The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Massive quake leaves diaspora wondering: ‘Why has so much pain come unto Haiti?’

Damage in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Sunday, caused by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. (Ralph Tedy Erol/EPA/EFE-Shutterstock)
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MIAMI — Inside a light-filled church at the heart of Miami’s Little Haiti, a woman pressed her forehead against a pew, her shoulders shaking. Tears streamed down the cheeks of another parishioner. “Mon Dieu,” he prayed quietly. “My God.”

Dozens gathered for an emotional service Sunday at Notre Dame D’Haiti, seeking comfort and hope in the face of the latest tragedy to devastate Haiti. A day earlier, a 7.2-magnitude tremor rocked the nation, killing over 1,200 people and toppling buildings in a country still reeling from a presidential assassination and another massive quake over a decade ago.

“We’re all impacted by the earthquake,” Deacon Mesman Augustin said in Creole during the homily, “whether rich or poor, whether we’re here or there.”

News of the disaster drew a new wave of shock and grief in Haitian enclaves across the United States, home to the largest share of the Caribbean nation’s diaspora. Already shaken by increased gang violence and political instability in their homeland, America’s estimated 700,000 Haitian immigrants fell into a too-familiar routine, making frantic phone calls, poring over TV news footage and grasping for ways to help.

As U.S. officials pledged support for the Caribbean nation, prominent Haitian American politicians released statements lamenting yet another tragedy.

“Haiti has been coping with multiple crises for many years that have tested the strength and will of our people, and this tragic event only adds to the challenges the country faces,” tweeted Mathieu Eugene, the first Haitian-born member of the New York City Council.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime said he was thinking especially of children in Haiti, “whose lives over the past 11 years have been so traumatically and painfully filled with emotional scars.”

Hundreds were killed and large parts of southwestern Haiti were in ruins after a 7.2 earthquake on Aug. 14. The country is still recovering from a 2010 quake. (Video: Lee Powell, Yvon Vilius/The Washington Post)

For many, the quake surfaced painful memories of the destruction in 2010. The country has never fully recovered from the disaster that left more than 220,000 dead and scores of buildings, including the National Palace, damaged.

Gilg Phanor was on the phone Saturday when his young daughter summoned him to a TV in their North Miami Beach home. One look at the news footage, and he was transported back to the seven hours he spent buried in the ruins of the Hotel Montana, staring at a small patch of blue sky.

“I saw they’re pulling this young girl out of the rubble. I said, ‘That’s exactly what happened to me,’” said Phanor, who still bears scars on his body. “I just took a quick peek, and I went right back outside.”

He couldn’t believe it had happened again.

This time, there were new things to worry about. In recent months, Haiti has struggled with a spike in gang violence and kidnappings for ransom. The country sank deeper into crisis with the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Many Haitian Americans worried about how the country can manage a wide-scale natural disaster without a stable government in place.

Eleguito Sylvain, who sends money home to Haiti from his job at Little Haiti’s Cuisine Lakay, was anguished Sunday about not being there for his 2-year-old daughter, Ruby, who lives in a community in southwest Haiti hit hard by the quake.

The little girl has been sleeping outside with Sylvain’s mother and uncle, like Sylvain had done 11 years earlier. He still remembers the mosquitoes flying overhead and the sound of gunfire disrupting the nights he spent outdoors. When he spoke to his daughter after Saturday’s earthquake, she told him, “Daddy, when I felt the vibrations, I ran.”

“But run where?” Sylvain said. “There’s bad people out there and I know they can hurt her. I can’t protect her from here.”

The Biden administration was rushing to send help, with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announcing Sunday that it had deployed an urban search-and-rescue team to join the disaster assistance response team mobilized a day earlier. USAID Administrator Samantha Power said in a Twitter post that the agency is “working quickly to assist Haitians and save lives.”

Marleine Bastien, founder of the advocacy group Family Action Network Movement, said she was on the ground in Haiti within days of the 2010 earthquake. But this time, she was collecting donations from her base in Miami while monitoring the security situation. She advised organizations wanting to go to Haiti to be cautious.

“If a president could be assassinated, no one is safe,” she said. “No one is safe.”

Since Saturday, Bastien has been flooded with phone calls from stunned, demoralized and heartbroken Haitian Americans. In the wake of more tragedy, she said, “they need someone to tell them that things are going to be okay, that Haiti’s not cursed.”

She said she has found strength in news images of Haitians digging others out of the rubble with only their hands, “exhibiting such courage, such unbreakable faith and courage.”

At Notre Dame D’Haiti, parish administrator Reginald Jean-Mary said he was on a phone call with his nephew, who lives in Port-au-Prince, when the earthquake first hit. He heard a scream, a cry to start running and then the line fell dead.

His family survived. Yet living through it, he said, can be just as painful. Jean-Mary’s cousin, a priest in Les Anglais, was baptizing children when the earth began shaking. He had to help pull their lifeless bodies from the rubble when the church thunder-clapped into the ground.

Some 641 miles away, his own church has also been deeply impacted. Five of its members, Jean-Mary said, have lost loved ones. Many more are anxiously awaiting a call from relatives on the island. A man of faith, Jean-Mary said he trusts God has a plan for his homeland. Yet he can’t help but question it at times.

“As a human, I ask God why. Why has so much pain come unto Haiti?” he asked. “It’s just blow after blow, and we feel powerless.”

Read more:

Death toll from massive Haiti earthquake soars past 700

In Haiti, a clouded assassination probe prompts fears of political crackdowns

Haiti buries a president, but its long-term crisis lives on

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