L’ASILE, Haiti — A wailing rose Wednesday from the brass section in front of what was left of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. A drum beat added to the doleful rhythm as women in white emitted guttural, anguished cries at the foot of a flower-covered coffin.
But perhaps more than anything, the Rev. Lucson Simeon said before putting on his white vestments for yet another funeral, it was a lament for Haiti.
“It is as if we are cursed,” Simeon said. “We just keep getting beaten down. I ask myself, how can this be?
“All I can say is that it is as if we are cursed.”
The official earthquake death toll is more than 2,000 people, but the number is expected to grow. As mourners here gathered for yet another hastily arranged funeral, an untold number of townspeople still lay buried under collapsed concrete. A man was walking to market when the earthquake struck Saturday morning. Buried by a landslide, he called out in desperation for days. Neighbors tried frantically to uncover him using tools and their bare hands. But he stopped yelling on Tuesday, locals said, as the pounding rains from Tropical Storm Grace drenched what was left of L’Asile.
The country remains an active disaster theater, with domestic and international first responders and volunteers struggling to reach distant communities still isolated by earthquake-damaged terrain and the heavy rains of Grace. But in a broken country with an interim government filling in for an assassinated president, the people of L’Asile knew from the beginning that they were on their own.
For days, they managed their own crisis. After the earth shook on Saturday, a woman carried her dead 12-year-old daughter by a dirt road for three hours. Residents dug desperately for their loved ones. An elderly man, paralyzed when his roof collapsed, lay crying on the floor of a makeshift shelter where, for lack of medical options, local doctors left him with a catheter and a prayer.
Like Haiti, a nation of layered suffering, L’Asile is used to pain. Many here lost family members in the catastrophic earthquake of 2010 that killed more than 220,000. The community lost lives during Hurricane Matthew, when coconuts became cannonballs and St. Joseph’s church lost its roof. In 2019, violent gangs muscled into town, kidnapping, raping and killing poor residents, sometimes for ransoms as little as $100.
Then came Saturday’s quake.
For L’Asile, the worst of all.
In a matter of moments, churches and schools fell. St. Peter’s Square, where locals picnicked and strolled, is rubble. In a city that prided itself as the “Pineapple Capital of Haiti,” at least half the crops have been destroyed. The water supply has been contaminated. Streets have become impromptu tent cities. Mayor Martinor Gerardin said half of the city of 52,000 has crumbled, and most of the rest is damaged. The structures where locals gathered for the annual Pineapple Festival collapsed. So did Joselewe, a much-loved local joint that served goat and fish with sides of rice and beans and plantains.
Neighbors are sharing food now, but it’s running out, they say. The occasional aid truck passes by L’Asile’s rocky roads, causing hopeful residents to rush out.
But often, the aid trucks don’t stop.
“God has turned his back on us,” sobbed Fosnel Cassamajor, the 45-year-old half brother of the deceased truck driver. “He has turned his back on this country.”
After the assassination last month of President Jovenel Moïse, a weak, interim government is now in charge, leaving Haiti limping along, wracked by fractious warlords, soaring hunger and the coronavirus even before Saturday’s quake.
“We have not seen the government come to our aid, and I don’t expect them to,” Gerardin said. “How will we ever rebuild our schools, our churches, fix our water supply? I can tell you, this government won’t help. We are on our own.”
Alvena Yolette Dormistoire, a 29-year-old mother, stood in front of her crumbled house and pointed at the broken remains of a wooden high chair. On Saturday morning, she was juggling breakfast for her twin 13-month-olds — her girl, Nael and, her boy, Mael — when the quake hit. She was holding Nael in her lap. But Mael was in the highchair.
A cement wall fell and crushed his skull.
“My baby boy,” she said, staring at the rubble in what appeared to be shock, her eyes misty, her voice oddly vacant.
“I could only hold one of them in my arms, you know,” she said. “And he was in the chair. Then everything started moving and falling. It happened so fast. There was nothing I could do.”
She could barely move now. She had an open gash on her leg, and scabs on her shoulders from her frantic attempts to unearth her son, which ended only when her neighbors came to her aid. They moved blocks of cement and buried the boy in a shallow grave.
A local doctor gave her a pain pill, but he had no antibiotics and her wound had begun to feel worse. Her 13-month old daughter also suffered head trauma. But the area’s hospital had literally collapsed, and the best a local clinic could do was some antiseptic and bandages.
Not far away, Tidieu Desir, a poor, thin farmer with gray hair who did not know his own age, sobbed naked on the dirty floor of an open air shelter.
“The bottom half of my body has died,” he cried. “The hospital was overwhelmed and they just sent me home. I’ve been put here, on the floor.”
He pulled back a dirty sheet decorated with small suns and stars to show the catheter a doctor had left him with. “I just heard a big boom, and then my roof broke my back,” he said. “Please, there must be something you can do for me. I cannot move.”
Nearby hovered Ymen Filoxy, 34, vacillating between sorrow and rage. She was working on a farm when the quake hit, and part of a mountain came down on her 12-year old daughter. She carried the dead body to town herself.
“I blame God,” she said in distraught anger. “I cannot say anything good has ever come of my life here. And now my daughter is dead.”
Rood Nevil, a local doctor, was treating wounds outside his local clinic, now nonfunctional after the quake’s destruction. He unwrapped the head bandages of a man with a deep head gash and put pressure on the wound, a possible skull fracture. The patient fought back tears.
“We don’t have enough painkillers,” Nevil said, shrugging. “We don’t have enough antibiotics. We are doing the best we can. But we are alone here. Where is the help?”
In the agricultural outskirts of town, hundreds of residents who lost homes are sleeping under rudimentary shelters, tents or the open air. They dried out clothing they salvaged from the quake, only to be drenched by Grace.
On Wednesday, 33-year-old Jameson Vital was standing under a hastily constructed shelter made with old USAID tarp left over from Hurricane Matthew. He was explaining how his father-in-law died in the falling rubble of their family home when a strong 4.8-magnitude aftershock hit.
Yelps went up as the 22 people sharing the shelter ran for cover. Soon the earth stopped shaking.
“We cannot win,” Vital said.
Widlore Merancourt contributed to this report.