.

The embassy was not open/responding, but we did find personnel when we arrived at the airport. When we arrived, the embassy personnel told us nothing, and just tried to collect those with U.S. passports in one area. We were told to wait around, or go back to where we came from.

At this point I believe that the U.S. military had taken control of the airport operations (there is only one runway at the PaP international airport). The control tower had been damaged, so it took a bit of time before planes were able to land. Landing queues were long, as well, so we did see planes circling the entire day. With each plane that landed, people were hopeful, but the Haitian police made certain to keep people out of the airport.

Eventually, we were also trying to figure out what was going on and made it past the police, to the other side of the airport wall. Once on the other side of the wall, it was a waiting game again. We were eventually loaded onto a US Coast Guard C-30, asked to sign some papers in order to get onto the plane with our passport numbers, and flown to a military base in the Dominican Republic. Once we were there, we had access to phone banks, courtesy toiletry bags (toothpaste/shampoo/etc), and televisions in a large hanger. I did not realize at the time that the papers were a loan agreement with the U.S. government for our evacuation.

S_Edge6 karma

What kind of loan? Like airfair value? More?

smithjam0414 karma

It was approximately $2400 for emergency evacuation. I had not paid it by the time I was to get my tax refund, and the US Dept. of State took the money directly from my refund.

Edit: I should add that my passport / travel privileges were revoked until the loan was paid back.

MrsBeann4 karma

wow! I didn't know they did such a thing. Learning something new every day.

My question: Are you still in touch with anybody in Haiti since you left? Is there a life long bond now, or is it.. "just" another place you visited?

smithjam042 karma

hah. Yes, I am still in contact with two of the people that I worked with closely, both of whom lost family members in the earthquake. Unfortunately, one of them struggles regularly with income/displacement.

All of us that were there have a life-long bond and I am confident that we would go out of our way for one another at the drop of a hat if needed. It may not be all fond memories, but they are unforgettable.

MrsBeann2 karma

did you see each other since the earthquake, or do you write/call/email/skype?

smithjam042 karma

I have seen only one of the two people that I maintain contact since the earthquake. I will return to Haiti to help how I can at some point, but financially that is difficult at the moment. Otherwise our communication is primarily through email, or relayed information/messages since response times can be a little lengthy. :)

keystonedstate3 karma


smithjam0420 karma

Wyclef Jean is a pretty divisive political figure, as is his post-earthquake charity and his political statements. I'd prefer to avoid that topic as I don't think that it adds to the discussion.

pm-me-good-advice2 karma

4 students and 2 teachers from my school died in their hotel when the earthquake hit. I was wondering if this was advertisede at all down their or was it shadowed by all the other rescue attempts going on?

smithjam043 karma

I did not hear specifics of anything, but, when I got back to the U.S. someone did tell me of a group that was in a hotel that collapsed. I presume that this is them, and I am very sorry to hear that.

To answer your question, everything that I was doing was very localized. I did not hear about much other than specific buildings that had been damaged.

radiant_eclipse1 karma

Since you didn't name the school I won't either, but my sister was friends with one of the girls and was the student/advisee of one of the teachers. I don't know if you were a student then but if so, I know how rough it was regarding the changing information for rescue/relief efforts and how affected people were by the news. If you do feel okay with sharing the school, I know that some of the families started a fantastic charity organization in their memory that you could post as well.

smithjam041 karma

You are absolutely welcome to do so. I did not name a school/other individuals because I know they aren't as comfortable with some of the things that we saw. I don't want any questions or personally identifiable information to get out and have them have to respond to something that they may wish to keep private.

JohnnyRoss2 karma

Have you seen any movies depicting an earthquake?

How did your experience compare to this, and would seeing these now be traumatic at all?

smithjam042 karma

I have seen them, and I take things pretty objectively. They don't bother me, and I would say are not great representations. But I certainly thought that they were accurate when I saw them before I experienced it myself.

I think in movies that depict earthquakes, they make it seem much longer than it really is. Like I say somewhere above, I would imagine the initial earthquake (in which we were able to feel the ground moving) lasted fewer than 30 seconds. Sometimes in the movies it seems like it is going to go on forever!

Seeing it wouldn't be traumatic to me.

cltidball2 karma

I know a couple of people who have been personally impacted by the earthquake, and the subsequent (lack of) clean-up from it... I'm sorry you were in the middle of the whole thing, but I appreciate you bringing this AMA around, especially today (given that it's the 5-year anniversary and all).

My questions:

  1. What was it like, being in the middle of it, during and afterwards? Feelings, sights, sounds?

  2. What, if anything, have you done, since you returned to the U.S., to help with the ongoing recovery of the people affected in Haiti?

smithjam042 karma

I think that above some of your questions are addressed, so forgive the brevity of my first response.

