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DEVASTATION IN JAPAN

Amid own ruins, Haitians shudder over horrors in Japan

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By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The woman in the paisley tube dress saw her house crumple when the land convulsed that dreadful day in January 2010. Home today, as it has been for 14 months, is a dank, dirt-floor shack barely wide enough for a small bed.

But Amazante Valesco, as relentlessly buoyant as she is deeply poor, hears the news from Japan of the earth trembling and monster waves cascading and thinks, “What happened to them is worse.’’

Before Haiti’s earthquake, the 56-year-old mother of five lived in a neighborhood of this capital city known among the locals as Tokyo, although Valesco isn’t sure why. “When the tsunami hit, I saw that even a train full of people got washed away,’’ she said. “That makes me very, very sad.’’

With their ears drawn to radio broadcasts and their eyes riveted to televisions, survivors of Haiti’s quake shuddered at Japan’s plight — and some turned fearful that it could happen here again, knowing too well their nation’s long history of natural and man-made disasters.

The world directed its attention toward this Caribbean island nation last year when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake laid waste to a broad swath of the capital. More than 200,000 died, and more than 1 million moved to fetid tent camps. Now, as hundreds of thousands remain displaced and the wreckage of buildings lies across the city, the world — and the bereft people of Haiti — has shifted its concern to an even stronger earthquake halfway around the globe.

They get the latest on Japan wherever they can. In a nation where so many lost so much in last year’s disaster, updates arrive often through the most ubiquitous source of information, word of mouth. It’s known as Radio 32, as in the 32 teeth of the human mouth.

In the case of Garry Jean, pictures from Japan beam from the TV he rigged up among the tired tents that sit in the shadow of the fractured presidential palace, which looks like a fallen wedding cake.

Jean shook his head. He sees in the Japanese catastrophe signs of global calamity to come and scolds others in the Haitian earthquake diaspora for not heeding that warning.

“Everybody here is in the same park, living under tents, but not everyone is paying enough attention,’’ said Jean, sitting on a folding chair at the edge of the Champs de Mars, once the Central Park of Port-au-Prince, fountains lapping. Now, young men have appropriated the main fountain, using it as a concrete soccer field.

The same lack of vigilance, he said, was evident with cholera, when the potentially lethal intestinal ailment reached the city from the countryside last fall.

“I was trying to explain to people how they contract the disease, but they didn’t care,’’ the 34-year-old Jean said, his young son tearing into a roll. “Sometimes, they even laughed at me, until some people died from it.’’

The Japanese disaster fed Haitians’ finely honed sense of fatalism — and their cynicism about their own government. Jean-Michelet Bellefleur lost his home in Haiti’s quake but has since found another place to live in a corner of the city called Bel Air. He watched TV images in awe as a wall of water in Japan consumed homes, cars, and people.

“In an organized country, they get help from their government,’’ said the 33-year-old United Nations worker, who shared Valesco’s assessment that Japan’s fate is more dire than his homeland’s. “If the same thing happened here, there would be no country.’’

In a different neighborhood on the other side of this frenetic city, Claudette Cadet peddled fried breadfruit and sweet potato and sausage from a roadside stand. She wore a lace white kerchief on her head and a look of resignation on her face. There is, she said, no mistaking what the Japanese disaster foretold.

“It’s the big day coming because before, we were not used to that kind of stuff,’’ said Cadet, 35 years old, referencing the day of reckoning described in the Bible. “But now, it’s happening everywhere.’’

Since last year’s earthquake here, life has settled into a grim rhythm for the hundreds of thousands who remain mired in tent camps, with little prospect for real shelter or gainful work. With so much time and so little to occupy it, listening to the latest from Japan can cause minds to fill with a sense of dread that’s not quite in the immediate foreground but not in the background, either.

Marie Terese Personna, who says she is 40 years old but appears considerably older, keeps a radio playing in her tent in the Champs de Mars camp. The Japanese quake and tsunami — “their miserable situation,’’ she calls it — has set her thoughts on edge.

“I thought it was bad here before, but I realized it could get worse,’’ she said, casting her eyes upon the low-lying park. “There’s no way to escape here if something like that happens,’’ she said, referring to the tsunami. “We’re not organized and the tents are weak, so it’s not good at all.’’

Jean-Marc Noel, shirtless and wielding a sledgehammer under the unforgiving mid-afternoon sun, had neither time nor inclination to indulge in anxiety. He was helping to clear a soccer field that until recently was packed with the tents of the displaced. He has heard vaguely of events in Japan but refuses to dwell on them.

“There’s no need to be afraid because if you have to die, you will,’’ the 20-year-old said. “The last time it hit, God bless, I survived.

“If it happens again, I’m not going to be afraid.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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