Haiti earthquake: Port-au-Prince in shambles, but much of the country spared

The Haiti earthquake that claimed tens of thousands of lives was largely centered around the densely populated coastal areas in the country's south. Much of the country was untouched.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
Christian Science Monitor reporter Sara Miller Llana steps off a US Navy helicopter after taking a ride to view the destruction in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 15.
Eliana Aponte/Reuters
A Haitian policeman stands guard outside a destroyed store after the earthquake in downtown Port-au-Prince Wednesday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

One of the most surprising parts of reporting in Haiti to me was how some areas look as if nothing happened, as if the earth had not opened Jan. 12, killing tens of thousands, rendering hundreds of thousands more homeless.

Walking around downtown Port-au-Prince by foot, it feels as if the destruction is so complete that Haiti will never get back on its feet. But most of Haiti's land was not effected by the earthquake.

The north of the country was untouched, as was its far south-west. The town of Mirogane about 120 miles west of Port-au-Prince was badly hit, as was the southern coastal town of Jacmel. But the port of St. Marc just 70 miles north of Port-au-Prince was largely spared.

In Port-au-Prince and surroundings, where most of Haiti's population is concentrated, it's a different story. The National Palace is caved in, the justice ministry smashed to the ground, as are so many other government buildings. Thousands of Haitians have set up refugee camps that have seen little aid so far. A week after the destruction, there are still corpses on the sidewalk.

The smell is dizzying. This area has been the scene of some of the tensions that have sparked looting and shooting.

But drive just ten minutes away, and life is picking up again. Businesses may be shuttered. Many owners have died or lost their staff or fear returning to work because of looting. But the market was bustling on early this week, with Haitians selling wilted lettuce, squash, pineapples, and crackers. Women sold charcoal and sandals and men were even shining shoes.

Medales Blanc cuts slices of dough and fills it with chicken in tomato sauce to make fritters. He says that he expects business to slip because Haitians have lost their life savings and work. But several people linger around his stand waiting to buy the greasy morsels.

We took a helicopter ride with the US Navy on Saturday, and the degrees of destruction were even more apparent then. Rows of homes throughout the city are still standing. In others areas, entire hillsides have literally crashed to the ground, the destruction so intense you lose your breath just looking at it.

Some of the worst-hit areas lie outside Port-au-Prince. Towns from Carrefour west, to Carrefour Dufort, are decimated. One of the most powerful signs of the quake was on the road between Léogâne and Carrefour Dufort, where the highway splits in two and one of the craters made by the earthquake goes down 30 feet. I dropped a ten-foot palm leaf to see how far it went down and it disappeared from sight.

And yet driving into Port-au-Prince from the Dominican Republic, the outlying towns seem to be hardly touched. Stores are open, streets are jammed.

To be sure, the entire country has been impacted, and will feel the pain and loss from the earthquake for generations to come. Some who've lost everything in Port-au-Prince have already made their ways to friends and family in undamaged towns, putting a strain on local resources.

But there are also standing structures where residents are seeking to attempt a to begin new chapter in their lives.

"I opened my store today because I did not know what else to do," says Destin Emanuel, who has been running a plumbing shop in Petion-Ville for the past ten years and opened up for the first time the Monday after the quake.

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