Haiti earthquake: At epicenter town, one family's dream life shattered

After 30 years in Canada, Saurel Labbe returned to his home country of Haiti to build his dream house and retire. Now he's picking up the pieces after last week's 7.0 quake ripped up the town of Léogâne.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
Marie Saloman (left) stands with her husband, Saurel Labbe (right), in front of what remains of their $250,000 home in Leogane, Haiti, a town eighteen miles outside of Port-au-Prince that was the epicenter of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed.
Rich Clabaugh / Staff
Rich Clabaugh / Staff

Like most immigrants, Saurel Labbe always had his eye on his home country of Haiti, even after 30 years in Canada.

It is not that he chose the city of Montreal over the tropical island of his birth. It is that here, in Haiti, there was little for a man who wanted to get ahead. So he moved north, found a job as a taxi driver there, got married, raised a child, and persevered through icy winters by dreaming of the day he would one day be home permanently.

And after three decades, after rising through the ranks and starting his own transportation company, the day finally arrived.

In 2004, he and his wife began building their dream home – a pretty, white three-story house with a red-gated garage – in the coastal colonial town of Léogâne, where she was born. They finished it in 2005, and it was the third floor, with an office and a balcony that looked out to the lush mountains beyond, that was his favorite spot.

“I thought I would spend the rest of my life here,” says Mr. Labbe, a neatly-dressed man with a giant, kind smile.

But like so many other immigrants who came back to Haiti with their life savings – having toiled in the steamy kitchens of Chinese restaurants in Boston or the construction sites of Miami, many of them separated from family for years in a single-minded bid to make their families' lives better – he has now lost his life's work.

Léogâne was the closest sizable town to the epicenter of the earthquake Jan. 12, so strong here that the road outside town literally cracked in two, at one part reaching 30 feet underground.

The Labbe's $250,000 dream home now lies in a heap of white boulders, every piece of furniture they ever purchased gone. There are no photos left.

They, like everyone else here, had no insurance.

The couple, who were easing into retirement, are now sleeping in their back yard.

They will rebuild again. But without their savings, they will build a simple home, one that probably will have no balcony.

He might have to go to work again, if he can find anything viable to do in Haiti.

“Right now, the material thing is not the important thing,” says Labbe, who held onto a wall outside to keep his balance when the quake struck, and whose wife ran outside to safety. “At least we are alive.”

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