Resilience amid upheaval

By Stan Stalla | Apr 21, 2010
Photo by: Stan Stalla A tap-tap driver waits with his vehicle in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

I wonder how many of us have ever been hit in the head with a rock? It seems to me, as a kid, that I was once on the receiving end of that treacherous concoction of innocuous snowpack surrounding hard core. And then, there was the time the (empty, thank God!) 55-gallon drum rolled off a wooden shelf and banged me in the head during a Boy Scout meeting. That's when I found out that they can also glue — not just stitch — heads back together. One word describes that sensation of noggin meeting even harder object: Ouch!

Driving around the streets of Port-au-Prince these days, you'll see twisted wrecks of concrete and rebar in most neighborhoods. A few, quaking moments have converted former houses, hotels, apartments, shops, schools, churches and government buildings to piles of rubble. I read recently that it would take 1,000 trucks 1,000 days to remove the rubble from Haiti's capital city.

My encounters with earthquakes have been phased, over a span of 40 years. As a college student, I spent four years a few miles east of the San Andreas Fault. A new freshman, I had the foolish thought that, one day, I might have the exciting experience of actually feeling the earth move under my feet (as the Carole King song went). Ironically, I spent the next four years sleeping through, or oblivious to, the twitches and moans of Mother Earth.

Two decades later, we moved to Lima, Peru. Lima is a few miles east of where the Nazca and South America tectonic plates converge. Because the construction standards of suburban Lima are inferior to those of northern California, I at last felt my first earthquake. And another. And another. Though relatively modest, on the Richter Scale, each time the tremor would tremble, our glass sliding doors in the bedroom would rattle. More than once, Maureen, the kids and I gathered, in the middle of the night, under the bedroom door frames, where supposedly we'd be safe from falling fixtures and ceiling tiles.

It wasn't until I was assigned to Pakistan, after the 7.6-magnitude earthquake of October 2005, that my personal experience with seismicity took on a somber note. Almost 75,000 people perished in that event — about one-third the number who died in Haiti, less than five years later. I traveled throughout much of the North West Frontier Province, and a bit into Azad-Kashmir, monitoring U.S. government relief programs.

The lateral and up-and-down motions of the earthquake had caused the mud and rock houses to collapse onto themselves. That's where I first saw the "pancaking" phenomenon: the collapse of multi-storied structures into a heap of rubble. One afternoon, standing for a moment on a wooded hill high above the roiling waters of a mountain river below, I felt a great trembling of the ground, as if it wanted to throw me over the precipice, and that popular song of the 60s took on a new meaning.

In Haiti, there are many examples of pancaking. For me, what sets this earthquake apart from the one in Pakistan is its urban focus. In city block after city block, the buildings are crumbled, leaning, abandoned, fissured and, sometimes, still whole. Now, almost three months after the event, some parts of life are taking on a "normal" look.

Vendors sit on the pavement in front of damaged buildings, selling shirts and fruit and whatever household items people wish to haggle for. Rubble piles are everywhere, but moved to the side of the road, so that traffic can once again circulate. What's different, people tell me, is the amount of blue, grey, white and other colored plastic sheeting you see in all directions. Afraid to sleep in their homes, many survivors have set up makeshift shelters in the streets immediately adjacent. Others have gathered in encampments known as "spontaneous settlements." Those people are the focus of much of the humanitarian assistance provided to date.

Remembering the ouch! of that careening barrel and the rock-core snowball of my childhood, it's unfathomable to think of what it was like to be in one of the thousands of poorly constructed buildings during January's earthquake.

Such were my thoughts, returning from a food aid distribution point last week in our U.S. government-leased pickup truck. We were following one of the ubiquitous "tap-tap's" — conveyances that made me think of the tuk-tuk's of Sri Lanka, except with room for four times as many passengers.

Stopped for competing traffic, I watched a tap-tap disgorge all its nine or 10n passengers in the middle of the street. Then, a few moments later, a lone passenger climbed aboard. He was a young man, maybe 20 years old, with a baseball cap tipped jauntily to the side. Spotting an empty soda bottle on the floor of the tap-tap, he picked it up and unscrewed the top. From beneath one of the seats, he pulled out a dirty, one-gallon plastic jug of liquid and filled his newly acquired water bottle. As the traffic moved on, I watched him take a long swig, and then he and the tap-tap were gone.

These last several years, in the outskirts and aftermaths of war and drought and earthquakes, I'm reminded again and again of the resilience of human beings.

Stan Stalla writes from Haiti about his experiences around the world.

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