During the quake itself, I had no idea what was happening. I just grabbed on, and immediately after the building stopped shaking I tried to make sure everyone was ok. We only had one minor injury (elbow and head abrasions) to an older gentleman, but he was fine. The sounds and images of folks bringing injured children are what stick with me the most and are the hardest to forget. Once I began working with people, and trying to treat injury, I seem to have worked very objectively. It wasn't until after I stopped treating people that I began to shake and take it all in.

In regard to your second question, I worked with organizations trying to raise additional funds. I also spoke at several annual events and open forums. I try to send money directly to those that have been affected, but I know that sometimes it does not end up in their hands. I continue to try to keep awareness of the struggles that are there, and help people to understand that although the initial response was immense, the problems and challenges that people faced and continue to face haven't gone away.

zerostarhotel2 karma

I heard gasoline cost $10 per gallon right after the earthquake, and that men were seen salvaging rebar from rubble by hand, hammering pencil-thin lengths of iron straight, so they could be re-used in construction. Did you see this?

smithjam041 karma

I know that gasoline and diesel fuel were very careful regulated and in-demand. Everything that was salvageable was salvaged and used for temporary shelter, or to help clear debris.

It is very difficult for me to imagine trying to imagine the level of destruction without having been there. There were large blocks of concrete and rubble everywhere. You couldn't walk 15 feet without seeing it.

auqep22 karma

Both my parents are Haitian (from Leogane and PaP-area, actually). They visited their hometowns about a month ago for the first time in at least 8 years. They would go back more often, and would actually love to retire back there, if it weren't for the constant political turmoil and the risks to personal safety.

What have you heard from Haitians about approval/disapproval of President Martelly and his staff? Do you feel like he's generally helped or hindered long-term recovery?

My dad is extremely cynical about anything political and seriously believes that the US is pulling strings in all of Haitian politics, to the point that he believes Haiti is secretly run by the US. Do you hear any other sentiment like that from locals?

Thank you for your work, good luck and stay safe!

smithjam042 karma

Thanks for the question. What is strange is that almost everyone I met had/has the same opinion as your dad. I met several Haitians that had no interest in politics; they didn't care who was president or what they were doing. They said that it made no difference to them because it would change nothing for them.

I actually heard more resentment toward the UN/France when I was there than I did toward the US. But it was a pretty small group that I worked with. The political climate there is insane. It seemed like politics run completely separate from the rest of the country/people.

Without getting too far into it, I would say he had helped more to hinder long-term recovery, but, honestly, it is such an impossible situation I don't even feel comfortable commenting without knowing more in-depth info.

ohboyohboyohboy19852 karma

I was there as a coast guardsman. My question to you is what happened months after the quake in your point of view?

smithjam042 karma

Well, if you were there, you'd have a better first-hand experience what had happened months afterward. I was back in the U.S. trying to help raise money/funds for different organizations.

From those that I kept in contact with in Haiti, 'nothing' happened. By that I think that they really meant it was just such a slow process. Rubble is still being cleared out of Port-au-Prince. Just trying to move the deceased and try to help house the displaced was a massive operation.

Did you see any of this while you were there? What was your role?

Hippieslayer5552 karma

Hey, thanks for doing this AMA.

After the disaster, what was the general day to day living like?

smithjam041 karma

Sure, thanks for dropping in a question.

Well, in the time that I was there, it was just the realization that we would have to ration everything pretty carefully until we could figure out what was going on. We had dry goods and water for ~10 days time. It is sad to say, but eventually you start rationing to the point that you make sure you account for food/water for those in your immediate vicinity. We blew through water so fast in the first night just trying to clean instruments and wounds that we really had to start slowing down.

The day to day living for people was just slow and uncertain. It was hard to find information and everyone was looking for family/friends. Some people had blank expressions, some people were trying to hide what we knew was unbearable sadness. I wasn't there long enough to see some of it show.

ralphjuneberry1 karma

What do you do for work now?

smithjam042 karma

I work for several small environmental resource firms in the NE United States at this point. I pursued what I studied in my undergraduate, which is not what I was doing five years ago.

L_Trace_L1 karma

How did seeing so much death and suffering effect your views on religion?

smithjam043 karma

I am not a very religious person to begin with. It was terrible to see so much death, but also inspiring to see people's reactions to it.

