I took American Airlines flight #18 from JFK airport to Port-au-Prince on Feb. 24, only the second such commercial flight to land in post-earthquake Haiti since the Jan. 12 “Tremblement” that killed more than 200,000 Haitians.
My destination was Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, undamaged by the quake. It was overrun with refugees fleeing the 80 miles from the city of Port-au-Prince seeking medical help. They came by the hundreds, carrying their injured loved ones on the front doors from their fallen homes into the backs of pickup trucks to make the three-hour journey north into the mountains.
At its most crowded, the 80-bed hospital swelled to 800 patients – two days post-earthquake.
The passengers on the flight were, by far, of Haitian origin, with a few rescue workers dotting the aisles. Many were flying to Haiti for funerals. My seatmate’s brother-in-law was killed in Port-au-Prince. The man waiting in front of me to enter the plane was going to the funeral of a relative’s sister and her children. As we taxied out, a soft snow began to fall from the storm hitting the East Coast.
It was a quiet, somber crowd.
“It’s horrible, just gray,” said the Haitian flight attendant Monique, describing the view of Port-au-Prince from the air. She worked on the first New York to Haiti flight on American Airlines into the city. The airport had been closed to commercial air traffic for about a month after the earthquake left cracks in the walls of the main terminal building and toppled the control tower. It reopened after the U.S. military had taken over and repairs could be made.
Into the fourth hour of the flight, the mountains beyond mountains began to appear out the window – wave after wave of them, looking like the namesake of Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, the biography of Paul Farmer. Then the city of 3 million, stretching from the harbors, covered the mountainsides. The damaged national cathedral and national palace jutted out from what must have been miles of brown and gray rubble. The USS Comfort, a massive ship where many earthquake victims were taken for surgery, stuck out like a white flag in the harbor.
My traveling companion, LeGrand Mellon, a 73-year-old New Yorker and sister-in-law of the hospital administrator at Albert Schweitzer Hospital, had traveled to Haiti on and off for years and was anxious to arrive, hoping to see Jackson, the armless porter who always carried her bags for a few bucks, and the Haitian band that routinely greets visitors as they step off the planes.
Part of the terminal was functioning when we arrived. The small Haitian band was playing when we stepped off the plane. Military trucks, soldiers with machine guns, crowds of white aid tents filled much of the airport grounds. We were shuttled to what was formerly a cargo hold, now temporarily a customs station. Luggage appeared, papers were stamped, all was orderly and well-mannered. Jackson, the porter, grabbed our bags with his good hand.
And then, there was Haiti.
Behind the bars that barricaded the airport, throngs of Haitians clamored, arms waving, teeth flashing, the native Creole filling the air (pictured at the top of this entry). The gates opened and Haiti rushed in.
Women with chickens in baskets on their heads, lines of white U.N. trucks, Tap-taps (the brightly colored, overfilled Haitian taxis) bounced by. In bumper-to-bumper traffic and in the tropical heat, we navigated the streets on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince heading to the mountains, away from the tent cities made of sheets and tarps that lined the outskirts of town. Away from the vendors marketing bicycle pumps and juice boxes from wheelbarrows.
Soldiers with machine guns directed traffic (above, right). Sirens blared. A nun dashed by. An American tank rumbled by. Small boys with bundles of sugar cane to sell waved. Garbage littered the streets. The smell of charcoal from open fires filled the air.
“Isn’t this the greatest country in the world?,” said Mellon, grinning widely. “Oh, I’m so happy to be back.”
Tracie White is a Scope contributor and writer in the medical school’s communication office. She is presently in Haiti to write about the situation there. You can see all of her updates in our Haiti category. More details on Stanford’s Haiti relief effort are available here.