Bryan's Haiti Earthquake Journal

SAFE!! I'm on my way home after the earthquake in Haiti. I kept a journal while the whole event was happening, and I'd like to share it with you. I know many of you have been concerned and praying for my safety. I felt your prayers and appreciate especially your prayers and help that you gave to Sandy. Anyway, here's the journal:

Tuesday, 12 January 2010, 11:00pm, Port au Prince Haiti

I hope that by the time you get this email, you will know that I'm okay. I was not injured at all in the earthquake even though I was right at the epicenter. Thank God for slow traffic in Port au Prince. I was on my way back to the Hotel Montana with my driver, Fanel, and he was trying to get there as fast as he could, but to no avail. The traffic here is worse than Cairo and Beijing and Paris combined (you can imagine, Sandy). There was a large truck in front of us going up the steep winding hill to the hotel. We were seconds away from the hotel when the world started to shake and a retaining wall crumbled right in front of our car; the rest of the wall crumbled right behind our car, but the car was untouched. I thought the road was going to fall down the hill.

It took us a few seconds to figure out what had happened, but we got out of the car and stood in the middle of the road for a minute. The quake lasted about 30 seconds. The road was blocked both directions, so Fanel and I decided to walk the last two hundred yards to the hotel. (Fanel doesn't speak English, and I don't speak French, but we used sign language to communicate.)

When we got to the hotel it was no longer standing. All six stories had collapsed on top of each other, like a stack of pancakes. If Fanel had gotten me to the hotel two minutes earlier, I would have been crushed under tons of concrete along with anyone else who was in the building. I will never complain about traffic again!

The survivors were shouting, crying and screaming, and the scene was chaos. I tried to call you, but I don't know if my call got through. The cell service isn't working, and I suspect it probably went out before my call could go through. I shouted into the phone that I was okay, but you probably didn't get the call. I recognized a bartender and a couple of waiters that I had befriended; they were a little bloodied, but said they were okay. The shopping area, restaurant, bar, and parking garage all collapsed. There is nothing left of the hotel complex but rubble. I heard shouts from under the rubble in the parking garage and the hotel, but there was no way to get to the people underneath. It was the most horrible helpless feeling I have ever experienced.

Fanel and I decided that the only alternative was to walk back the six hilly miles to Sogebank. By now it was getting dark (the earthquake happened at about 4:55 pm). So we started back. It took nearly two hours walking in the dark among downed wires and rubble in the streets, up and down hills and into back alleys. Fortunately I had my Woot flashlight on my cell phone (thank you, Bag of Crap!) and I was able to light the way in some of the perilous parts.

We walked past several bodies and lots of injured people lying in the street. The survivors were all gathered in the streets in groups, singing hymns of praise, or were trying to get to their homes. Fanel could not reach his wife and daughter, and he was worried sick. But he stuck with me; he's my new best friend and a genuine hero to me.

When we finally saw the Sogebank building, it was the only large building still standing in downtown Port au Prince. And it was the only one with electricity other than the United Nations security posts. We got to the bank okay, but the guards were reluctant to let me stay there, so Fanel walked me back a few another miles to the home of Madame Marie Claude Brutus, who is the operations supervisor at Sogebank IT. Unfortunately, when we got to her home, there was no answer to our calls and a guarddog was preventing our entry. I still don't know if she is okay.

We turned around and walked back to the bank. By then there was a new guard shift and they agreed to let me spend the night in the secured parking lot. So Fanel left me in the care of the bank guards and went to walk home to check on his family; we had to abandon the vehicle near the hotel, and I don't know how far he has to walk, but I pray his family is okay. I had been in the habit of tipping him $5/day for driving me back and forth. I hugged him and gave him $50 and my prayers. He probably saved my life, so it was a pretty puny tip, but it was what I had.

So now I'm sitting in a chair in the middle of the bank parking lot, surrounded by several armed guards (who speak only French), afraid to go into the building itself. It looks very sturdy, but that was one hell of a shake. If it took down the mountainside we were driving on, it could take down the bank, and I'm not ready to take that chance just yet.

I have the clothes on my back and my computer bag with all my equipment. The rest of my clothes, toiletries, souvenirs and my duffel bag are buried under tons of concrete. I was on the 5th floor of the 6 story building, so there would be at least one floor and the roof on top of my room, which also collapsed all the way to the ground.

A bank employee told me that it was a 7.3 earthquake, and was felt as far away as New York. I've lost count of the aftershocks there have been several while I've been writing this. I've been trying to get hold of the US Embassy and/or Delta Air Lines, but there is no phone service. The bank employee I talked to said he would send you an email if the Internet is working when he gets home. The State Department has all my contact information, but I didn't register this trip with them (that won't happen again), so I doubt they'll contact you unless the bank employee contacts them. As soon as I have cell service, I'll call you and as soon as I have Internet service, I'll send you this email.