We established a small field hospital in an adjacent field. Throughout the night, while we were trying to assist people, more and more people gathered there in order to be away from some of the carnage and destruction. People were singing and truly united at that time in faith. I was happy to see people so hopeful when confronted with such hopelessness.

silentseba1 karma

Did you ever hear of the barge that was sent from Puerto Rico? I worked on that barge and I was wondering if the things that were sent actually got to the people who were in need.

smithjam041 karma

I didn't. I was only there a brief period of time immediately following the quake. I know that aid was quickly dispatched from different countries, but Haiti was logistically unable to receive it. Especially large aircraft and large boats, as the airport control tower was damaged beyond functionality and the major port in the city was equally damaged.

There are a few soldiers that responded to the quake in the comments above, and I would actually imagine that their experience is similar to how things happened in the first few weeks after the quake. People began to get desperate for sure, and it is hard to keep distribution orderly at that point.

When food began to make it into Port au Prince, I know that distribution was actually quite orderly once established, thanks to the U.N. troops. I received some info that as people began to realize the level of commitment needed to rebuild, people definitely worked together with one another.

vaclavhavelsmustache1 karma

I read an article that said one of the biggest problems after the earthquake was that the main prison in Port-au-Prince had been destroyed and most of the nation's worst criminals escaped. Did you have any experiences dealing with this, and what was the aftermath?

smithjam041 karma

I did not experience this directly as it took a while for some of those people to regain power after they were able to escape. I know that people in PaP were forced to deal with them, and were victimized by them (money/belongings stolen).

The only real experience that I had with this was a rumor started in the lower elevation areas of the city that a tsunami was coming, and for people to leave/stop searching. After people evacuated the area, looters took what weapons/supplies they were able to grab before people realized that there was no tsunami coming. This definitely robbed people of valuable time to search for loved ones and those trying to help.

wehttam661 karma

Did you feel like other countries donations where equally and fairly distributed?

smithjam043 karma

No. I don't. Chile and the U.S. were two of the most prominent groups that were clearly visible in the immediate aftermath. I have only heard stories of how poorly funds were managed.

Unfortunately, I have sent money to help friends in need that has never made it. I am certain that my small amounts are irrelevant to the larger amounts that were lost.

ThatcherC1 karma

Hey, I'm going to Haiti in six days as part of a medical mission! Crazy timing. I've never been before.

How well do you think Haiti has been able to rebuild from the earthquake? From what I can tell, the country is still in a very rough situation in many ways.

And any advice for a fellow traveler? Thanks for taking our questions!

smithjam041 karma

I think you would be correct and it would be putting it mildly to say that it is in a rough situation still. I think areas outside of the capital are doing better than PaP itself. What area of the country are you travelling to? Feel free to PM me or respond here and I'll try to get back to it.

I think it varies place to place. And Like /u/mra101485 says, enjoy your time. The people there overall were wonderful and grateful.

edit: I am not good with replying to what I intend to. I meant that to go to /u/ThatcherC but I am glad to know where you have been working. :)

tfellini1 karma

Hi, I'm from Brazil and my country has a strong military presence in Haiti as part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. I'd like to know if you had contact with the brazilian forces there, and how did you feel their presence and work was viewed by the haitians? Unfortunately due to overall disinterest in our media on such interesting and important topic we don't get much information on this issue (unless something goes wrong).

smithjam042 karma

I did not have contact with any Brazillian forces when I was there. I will say that the U.N. troops that were where in 2010 when I was there were not viewed in the highest regard.

When we arrived, prior to the earthquake, it was not uncommon for rocks / etc to be thrown over the compound walls or at the compound itself. That was 5 years ago. /u/mra101485 gives a better description of what it is likely now. It is unfortunate, but understandable. I hope that any military personnel returning from Haiti will not feel that it was a waste of their time.

free_bird_z1 karma

Was there any concern about the immediate safety of occupants of the guest house other than the issue with the earthquake itself? Was there any point in time where it seemed likely that survivors of the quake would loot the guesthouse and strip you and the others of any salvageable belonging you happened to have? Also, what language were you translating? Creole to English?

smithjam041 karma

That was not a concern. When I was able to lie down and rest, I tried to sleep close to the fence. If anyone had cared to try anything, I would have been an easy target.

The two primary owners/workers at the guest house were/are well respected in that community. We went through undamaged materials pretty quickly. Since they were reaching out to help the community, I think that folks were also reaching out to make sure that things stayed safe for them.

I was helping to interpret Spanish to English from a young man that was translating from Creole to Spanish.

EGOtyst1 karma

I remember reading that cholera was a giant problem following the earthquake, that greatly contributed to the death toll.

