Dealing with the aftershocks

The Spectator
Washington, DC
21 JANUARY 2010

By chance, my father and I were together when we heard the news. We had both just flown to Washington DC—he from Paris, I from Istanbul—to care for my grandmother, who’d had a heart attack. Before the words “major earthquake in Haiti” came over the car radio, we had been under the impression that we were living through a serious family emergency. Then we learned what those words really mean.

My brother Mischa and his wife Cristina have been living in Haiti for nearly three years. Cristina, an Italian lawyer, has been working for the Justice Section of MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. My brother is a novelist and journalist. Their first child, Leo, was born ten months ago. At the time the quake struck, Cristina’s father Bruno was visiting them in Port-au-Prince. I have a reservation on American Airlines to fly from Miami to Port-au-Prince on January 27; I too was planning to visit. A strange thing is that since moving to Turkey four years ago, I’ve been writing with increasingly hysterical alarm about the lethal admixture of corruption, shoddy construction and a major fault line in Istanbul. I got the city wrong, but I certainly wasn’t wrong about what the aftermath would look like. It’s me who’s been obsessed with earthquakes. My brother’s beat is zombies.

My father and I were driving back from the hospital when the radio announcer said those four words. There was no news on any other station. My Turkish cell phone didn’t work in Washington. “Call Mischa,” I said. My father dialed; no one answered. “Call again,” I said. I said it over and over, he did it over and over. I’m not sure how many times we dialed that number after that; probably several thousand. We didn’t grasp it fully, though, until we got home and checked the Internet. People in Istanbul know me as someone who corners them at parties and drones on drearily about earthquakes. Well before that night, I was entirely too aware what a 7.3 magnitude quake would do to a badly built and densely populated urban area.

We began frantically calling the State Department, calling the UN, calling everyone. Phones rang and rang with no reply. The State Department’s emergency hotline told callers that “Operators are busy assisting other customers. Your call is important to us, please stay on the line.” Then it disconnected us. Over and over. All cell phone communication with Haiti was down. This headline came up on my computer screen: “The headquarters of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti has been destroyed in large part. There are numerous people underneath the rubble, both dead and injured.” Some time—I’m not sure how long, it felt very long—elapsed between our reading this and receiving this email from my brother: “We are all fine. Communications are very limited. We’ll be in touch as soon as we can. Everybody in the family is fine. Please contact Rosella and let her know.”

Cristina, we now know, had not gone to work that day; she was at home with the baby and her father. My brother was in his office nearby. Those buildings didn’t collapse. Just luck.

The number of people who have not yet received a message like the one we got—and the number who never will—is right now impossible to calculate, but probably in the hundreds of thousands. It is reasonably easy to avoid contemplating the agony of families without news when reading of catastrophes in far-away countries; not so easy when you have recently learned exactly what they are feeling.

I got through to Mischa on his cellphone, miraculously, for a few seconds the next day. We were cut off quickly, but he had time to tell me they were outside their house, with food and water to last a week. Cristina later managed to make contact with me briefly on Skype. Mischa had left to search for their nanny, Rose. Rose had returned safely; Mischa had not. She had little more information than I had, perhaps less, about where to go, which roads still existed, which were safe, how to get gas, where to be evacuated. She did not sound hysterical, but she certainly did not sound good. She asked me to try to contact Mischa on his cellphone, because she couldn’t.

Cristina Iampieri: I CANNOT GET IN TOUCH
Cristina Iampieri: NO RADIO
Claire Berlinski: I understand.
Cristina Iampieri: CALL MISCHA

I couldn’t reach him. I tried and tried and tried. This went on for days—thinking I’d found them; thinking I’d lost them.

They were able to access various Internet sites intermittently—sometimes Skype, sometimes Facebook, sometimes MSN messenger, never for long. Mischa reached me on Skype to tell me they had decided to head for the UN logistics base. He cheerily reported that while the situation was assuredly “dramatic,” they would all be well. I tried to relay the very limited advice I’d received from UN headquarters officials in New York, who at that point were not in better contact with Haiti than I was; he gave me names of people who were alive and asked me to find their relatives. He asked if I fancied a game of Scrabble.