I have water, but haven't scrounged any food from the guards yet. It's warm tonight and I'm safe. I love you all more than you can ever know. I'll stay safe. Love, Bryan (and Dad)

Wednesday, 13 January 2010, 6:00am

Didn't really get any sleep last night. Dr. Michel Brutus, the husband of Marie Brutus, came by looking for his wife and children. They were supposed to meet him at home, but his home is flattened. Cell service is spotty, and his cell phones don't work yet. So they have not been able to communicate. He's not sure of their fate. Only one cell company seems to work at all, and it's not mine.

Michel and I kept each other company all night. He escorted me on a walking tour of the streets to a nearby hotel. We were looking for food, and the hotel was kind enough to make us each a ham sandwich (of course, they tried to gouge Michel on the price). We decided to spend the night there trying to communicate with our families. I got a couple of hours of fitful rest (not sleep) on a couple of pool cushions beside the hotel pool.

This hotel (Coco Villa Hotel) managed to withstand the quake with no damage. It's a small mom and pop hotel. We exchanged stories and pictures with the others there, along with email addresses and phone numbers to notify loved ones. There were several aftershocks; we could actually hear them before we felt them, because we could hear a giant scream come up from the people in the streets just before the ground shook where we were. The locals could not believe my pictures of the Hotel Montana; they didn't even recognize it. I haven't prayed so hard in many years.

The UN brought in some huge equipment overnight to try to clear some rubble and find people under it. The backhoes, front loaders and cranes came in on flatbed trucks escorted by armed guards with machine guns. There were people along the road screaming at them to stop at one collapse or another. Helicopters are overhead surveying the damage, now that it's light (I wave at Anderson Cooper from CNN as his helicopter goes overhead). The streets are a mess; even where there's no rubble, cars are tossed everywhere and in every position.

We walked back to the bank together. I'm actually getting comfortable walking the streets, but not for long, I suspect food riots will probably start in a few days if they can't get food here fast. The main market downtown in the Delmas neighborhood is collapsed and all the food is buried under tons of rubble. Michel left to see if his family is at home and okay. I told him to come back with them, and he agreed, so we'll pray for their safe return.

Word is that the National Palace (the Haitian White House) has partially collapsed along with several government buildings. I will be surprised if the death toll is only in the thousands. There is conflicting information about the airport. Some say little damage to the buildings and the runway is okay. Others say the runway is cracked and not usable yet; if that's the case I may try to make my way to the Dominican Republic (it's about 50 miles) and leave from Santo Domingo. I haven't been able to contact Delta, but I intend to get home as soon as possible. My training class (ironically, on security and disaster planning) was supposed to start this morning, but the bank will not be open.

It's getting light now so I'm going to have a look around the parking lot (it's secure). I'm also going to keep trying my cell phone. I'll stay safe. Love, B

Update, 9:30am

I'm at the US Embassy, so hopefully by now they've let you know I'm okay. Marie Brutus walked to Sogebank this morning, and I was able to tell her the good news that her husband was alive. She and I drove to her children's school to pick up her three children, and then she agreed to take me to the embassy.

The destruction is indescribable; by now you've seen some of it on CNN, but in person it's very emotional. Her house has completely collapsed, but only two dogs were at home when it happened, so there were no other fatalities. On the way to the embassy, we picked up two hitchhikers whom she knew.

Among everything else, the National Prison has collapsed and the police released all the inmates. Also along the way we passed by an overwhelmed hospital with hundreds maybe thousands of injured people in the courtyard. Amazingly, Marie's husband (a doctor) was helping out at the hospital courtyard and saw us drive by. It was a very happy reunion.

I registered at the embassy a few minutes ago, so they are hopefully contacting you. I said good-bye to Marie, Michel, and their children. Now I'm in the hands of the US Government, and watching CNN in a really uncomfortable plastic chair, with about 200 other people in a 25x100 room. I have no idea what's going to happen, or when we will be evacuated. They've run out of water and MRE meals, but promise more is coming. We heard President Obama on TV, and everyone here applauded after he spoke. Now I'll just settle in.

Update, 1:30pm

Apparently the Embassy is having the same problem with phones that I am, because they just handed out an email form (one per family, please) to let us send one email with a preset message on it. I hope you're at work, because I used your work address. I also said they could contact Rehberg, Tester, and Baucus, so maybe they'll update you.