I know it seems like a simplistic, and even callous question, but why not just boil the water? It seems like such a preventable problem, and it is slightly unfathomable that people wouldn't just do this...

smithjam041 karma

One problem is that there aren't proper facilities to do this all in. You need fuel to boil water, to start with. There still isn't easy access to electricity, natural gas, coal, or even wood. There may not have been pans with which to boil water for the allotted amount of time. The reasons there can continue.

Another problem may be education. People may not have / may not understand the concept to boil the water to kill bacteria that may be present. If you are suffering from extreme dehydration, and you 'think' the water might be safe, you will probably drink it.

Where we stayed food was still cooked inside with an open coal furnace. It made the entire structure hazy. I doubt in a scenario where they were looking at cooking for or being able to boil water that they would boil water first. (quick edit: the initial, rural area that we stayed in)

The cholera outbreak is still not under control, and a reason for continued resentment of UN forces among Hatians.

imnotquitedeadyet1 karma

I've been to Haiti twice, and worked with Mission of Hope both times. What is your opinion on how they work? Do they do things the right way? Are they actually helping?

smithjam041 karma

I'm not actually familiar with that organization, /u/imnotquitedeadyet. Explain a little more in detail what you've done with them, if you would.

imnotquitedeadyet1 karma

Well, first off, they're a Christian organization. So take that as you will. On our trips, we have painted houses and structures, evangelized in villages, and also done more work such as VBS and building things. But other teams have went to work on water treatment and much more serious stuff like that, and went through MOH.

MOH itself is a non-profit, and has said they do a lot to help Haitians. They package and send thousands of tons of food a year to schools around Haiti, and they also have schools themselves, ranging from elementary and kindergarten to trade schools. They also help poorer villages like L'eveque and others like that by giving them "village champions", which they give good and supplies, and tell them to give it to those in need, so it's coming through a familiar source and doesn't seem like a handout.

That's what I have been told, and what I have no reason to doubt to be true. I was just wondering if you knew anything that would say otherwise.

Thank you!

smithjam042 karma

I haven't seen anything that would lead me to think otherwise. Just from what you say I'm sure that it might have a little mismanagement (with good intentions), but that doesn't mean that they are not helping. The same with any type of Christian organization; just because they are affiliated with a religious group doesn't mean they can't objectively do good.

Teaching is probably the most helpful thing that can be done. Teaching a trade to many is especially useful. Water treatment and helping with construction costs/efforts is always good as well. I would think that the money would be better spent teaching people how to grow their own food, or how to get the most out of local resources rather than sending/shipping food across the island, but if it reaches those that it is intended to reach it is certainly good.

Building goodwill itself is excellent. It will also help people to remember what they learned and who they were with, even if some people that are there might just take it as a photo opportunity. People that may be working with one another can teach each other a lot, and hopefully inspire each other to continue that relationship.

I hope you make it back to Haiti one day. Keep up your great work!

Stormy1234561 karma

Are you married? >.>

smithjam042 karma

I am not married. I cohabitate with my lovely lady-mate.

JohnnyR22111 karma

What in the world happened to the money that was pledged to help Haiti? I feel like there isn't much to show for it. Do you find that this is a case of mismanagement?

smithjam042 karma

Whew, loaded question.

This is hard. I think this scale of relief effort is much greater than you might imagine. That's the optimist in me. The other side would say that the government is corrupt, the people were desperate, and the funds were probably mismanaged. It is almost impossible to get the money that is pledged fairly distributed.

Even sending money now is difficult without hand delivering it to those in need. Everyone somewhere along the line takes a cut. When you get into massive organizations, I would presume that a huge percentage goes to administrative cost and shipment.

Although I feel the money could probably have been better managed, after spending time in the country and seeing how things operate, I can't say that there 'isn't much to show for it.' You are just looking at it from a different perspective.

HolaSensu1 karma

These funds weren't mismanaged by any Haitian Government. They have been spent on floats, R&Rs, per diem, exuberant accommodation, expensive country allowances, at-risk countries allowances, chauffeured vehicles and so on, by the various "relief" organizations here. I have worked in the field and then in HR for a major player here, I know what I am talking about. And whenever the donors would visit and they don't have shit to show for the money spent, they would blame it on "the challenging context" of Haiti. After which, they would hire a foreign consultant for 400£/day to investigate the reasons of the failure. Then all of that is compiled as a Programme Learning Document to send to Home Office abroad. I have been accommodated in all the fancy hotels in the country thanks to that job, but I never understood the point of all the frequent clusters meetings when each programme was close to failure.

smithjam041 karma

I didn't actually intend for that to read the way that you read it. They were all separate points. I certainly understand that the money that was donated to organizations wasn't simply handed over to the government to distribute as they felt necessary.

