Port-au-Prince: The Moment

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Kozak Nick/Sipa
Survivors of the Haiti earthquake on Grand Rue, the main street in Port-au-Prince, January 18, 2010

My chair was on casters and began to roll. A large earthquake starts as a small earthquake. I saved my novel: Control+S. The horizon swayed at an angle. I had time to think many things—that’s how long the quake lasted. I thought that I should stand under the lintel of the doorway. I took my laptop and started to leave. Then, unsteady on my feet, I wondered whether the laptop wouldn’t be safer where it was. I put it back on the table. I went outside.

The office was a bungalow in a residential complex owned by a man who had made his fortune in powdered sugar. His wife had planted an elaborate garden of hanging and potted vases; they were falling or had fallen. The quake was a series of rolling waves, each sharper than the next. I expected them to stop but they didn’t. The visual effect was precisely that of the grainy videos that would later be shown on television, as of somebody shaking a camera sharply. It was tremendously loud—like huge stones grinding; I am not sure now if the sound was produced by the movement of the earth or by the simultaneous collapse of so many buildings.

I was alone on the sugar magnate’s flowery terrace. I dropped to one knee, not shaken to the ground, but unbalanced, as if I had spun around in circles too many times. It did not occur to me for a second that I might die. I was panting heavily. A fissure in the earth opened up in the concrete beside me, perhaps a foot wide, a foot deep, and at least thirty feet long. The earthquake seemed to last an immensely long time, seemed to gain in power always, and when it was over the movement of the earth did not subside or taper down: it simply stopped. For five seconds or perhaps longer, the world was perfectly still and immensely quiet. Then the screaming began.

I knew that Cristina, Leo, and Bruno—my wife, my ten-month-old son, and my father-in-law, on vacation from Italy—were at home, and that I had to get to them as quickly as possible. But I wasn’t worried. I knew that something could have happened to them but I knew that nothing had happened to them; a kind of reptilian optimism. I began to run. I had always imagined that the adrenaline response augmented one’s energies. But the opposite was true: the run to the house was all downhill, yet I was gulping for air, almost vomiting. Cristina, Leo, and Bruno were waiting for me at the bottom of the driveway. Cristina was in tears. The baby was collected and calm.

Port-au-Prince is a city of high walls, all of which came down.…


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