Still no lunch, and "Je suis afame." I'm starting to feel pretty filthy. I'm wearing the same clothes I started with yesterday, and I had already worn them one day last week. I could use a shower. The bank guards had offered to open the building for me last night so I could take a shower, but I was afraid to go in. I'll probably burn these clothes when I get home. At least everyone here speaks English, and is pretty much in the same boat.

The images on CNN must be terrifying, and they keep insisting on telling you the Hotel Montana has collapsed. It has, indeed, but I hope you know I'm safe.

Update, 10:00pm

Okay, so maybe I'm not so impressed with the American Embassy. I know it's chaotic, but we're having trouble getting the same story twice and there doesn't seem to be any preset protocol or procedure. They're just winging it. There was a flight out this evening at 6pm bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. But the Embassy is prioritizing people, and I didn't make the cut.

Tomorrow's first flight is at noon if you listen to the embassy, but CNN says it will be at 9am. It turns out CNN is right. The Embassy can't tell us if we'll have priority or if the people at the airport will get on as well; right now they're saying we'll have priority, so I'm staying put. There are 45,000 Americans in Haiti, and after 24 hours they've evacuated about 70. There are a few more than 200 Americans here at the Embassy right now.

Someone suggested that maybe we should drive to Santo Domingo. If I had done that last night, I might be on my way home by now, but who knows? Apparently the Dominican Republic has opened the border, so we wouldn't even need a passport to get in from Haiti.

The evacuation process is nothing like the movies no helicopters on the roof, and people crowding into C-5As. It consists of about 30 Suburbans to drive you to the airport and a Coast Guard C-130 with about 70 passenger seats clamped to the floor. And we have to sign a 6-page promissory note to pay whatever the State Department says is the actual cost plus interest (Ive bought houses with less paperwork). They won't renew our passport if we don't pay, and they'll turn us over to a collection agency after 90 days. Apparently the US government can provide 100 million dollars to the Haitians in aid (and well they should), but doesn't have anything left to help American victims. I recognize I'm getting a bad attitude, but it's been a tough 29 hours. At Santo Domingo, they say we can call home and they'll help us negotiate with commercial airlines to change our tickets and get us a hotel if necessary. We'll see.

So now it's a second sleepless night, but this time in the Embassy. It's after 11pm and we're still waiting for the promised 9pm announcement, which is supposed to name the people who will get on the first plane in the morning. I've got my fingers crossed.

Thursday, 14 January 2010, 2:00am

A major aftershock had to be at least a 6 clears out the Embassy faster than you can imagine. Just when I was thinking its okay to get under a roof again. It seems like the ground is shaking all the time, but its just in my mind. My new friend Steve shows me a clever trick: he sets a half full water bottle on its side to see if the water shakes. Ill bet the USGS earthquake monitors arent any more sensitive than Steves. After about an hour milling around in the courtyard, some of us go back into the building.

Update, 7:00am

Mr. Don Important (at least that's what he'd like you to believe), a major consular official, announces that we should all line up against the back wall so we can be counted. Of course, no one stays still while Don counts, so he must do it several times. He then goes into a long, lengthy, redundant, repetitive set of redundant instructions and repetitive directions complete with wild gesticulations, and explaining the regulatory requirements that necessitate each procedure.

He first says he doesn't know how to run an airline several of us have pretty much figured out by now that he doesn't know how to run a consulate either. He says there will be two, maybe three planes out today, with 73 seats each, for a total of 130 or 150 he's not sure. My new friend Steve and I decide we will be on the first plane no matter what. After all, I have a heart condition and he's my accompanying cardiologist. He is a doctor and I do have high blood pressure so it's only a slightly huge stretch.

Update, 9:00am

Steve and I wangle our way to near the front of the line to get into the Suburbans. We're in the third and fourth ones. After much waiting around while Don Important gives more instructions and gestures, we take off on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, a crazy caravan of about 20 Suburbans with diplomatic plates, lights flashing, horns honking causing some of the worst traffic jams Port au Prince can handle. One of the Suburbans even lightly rear-ends another one because they were so close to each other.

Update, 9:30am

We arrive at the airport in about 30 minutes and drive directly out onto the tarmac. No metal detectors, no passport control just us standing out on the tarmac with the rest of the cargo while the Embassy counts us again and asks if we filled out our promissory note. The plane will be here any minute. Still waiting in the hot Haitian sun, we are counted again.

The airport is a flurry of activity. There are planes from all over the world. Right in front of us is an Airbus 330 from the Belgian Air Force. Next to that, a plane from the Spanish Air Force and another one from France. There are several large ones from the US and other countries as well. But ours will be here soon. There are also reporters and cameramen everywhere.