These are some of the reasons that I didn't want to delve too deeply into the discussion of mismanagement of funds/etc. Several organizations that people have worked directly with are listed, and hopefully it leads people to do some research about where their money is going.

Your perspective is valuable to read as it, unfortunately, confirms a lot of what people have heard about in the news. And from my own personal experience, I certainly agree with you about meetings. Never understand them; they are probably the biggest waste of time possible. So little comes out of them for the amount of time/resources spent.

Ravyn821 karma

In one of my college classes we studied the aftermath of the earthquake. We were told how the most common flag was corporate flags after the quake; did you feel like a lot of corporations took advantage of the situation to move in and 'help' while setting up shop long term?

Im glad you made it out okay, are you back now?

smithjam041 karma

I would have to divert to someone that has been there more recently. When I was there, immediately following the quake, this was not the case. However, it was still too early for this to happen. Medical ships were still unable to dock, and planes were queued in long lines just to land with personnel to assist on the ground.

I think that many organizations did take advantage of money offered as aid, and that that money got lost in the administrative 'costs' of distributing it.

Threeedaaawwwg1 karma

What can I say to my grandmother to convince her that the earthquake didn't happen because people in Haiti practice voodoo?

smithjam042 karma

You know, I wish that I could say I'd never heard something like that, and could help you with it, but I actually had someone ask me something similar in and open forum.

You could try asking an equally ridiculous question about her religion, but then again, it is your grandmother and it is probably best to understand that she won't change her mind no matter what you say.

british_sam1 karma

How long did the initial earthquake go on for? And at any point did you think you weren't going to make it?

smithjam042 karma

There was never a point that I felt like I wasn't going to make it during the quake, but honestly, once I saw the destruction afterward, I wondered if I would ever make it off of Hispanola. I had learned that the airport was damaged, and I think I actually felt worse for my mother/family than I did for myself at all. I knew that she would not respond well to the news, and in fact, later found out that my father worked hard to hide the fact that the quake happened from her until he knew that I was safe. For some reason, when you're in the middle of it, and you're ok, it seems like everything will work out.

The initial quake was probably 30 seconds of ground movement, followed by a low rumble (sound) and aftershocks at least every hour. The scary part was not knowing whether or not one of the aftershocks would turn into another massive quake.

Ackerack1 karma

Holy balls it's been five years?

smithjam041 karma


Leadback1 karma

What are your thoughts on the UN's denial that they spread cholera in the relief camps?

smithjam041 karma

Well, the denial may be there, but I would say at this point the rumour was proven. I don't think that it is an issue worth getting to involved in arguing over; nobody will change their mind at this point.

Lil_Kim_Jong_Un_1 karma

What you gon' do with all that junk?/All that junk inside your trunk?

smithjam041 karma

I think I'd probably go through it, sort out the junk, and throw it away. Usable things I would donate or salvage.

Maybe I'd do it while singing.

nottaclevername1 karma

My friend Ben Larson was the first confirmed US death. We had worked at a Bible Camp together, and part of our training was to watch the FISH! motivational video together. I was in my junior year of college sitting in a Psychology 400 course when I got the call and learned he'd died in the quake. I'll never forget it because we were watching that very same motivational video during that class...

I took it as a sign and started a campaign to sell these T-shirts and was ultimately able to donate over $4,000 to the Red Cross.

Bless your heart for surviving this tragedy and living to tell the tale.

smithjam041 karma

I'm sorry to hear about your loss, nottaclevername. It must be an emotional reminder to have that, but something that it looks like you were able to get some good out of. Thanks for your hard work in raising money for the Red Cross. Feel free to message me if you have any questions or need to chat about it.

boring_story1 karma

What kind of things do you feel you still need the most?

smithjam041 karma

I do not live in Haiti, so that is irrelevant. Medical supplies, shelter, and monetary help would be appreciated by those that are still suffering. Please see the original post above to investigate some organizations that may be able to better answer that question if you are truly interested.

johnson11241 karma

What was your first concern/ worry when you knew it was coming ?

smithjam041 karma

It came without warning and was over before I even knew that it happened. Once I realized what it was, I was mainly concerned about trying to make sure everyone was ok and to help others.

David_Parker1 karma

What are some things you wish you had after the earthquake?

smithjam041 karma

I wish that I had had more medical supplies. In the first 12 hours after the earthquake we treated hundreds of people. I saw lacerations and injuries that basically scalped people that were doing their best to ignore what had happened. It was embarrassing to hand them [the equivalent of] two tylenol while otherwise being able to do nothing. We were completely unprepared to deal with the scale of injury that we were forced to face.

Beyond that, a stiff drink and much more water would have been nice from time to time.