A lot of time elapsed, or felt as if it did, between that conversation and receiving the news that they had arrived safely at the UN base. The Italian media meanwhile reported that Cristina had made a “desperate” call to her sister telling her they had no food or water, were barricaded in their house, terrified, and begging for help. Posts on Twitter grew more and more frantic: HELP HELP HELP Terror “aux Cayes” Prisoners are free setting fire in public offices. Terrified #Haiti his is beyond anything not want let my family die in from of me. #haiti 90% of the buildings in Leogane have collapsed. St Rosa of Lima school has 110 children trapped. #haitiquake #haiti #USArmy roting and looting in Rue Grand Rice. The orphanage is at: About 1 block away from Delmas 19. The situation is beyond dire.Need HELP,Marines SOMEONE- … on and on like this for pages, tens of thousands of corpses, screaming, maimed bodies, carnage beyond description, aftershocks, looting, hunger, thirst, machete-wielding gangs, smoke as far as the eye can see. “dead bodies are everywhere ….i havent seen one ambulance or any proffesionl med care anywhere in port-au-prince … natural haulocost … every other house is on the ground. people are terrified.” Elderly friends of my grandmother kept calling to ask how she was doing, speaking very slowly, unable to understand my plea to keep the phone lines free. If I hung up on them, they just called back—Haiti apparently is not the only country with a zombie problem.

I called the UN Headquarters in New York to ask if they had arrived at the logistics base. They were fantastically responsive, compared to the State Department, but called me back later to say that they had not. They asked me to contact Mischa and Cristina, if I could—because they couldn’t—to get more information about the road they had taken, the make and color of the car they were driving. I called and called and called their numbers. Again no answer.

The woman on the other end of the phone at in New York was extremely kind and competent. The way she spoke to me was the way one should speak to a family member in this situation. How long, I asked her, would it be before she would allow herself to panic at their failure to appear? “Thirty days, at least,” she said. “I am serious. In this situation, I am serious.” I put out a message to everyone I knew, on Facebook, to please help me reach them, to try calling them over and over. Many of my friends did. Others responded by asking me to farm their Farmville plots. They may some day wonder why I’m not answering their e-mails. That’s why.

The State Department hotline still did not work—it was impossible to get through. I was exchanging information with Haitians and their relatives in America on Facebook and Twitter, the only communication channels that seemed to have up-to-the-minute information. About the most reassuring message I received was that things that sounded like gunfire could be other things.

At last they called again to say they had made it there safely, and at last, a few days after that, they were flown by the Italian air force to Guadaloupe and then to Rome. They would have stayed to help but for their infant son. Our family will be forever grateful to the Italians for evacuating the entire family—including their beloved cat, who also survived—even though my brother is not an Italian citizen and the cat not really a citizen of anything. The latter gesture was particularly humane. A seven-pound cat was not displacing a human being; the only reason to have kept them from taking Pites would have been to avoid the appearance of prioritizing cats over people. She is precious to my family and an innocent living creature. It cost nothing to save her. The pilot recognized that and spared them even greater pain.

I have heard frantic reports from other families (I cannot possibly say whether they are true) that the United States is too deluged to evacuate children of American mothers unless they too have US passports. This, for example, was posted on a blog written by US missionaries now in Haiti, one otherwise reporting information consistent with other credible, first-hand accounts:

“At the US Embassy there was a woman with three children. She and one child held USA passports. Two of her children had passports from some other Caribbean nation. (I don’t remember which one.) She thought I was an Embassy employee and pleaded her case to me. I explained what I knew and that anyone leaving at this time had to have a valid US Passport. She then asked me if I would take her two kids so she and the one child could leave.”

If this is true, I am in no position to criticize the United States’ response; I’m not there, it is obviously beyond imagination, and I am immensely grateful to anyone who is there and trying to help. I just find this story unbearable, as I find the whole thing.

My brother and Cristina are now in Italy. They sound okay, under the circumstances.

I cannot stop thinking about the other people I’ve been writing to throughout this. Many haven’t found their families yet and won’t ever. My sister-in-law, her father and my nephew were at home, not the MINUSTAH building, and their house did not collapse. Just luck. My brother was in his office, not the Hotel Montana or the grocery store nearby, and his office did not collapse. Just luck. They were all unhurt. Just luck. It would be nice to think God had saved them, but anyone who has ever given a moment’s thought to theodicy can see how fast you get to the obvious questions.

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