When I last wrote about my Papa, Austrel Valbrun, on these pages, just five days after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, my family had not heard a word from him. Although the capital and surrounding areas were destroyed, I knew in my gut that he, a stubborn old widower with a young man’s zest for life, had survived. I even joked about him appointing himself the neighborhood block captain in charge of organizing barbecues of stray chickens.
Now I can tell you. He did survive. But the reality was much more serious — and sad.
His tale is one of amazing survival at age 82, yes. But it is also one of death and destruction on one block of Port-au-Prince, far from the CNN cameras and relief operations. It’s about the loss of a beloved retirement home that this former factory worker had spent a decade building out of cinder blocks and cement. And it’s the tale of the resourcefulness and resilience — after 10 days out of contact with the outside world — that helped him make it back to his home in Florida.
The earthquake was unsparingly random in Papa’s neighborhood in Delmas, a suburb just 30 minutes from the destruction downtown. It battered his house but left it standing while it reduced the house across the street to a heap of concrete and steel. That house belonged to a young couple whose two children were trapped beneath the rubble for two days while their father, the owner of a construction company, and others tried frantically to get them out. The 3-year-old boy survived, but the 13-month-old girl died. A house three doors down was flattened, as were two three-story apartment buildings on the block. A total of nine people were killed. Every few days another house toppled from an aftershock. No one considered going back inside their homes.
Papa was traumatized, but he was certain that “the Americans” would soon arrive to help. He’d seen U.S. military jets flying overhead, so he retrieved two beach chairs from his backyard shed, put up his feet and waited.
There was no telephone or electric service in the neighborhood, no working televisions or cellphones to contact loved ones. Papa had no sense of the scope of destruction in the rest of the capital, no idea of the chaos that relief workers were dealing with closer to the quake’s epicenter. He didn’t know that the minimal infrastructure that once existed was destroyed. That relief groups and the U.S. military had more pressing concerns than rescuing uninjured retirees from relatively well-off neighborhoods like his.
The days stretched into a week, and no official help came. Papa and the others set up house on the sidewalks. They darted into their homes to retrieve provisions, dragging mattresses outside and sleeping on the sidewalk. They put up tarps and hung bedsheets to provide shade from the brutal sun.
Anticipating a three-month stay, Papa had shipped food from Florida that arrived the day before the earthquake. With the help of a couple of younger men, Papa retrieved two 100-pound bags of rice from his house, a container of cooking oil, bags of cornmeal and black beans, and 24 boxes of spaghetti. The neighbors pooled their resources: Some contributed charcoal or firewood, others had grills; most had nothing to offer, but they ate nonetheless.
They eventually ran out of cooking oil and charcoal; soon all that was left were a few boxes of spaghetti. The fight in Papa began to wane. On Jan. 22 he and his best buddy, Frederic Mathurin, an 87-year-old Haitian American from New York, borrowed 300 Haitian dollars (about $40) to buy two gallons of gas and made their way to the Red Cross station at the national airport. As they drove, they saw destruction worse than they could have imagined. Injured, despondent people walked the streets. The more Papa saw, the more his heart sank.
When he got to Red Cross operations, he produced his American passport and was flown back to Florida that night. His friend had to stay behind because he is not an American citizen.
Papa arrived home aching and penniless, his heart torn. When he called to say he was stateside, he broke down in sobs. “It’s me, Papa,” he said, “I’m alive.”
For the past two weeks, he has been watching lots of CNN, getting a wide-angle view of the devastation that was impossible to grasp from his perch on the sidewalk on Rue Admiral Killick. He has now seen the piles of bodies on the streets. The dump trucks scooping them up and depositing them in mass graves. Whole neighborhoods of rubble. Scared, hungry, orphaned children. Suffering that made his experience with the earthquake seem like a minor inconvenience.
“Why didn’t you try and get out sooner?” I asked. He said things were so chaotic at first that people were unsure where to go, scared to venture too far from home and be struck by a falling building during an aftershock.
But there was another reason he hung in so long.
“I didn’t want to leave the house unattended,” he said. The door frames were damaged in the quake, so Papa could not close or lock the doors. He feared desperate squatters would eventually move in to the dream house he’d painstakingly constructed, from 1981 to 1991, with meager savings he managed to put aside each year.
Papa intended to live out his remaining years in that house, in his own little corner of a country that had once been a Caribbean paradise. Now that he has had time to take everything in, he says — not entirely convincingly — that he is over his attachment to his house and doesn’t care if squatters move in.
“I don’t care if they take everything,” he said. “They can have it. At least I’m alive.”
Marjorie Valbrun, a writer who lives in Washington.