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Haiti Survivor Describes 'Apocalypse'

By Michael Hill
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It was toward the end of the day and Haiti Country Representative Karel Zelenka had one last meeting in his second-floor office of Catholic Relief Services' Port-au-Prince building before heading home. He was sitting behind his desk, speaking with a visitor.

Suddenly, everything changed. Neither Haiti nor Karel would ever be the same again.

"You felt like someone had hit you," he says of that first moment of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit this Caribbean country on January 12. "Then everything just started moving.

Camp at Petionville Club

Close to 50,000 Haitians now call the golf course at the Petionville Club home. CRS is distributing lentils, vegetable oil and bulgur to those living at the camp. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

"We looked at each other," he says, "and we knew we had to get out. Luckily, I had left the door open."

They sprinted down the long hallway, the only way out. But running wasn't easy, as what was once solid was no longer trustworthy. "It was like running on a trampoline," Karel says.

They found the stairway door and headed down to the ground floor. "The noise was incredible, the whole building straining, the walls and girders," he says.

Karel fell on his way down the stairs. "There was one point where I was going down and suddenly it seemed like I was going up. I lost my bearings and fell down. But I got back up. I was okay."

Down another hallway, they reached the door and made it to the safety of outside. The ground was still moving. "It went on for a full minute," he says. "That's one reason it was so destructive."

Sounds of Screaming

Once he knew he was safe, Karel's concern turned to the CRS staff. Nearly 100 work in the Port-au-Prince building and most were still inside when the earthquake hit. They came out in a stream. Some were slower than others. One had hidden under a desk. Another stood in a doorway. The main building did not collapse. Soon all who were still at the building were accounted for. The fate of those who had already left for the day was unknown. Karel eventually learned all had survived, though one woman had been trapped for hours in a supermarket that collapsed on top of her.

Then Karel began looking around. The magnitude of the destruction was evident. In the CRS compound, the building used by the AIDSRelief consortium was heavily damaged. Out on the street, many buildings had collapsed. "There was a huge amount of dust in the air that just rose from the city," he says.

The sounds that accompanied this tableau were haunting. "There was so much screaming and yelling. For so many who experienced this, that was all they could do, just scream, especially as they found out what happened to their houses, to their families, alive or dead. They were out in the streets all night."

Karel reached for his cell phone and realized he had left it in his office. The ground would shake now and again with aftershocks. No one wanted to be indoors. He debated, hesitated, then went in and got it. It didn't matter—the service provider's tower had collapsed.

But as Karel walked by the compound's guardhouse, the guard said he had a phone call for Karel. "I had never used that phone," he says. "I didn't know the number. I didn't know if it worked." It was Ken Polsky—the regional representative for Latin America at CRS' Baltimore headquarters—who had heard a report of the quake. Karel gave a brief description of what had happened before he was cut off. His was one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Port-au-Prince quake. His report was transmitted around the world by various news media.

Reports of Destruction

Though most of the Haitians on the staff dispersed to check on their families, Karel and others stayed as the streets were filled with rubble and people. They really didn't want to go anywhere anyway with the aftershocks still making the ground seem like jelly. Some nearby neighbors whose house had survived offered their yard as a sleeping area.

Volunteers packing supplies at CRS and Caritas Dominicana warehouse

A volunteer rests on a food kit he's helped to prepare at the shared CRS and Caritas Dominicana warehouse for delivery to the neighboring country of Haiti. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

"Everyone was sleeping outside. They had brought out some cushions. We bedded down near the wall that surrounded the garden," he says. "After one of the aftershocks, we moved. We were afraid the wall would collapse on us."

Again it is the sounds that will never leave Karel's memory. "There was a church nearby, not a Catholic church, another type," he says. "They were chanting because that's what they do in this church, chant over and over, that's how they worship. Every time an aftershock hit—and there were many of them—the chants would turn to screams."

Throughout the evening, the night, and into the next day, the reports came in. The Presidential Palace was destroyed. The cathedral had collapsed. The police headquarters and prison. The United Nations headquarters. Even the Hotel Montana, a magnificent resort that overlooked the city, an opulent showcase amid Haiti's poverty.

"It was so hard to believe," Karel says. "It was like the place had been decapitated."

Parishes Among First Responders

The next day, Karel began to contemplate what CRS could do. Caritas Haiti, an important local partner, was nearby. They discussed possibilities. But there was no communication with anyone else in Port-au-Prince, no way to assess or coordinate.

Still, CRS was in better shape than many. Supplies that were supposed to help hurricane victims—water, food, plastic sheeting—were in a warehouse in Les Cayes, a port on the southern coast that was relatively unscathed by the quake. The staff there was fine and began loading up vehicles. Karel says most of those supplies never made it to Port-au-Prince, but were handed out in towns like Leogane, southwest of the capital city, that had also been devastated by the quake.

Other supplies that were stored in Port-au-Prince—soon augmented with stocks from the Dominican Republic—made their way to people via Catholic parishes. "We had to be careful what we did with them because of security," Karel says. "You didn't want chaos."

But with the extent of the destruction evident all around, Karel knew that, though thousands benefited from this work, "It was a drop in the bucket."

With the two groups that would have organized a response—the Haitian government and the United Nations—out of commission, CRS had to improvise. Karel and his staff were working outside in front of their building, many staying there even when an engineer proclaimed the building safe. "You were just nervous about being inside," he says. "The aftershocks were constant, some quite powerful."

Golf Course Turns Camp

A CRS staffer went to the Petionville Club to check out the golf course that had become home to about 50,000 Haitians who were being watched over by the U.S. military. CRS was assigned to feed people in the makeshift camp. A ship that had set out days before the earthquake, stocked with food for ongoing CRS programs from the U.S. Agency for International Development, managed to dock in the damaged Port-au-Prince port. That shipment—grains and cooking oil—allowed CRS to feed the multitudes at the golf course.

As he brought in staff from Les Cayes and oversaw the return of his traumatized staff in Port-au-Prince, Karel helped arrange various distributions to help the crowds who were now sleeping in the street. "They aren't under tents, just sheets that they've stretched out for a little shelter and privacy."

But even as the CRS response reaches more than 100,000 people, as the staff—augmented by many arriving from around the world—work 18-hour days, Karel knows that there are still hundreds of thousands that have not been reached. When he hears criticisms of the aid response, he knows that it is coming from people who have no understanding of what has happened to Port-au-Prince, that what he calls "the apocalypse" was visited upon one of the poorest countries in the world, a country that had very little infrastructure to begin with and now has almost none.

"It's amazing we've been able to do as much as we have," he says.

A native of Prague, Karel has seen a lot in his two decades of work in emergency response for CRS and Caritas—the war in Bosnia, the tragedy of Darfur, the fighting in Kosovo, an earthquake in Macedonia, turmoil in Zimbabwe. But he has never seen anything like this earthquake.

"It's unprecedented," he says, using that word over and over—the destruction of such a densely populated area, the number of dead, the number of injured, the piles of debris, the pervasive poverty. "Earthquakes are the worst kind of human tragedy, but this one is unprecedented."

Two weeks after the earthquake, Karel came to CRS headquarters in Baltimore for consultation. Then it was off to Rome to consult with Caritas partners and some rest. Soon he will be back in Haiti.

"There's a lot of work to do," he says.

Learn more about CRS' response to the earthquake in Haiti.

Michael Hill is CRS' communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa. He is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.

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