Update, 10:00am


Update, 11:00am

Still waiting...the line is getting a little ragged, so they count again. Somebody from Faux News (yes, I know, but I prefer my spelling) comes by and asks how long we've been waiting. We all try to get on every TV camera that comes by so you can see that we're okay.

Update, Noon

Still waiting...Don reminds us that he doesn't know how to run an airline, and says he's not sure where the planes are. He repeats that there are two of them one after the other. One will load and take off, and then the other one will load and take off. Pretty solid plan, we think. Steve and I shmooze our way toward the front of the line.

Update, 1pm

Still waiting, 3 1/2 hours now. Someone brings some water not enough for everybody so a small riot breaks out. Don decides to count us.

Update, 1:30pm

The plane a Coast Guard C-130 arrives! Don Important moves us all back away from the plane so we can hear him remind us that there are two planes and that we won't ALL get on this plane. The first plane will load and take off and then the second one will load and take off. (I think I got that right!) My patience with Don is at its end and I use a few choice words about just letting us on the ****ing plane. Steve agrees and we ease toward the front of the line. Don is wrong: we ALL (both of us) WILL get on the first plane. We line up and are counted again. Finally we head toward the plane being sure to keep the straight line that Don is insisting on.

Steve and I pick seats in the back row just in front of the rear cargo ramp where all the luggage is being stored. They raise the ramp and we take off shortly for the 40 minute ride to Santo Domingo. A soldier sits on the luggage to keep the stack from falling down on us. It's a military plane, very sparse and VERY loud. There is no restroom so some of the guys walk all the way back to the cargo ramp and pee into their water bottles an earthquake teaches you lots about survival. The Coast Guardsmen flying the plane get us to Santo Domingo to rousing applause on landing.

Update, 2:30pm

The Embassy presence in Santo Domingo is amazing. They actually have a plan (and its been in place for months if not years). We are registered and given a number of gifts toiletries, etc. We are told to take anything we need from the huge assortment of stuff arranged on tables. The Embassy staff has even donated some of their used clothing to us. I put on my first fresh shirt since Tuesday. I also get some clean but used underwear (an earthquake teaches you...). We are encouraged to make a free phone call home, and I do.

A medic takes my blood pressure and decides I need some NSAID medication to drop it right now. He gives it to me and writes a local prescription for my medications which were lost in the quake. Another Embassy staffer promises to get the prescription filled and delivered to the Hotel Santo Domingo. In about an hour an Embassy charter bus gets us to the hotel and I am in my room. That's the way an embassy should work.

With one possible exception, I cannot say enough good things about the Embassy personnel. They were incredible. The consular officials in Port au Prince were doing a tough job under terrible circumstances. Don needs a lesson in UPOD (Underpromise, Overdeliver), and LWT (Listening While Talking).

In Santo Domingo, they are extremely well organized. The ambassador even met us at the bottom of the airplane steps, shook our hands, and personally led us to the hangar where we were promptly processed by incredibly friendly and sympathetic employees. The Embassy staff literally gave us the clothes from their closets. I intend to write to the State Department and tell them that that Santo Domingos evacuation plan should be written up and distributed as a textbook model on how to do it right.

Update 6:00pm

After a LONG HOT shower, I have dinner at the hotel with my new cardiologist and thank him for such fine care during the evacuation. He thanks me for his new specialty.

Update 7:00pm

The Embassy travel agent says that tomorrow's Delta flight out of Santo Domingo is full and Delta will not let them make changes. While I'm trying to reach Delta directly on my phone, Delta coincidentally CALLS ME, and asks if I am still in Port au Prince because all commercial flights to there are canceled. I tell her I am in Santo Domingo; she confirms the SDQ to JFK flight is full. BUT there is a flight through Atlanta and I am on it. I tell the agent she's my new best friend (move over one, Cardiologist Steve Im apparently pretty fickle about my best friends).

Friday, January 15, 7:00am

I actually slept last night first time since Monday. I'm going to try to find some socks and underwear (new), and maybe some new pants. It's not that I don't appreciate the used underwear I'm wearing, but well, you know. Then I'm off to the airport to head home!

Update, 11:00am

There's wifi at the airport, so here you go! Thanks for all your messages and prayers!

Saturday, January 16 11:30am

After flying from Santo Domingo to Atlanta and then Salt Lake last night, I arrive home in Billings to a wonderful reception at the airport with my family and many friends. We gather at home at share pictures and stories. There are as many stories from the home front as there are from the earthquake front. Its a great reunion, and were all very relieved.