Nothing can prepare you for Port-au-Prince. Not watching the devastation on CNN for a week. Not viewing a Time magazine photo montage of blue-tinged bodies in rigor mortis. Nothing.
Perhaps the only thing that prepared me were grainy black-and-white photographs that I had seen of Berlin and Tokyo in the summer of 1945, cities reduced to endless stretches of rubble. Port-Au-Prince looks as if it had been bombed mercilessly from the air by a powerful foe.
It hits you slowly. As you make the long drive from Santo Domingo and cross the border into Haiti, you first think, “Thank goodness. The earthquake wasn’t nearly as bad as described.” We saw a few homes that had collapsed on the outskirts of the city and heard the tragic story of a grandmother who had been crushed under a collapsed roof. But 300,000 dead? The estimates had to be exaggerated.
Then you get nearer, and the tent and squatter cities of the endless number of homeless, sitting outside their makeshift abodes with little to do and looking like ghosts, begin to hit you.
But only when you get into the very heart of the city, ground zero of the quake’s devastation, does a world of pure destruction open before you. One of out every two buildings collapsed like pancakes, creating giant tombs in the city’s heart. The stench of death, inescapable, is all around you. No one will ever know how many are buried inside these mountains of wreckage. It took the ancient Roman empire hundreds of years to collapse and become a city of ruins. But Mother Nature accomplished the task in Haiti in a matter of seconds.
As you drive through the downtown, what makes the scene even more macabre are the hundreds of people who walk through the rubble and the cars that traverse the devastation, seemingly barely cognizant of the apocalypse that is all around them. Barely a store is open. The electricity is long gone. But people walk through, determined, as if the heart of the city still beats.
The airport, if you can call it that, is a scene of vast quantities of supplies strewn about, bubble-wrapped and waiting to be distributed. The U.N. compound – a vast blizzard of white vehicles bearing black U.N. letters – sits immediately nearby. Every country on earth seems to be represented, and one can verily hear people speaking tongues – that is, every known tongue. Never have I witnessed such an extensive relief effort. I was greeted warmly by soldiers of every nationality, from the Brazilians who bought groceries next to me, to the Indians who smiled when I waved, to the Italians who fought to maneuver their giant convoy through the traffic-clogged streets, to the Peruvians who tried to clear a way for them to pass.
And everywhere – dominating air, sea, and land – are the Americans. From the airport field hospital operated by the sleep-deprived heroes of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, to the awesome site of Air Force Ospreys rising vertically and then taking horizontal flight, to the giant C-130 transports landing and making the earth shake, to the American Homes passing through the streets with smiling soldiers atop, the American people are providing the lion’s share of international relief.
I came to Haiti with my friend Glen Megill of the Christian humanitarian organization Rock of Africa and my eldest daughter, Mushki. Last Thanksgiving we visited Zimbabwe to distribute corn seed and mosquito nets and now we were in Haiti to visit an orphanage. I came directly from broadcasting a radio show at the Super Bowl in Miami and then watching the game with my family, following a nephew’s bar mitzvah. A different side of America was on display this past weekend in South Florida. Saints fans turned Ocean Drive into the French Quarter’s Bourbon Street. All-party-all-the-time. A country whose biggest cultural event of the year is a bunch of enormous guys hitting each other as hard as their muscles would allow. I am a huge football fan. But the way in which the Super Bowl dominates the American television landscape instead of, say, the debate over health care is a little difficult to comprehend. But make no mistake: This is a nation that plays hard but knows when it’s time to get serious.
And as I watched the world coalesce around the tragedy of the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, the paradox of the world’s achieving the ancient messianic vision of global unity only through tragedy and sport began to gnaw at me. The only time I had ever seen so many people of so many different nationalities coming together in such harmony was at the Olympics I had witnessed in Barcelona, Lillehammer, and Salt Lake City.
The United Nations, a body that has long disgraced itself by its hatred of Israel and its defense of Arab dictators, is doing an awe-inspiring job. Haiti has also seen the near-universal praise of Israel as a country of unparalleled humanitarian commitment with Wycliffe Jean, arguably Haiti’s biggest celebrity and the global face of the Haitian humanitarian effort, telling me on my radio show that the Israelis outshone every other nationality in their expert professionalism and the amount of lives they saved.
Is it only in moments of competitiveness and tragedy that the world can rally as one indivisible family? Is it only through catastrophic death that the world can learn the value of life? Can we rally together only in adversarial conditions or when we are in terrible pain?
I guess that in a world so deeply fractured we should be grateful for whatever unity we can get.
I leave Haiti feeling overwhelming grief for the devastation experienced by its inhabitants, a profound respect for their courage and how little they complain, and in awe of the human capacity to draw together to help those in need.