Haiti: Aftershock

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Greetings from Port-au-Prince. This is the first time since arriving I’ve had enough internet access to be able to blog — though I’ve found twittering in bursts has been doable. Here, here and here are the three stories I’ve filed thus far with more to come — seems I’m going to stick around Haiti a while. After all, when they pick a whole new ministry and rebuild parliament and the presidential palace, some political reporter will have to cover it! Okay, maybe not that long…

I got up early this morning, literally shaken out of bed by a 6+ earthquake (the Washington Post called it 6.0 but many folks here said it was 6.1). For a few minutes it was scary: the swaying buildings, people running into the street screaming in fear. But then — as they do every night together in the streets — people by the dozens by our hotel clasped hands and began to sing. It was a beautiful moment, suspended in hope just as dawn broke.

Unfortunately, the day has not been so blessed. Thugs tried to bust into the prison downtown and free prisoners, I’m told by aid workers. Looting got out of hand, sparking an hour-long gun fight with police, also downtown. More buildings collapsed — one hopes they were empty (they probably were as Haitians have been too terrified of aftershocks like this one to return to the structures left standing). Floors cracked in the Olafson Hotel, where many journalists are staying. And rescue workers fretted that those still trapped and alive weren’t killed by shifting debris.

Rescue teams pulled a woman from the ruins of the archdiocese yesterday — a week after the earthquake — and three dog units found signs of life in a collapsed four-story building a few blocks away. Taiwanese, Mexican and South African search and rescue teams used sonar to locate the body and worked through the day to free him/her, praying the early morning aftershock didn’t deliver a killing blow.

Aside from the looting, attempted prison breaks, gun battles and roving SAR teams, Port-au-Prince continued its path back to normalcy. I know that sounds weird, but today for the first time we encountered rush hour traffic. Men in suits picked their way around the corpses still scattered around town, handkerchiefs to their mouths. An increasing number of stores are open and lines are easing at gas stations. For the first time since arriving five days ago I smelt a pleasant odor in Port-au-Prince: cooking food. And Jesse Jackson dropped in for a humanitarian visit, I’m told.

At the archdiocese, volunteers and church employees picked through the rubble. Still trapped beneath the remains of the cathedral were upwards of 50 bodies: two full choirs were practicing when the quake hit. Only one singer escaped alive. This morning’s aftershock toppled what was left of their prize stain glass window — the delicate face of Christ gazed benevolently from its center through the worst week in Haiti’s history. Church workers took the loss in stride. Maurice Jean Bois, 72, a carpenter for the church for more than 16 years, this morning triumphantly pulled from the ruins an oil painting of Joseph Serge Miot, Haiti’s beloved arch bishop who died in the earthquake. “For everything lost, something is gained,” he said, grinning.