‘Speechless.’ Shock of another devastating earthquake rocks Miami’s Little Haiti
Miami Herald / Bianca Padro Ocasio, Devoun Cetoute, Carl Juste / August 14, 2021
Edwina Paul, a hair salon owner, landed in Miami on Saturday morning after visiting her hometown in Haiti, when her phone froze with a barrage of WhatsApp messages and calls she was receiving, all at once.
“When I finally pick up the phone, and they was like, ‘Oh my God, where you came from is destroyed,’ ... it’s heartbreaking,” Paul said, referring to the southwestern Haitian town of Les Anglais, which is part of Jeremie in the Grand Anse region of the Caribbean country.
Images of what was left of Paul’s church, Immaculate Conception Parish, were already going viral. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake that hit an area east of Les Anglais had reduced the structure to a pile of rubble, apparently falling on a crowd that was attending a baptism ceremony at the time.
“I lost almost 25 people from my church,” said Paul. “We’ve been through so many things. We just lost our president. Now, it’s an earthquake. I’m like, enough is enough, I feel like I don’t have no tears in my eyes anymore, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do.”
Paul, who was making a stop in the Little Haiti Cultural Center on Saturday, is one of many Haitians living abroad who are reeling from the news of the devastating earthquake that has killed an estimated 304 people, a death toll that is expected to climb, and injured many others. The disaster is slightly more than a month since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, which has sunk the country into a deep political crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The news of the earthquake resonated with South Florida’s sizable Haitian-American community, many of whom were trying to reach family members back home even as musicians and business owners prepared to host a lively all-day Caribbean Market Day.
Down the street at Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, Maritza Reiher lit a candle in prayer for her home country.
Reiher, 52, came to Florida from Haiti to celebrate a baptism. She has lived in the country her whole life, surviving the historic 2010 earthquake.
This new disaster has brought back bad memories for Reiher, of when she was nearly trapped in her office building more than a decade ago during that earthquake. She doesn’t expect life to be the same when she travels back home.
“Everyone is going to be afraid,” Reiher said. “No one is going to want to go back inside for days if not weeks.”
Jean Dondy Cidelca, who leads historical tours of Little Haiti and other neighborhoods in Miami, said he wasn’t in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake that hit near Port-au-Prince and killed an estimated 300,000 people. But the images he has seen emerge from Saturday’s earthquake and the aftershocks reminded him of the stories he heard about 10 years ago.
“It takes me back,” said Cidelca, 28, who has close family in the central Haitian town of Cabaret. “I’ve reached out to my cousin, to my neighbors, and so far they haven’t responded. ... I’m hoping for the best.”
Theresa Therilus, North Miami’s city manager who is of Haitian descent, said every Haitian she’s spoken to since the earthquake is feeling equally helpless over the mounting crises that have hit Haiti, including Tropical Storm Grace, which is threatening the region.
“North Miami has the largest population of Haitians in the country, and many are still looking back to their family members. ... Everyone is devastated,” said Therilus. “We’ve continued even with dealing with the TPS (Temporary Protected Status), trying to continue that based on 2010, and now we have another disaster.”
Although Saturday afternoon was too soon to understand the magnitude of the catastrophe, some organizations in Miami were already planning to jump-start aid efforts. Therilus said the city would likely get involved in collecting basic items or raising funds after “a good assessment of the situation and figure out the hard-hit areas.”
Marleine Bastien, a leader in South Florida’s Haitian community and executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, said in a statement that her organization was still figuring out how to best help Haitians affected by the earthquake and asked potential volunteers to reach out.
“We all woke up with terrible news of yet another crisis,” said Bastien in the statement. “As we continue to assess a fluid situation to develop a relief effort to support our brothers and sisters, we ask for your prayers for a country that was already crumbling under the weight of one of the worst political crises of its history.”
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who represents parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, thanked the Biden administration in a statement for pledging immediate support to Haiti and hoped to see the same “extraordinary level of generosity” by the public as in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
“It is a tragedy that the people of Haiti, who have given new meaning to the word resilience, must now deal with yet another tragic event,” her statement read.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime said he was saddened to hear of “yet another shocking, incomprehensible and tragic chapter” of Haiti’s history.
“We weep and pray most especially for those Haitian children whose lives over the past 11 years have been so traumatically and painfully filled with emotional scars. Scars that will probably take longer to heal than the country itself,” Monestime said in a statement. “It is our hope that after this natural disaster, the Haitian people find peace at last, and resolve more than ever to leave a more stable republic and steadier ground for the children of Haiti to inherit.”
Jeffrey Watson, commissioner of Miami’s District 5, which includes the neighborhood of Little Haiti, said he was praying for the Haitian community in the City of Miami for little loss of life.
“The enormity of the earthquake will undoubtedly cause disruption in the lives of so many and we as a city stand steadfast by in our support that you will need in the days and weeks to come,” Watson said in a statement, adding the city would be preparing ways to help residents affected.
Other local officials, including Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, published messages on Twitter to offer their support.
Some Haitians in Miami, however, said they wanted others to be skeptical of some of the fundraising efforts that might follow the disaster so as to not repeat the mistakes of 2010, where the flood of humanitarian aid and donations pledged to victims did little to change the conditions of many residents who suffered losses.
“We have to make sure that the predators of Haiti don’t get to take advantage of us again like they did the first time, so everybody be aware,” said Nandy Martin, 47, who suggested donations be made in cryptocurrency so they can be traced.
Gepsie Metellus, the executive director of the Haitian-American organization Sant La, said she was anxious about the fact that many crucial supplies will be difficult to transport to the areas that have been most affected by the earthquake because of gangs that have taken over certain southern cities. In addition to the lack of government power, she said she would have hoped the government learned lessons from 2010 to disseminate accurate preliminary information about the extent of the damage.
“It’s beyond believable,” said Metellus. “We had to wait for news to trickle in. And I get you’re not going to know this immediately, and I get this is the south, but there should’ve been a lesson from 2010.”
For some Haitian Americans with family back in their country, the images of the earthquake were almost too much to bear. Martin said he’s stayed away from the images emerging from the earthquake to avoid being consumed by sadness. “I still have the same pictures from the last time, so I don’t need them in high resolution. It’s the same emotion,” said Martin.
And for Sandy Dorsainvil, managing director of the Little Haiti Cultural Center, the compounded crises in Haiti were beginning to feel insurmountable.
“I think we’re speechless,” said Dorsainvil. “The word ‘resilient,’ I don’t know if we have more resiliency left.”