In Jacmel, Haiti, parties give way to aftershocks and rescue missions

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 24, 2010; A11

They should be celebrating now in Jacmel. Traditionally, people travel to this small city on the coast south of Port-au-Prince for its annual midwinter carnival. Instead, residents have been stepping softly, listening, bending their heads toward the ground.

"I saw them, I saw them," said Josue Pierre-Paul, referring to people trapped in the Jan. 12 earthquake calling from under the rubble. "We are hard to die, here. And so you walk quietly."

This should be a noisy, joyful time of year. Jacmel is known for its friendliness, its parties and its easygoing attitude. Poverty runs deep: Most of the chickens are so skinny they don't lay enough eggs; large families crowd into tiny shacks; the markets are full of used flip-flops, sacks of charcoal and expired cold medicine. But it's a beautiful place, with turquoise ocean curving around steep green mountains, palm fronds arching over colorful houses and bright flowers spilling over walls.

It's a town of artists -- people who paint, carve intricate wooden boats, make sculptures from trash, shoot films, write songs. For the carnival, they make costumes and giant masks of lions and tigers and dictators. Painted trucks rumble through. People dance in the narrow streets to a beat that makes the houses shake.

Now it's the aftershocks that define life in Jacmel, along with the rumble of military jets that have finally found their way south with supplies and foreign rescue workers' machines moving concrete to uncover people.

In the town center, the carnival garlands share space with ropes twining through patterned sheets in the streets where people have been sleeping, and tape cordons off the heavy concrete walls of crushed houses -- suspended, as though just waiting for the next aftershock.

When the quake hit, Georgette Doute thought a plane was about to crash into her house. She ran outside, raised her arms and called out to Jesus to save her.

Joe Duplan ran outside, too, and saw the ocean suddenly pull back, as though a sheet had been yanked off a bed. For kilometers, he said, he could see only sand, and fish -- no water. Then, in a great rush, the ocean returned. Four times.

In some Jacmel neighborhoods, chunks of cinderblock and pastel-painted plaster lie among twists of wrought-iron veranda railing that suggest New Orleans's French Quarter, and staircases lead to the brilliant blue sky.

In the La Kobat neighborhood, where most of the homes were destroyed and everyone is sleeping outside, life happens in the street: Women bathe, men brush their teeth and teenagers wash laundry in plastic buckets while babies wail on blankets nearby.

Many homes were flattened, like a seven-layer cake becoming a crepe. Some were left listing far to one side, as though tired. Some were torn open, so that iron bed frames or women cooking yams inside are part of the street scene, framed by crumbling concrete.

More than a week after the quake, the smell of dead bodies trapped under the debris is still strong in some neighborhoods.

It's overpowering near a four-story school that was full of children when the quake hit. They are still under there.

For those who have survived, there are fears: Angry mobs have been forming at one of the few remaining gas stations. The hospital is running out of fuel. There isn't enough clean water. Electricity is out in many places, most cellphones aren't working and the price of food keeps going up.

International aid finally arrived last week. The soccer field filled with tents, and aid workers distributed an estimated 6,000 meals.

Every new rumble makes people more jittery, as chunks of plaster drop and fissures widen.

The aftershocks have been coming several times a day recently, with a sound like a ferocious gust of wind and a rippling movement underfoot, like waves. People jump up and run from buildings, dogs bark, roosters crow, babies cry and can't be consoled.

"It's the aftershocks that have everyone terrified," Maggie Nau said.

And the horror of it all, amid such beauty. "I had a friend who died here," Duplan said, stopping in front of a mint-green pile of rocks and dust that used to be a three-story house. "They just broke the cement to get them out."

But even in the midst of despair and trembling, there were moments of silent joy in Jacmel this week. Micheline Joassaint put down her plate of plantains at the hospital and pulled back a soft net to show her sleeping 21-day-old baby's tiny face and closed eyes. Joassaint didn't say anything, just smiled.

Their house collapsed in the quake.

Eight days later, baby Elisabeth was pulled out of the rubble. She was fine.

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