Waking up to the sound of rain pounding the cobblestone terrace outside my bedroom, I pull open the curtain. My grandmother’s delicate orchids try to resist the wind. Her bamboo groves, tall and strong, seem on the point of surrender to the inclement weather. How bad is it? I think to myself.
The night before I couldn’t shut an eye. I pictured the natural disaster hitting our beloved island in the next couple of hours: flooding, landslides, entire homes and families ripped apart.
It was predicted that Matthew, a Category 4 hurricane, would make landfall at 6 a.m., decimating thousands of over-crowded communities and the farms and livestock that barely sustain the Haitian majority.
If it got as bad as they said it would – the politicians, the journalists, the meteorologists - would we still be okay? Late Sunday afternoon, my uncle called from New York. "The storm is approaching you. Go to your grandmother’s, you’ll be safer there.”
Our house in the Kenscoff mountains is surrounded by dense forest. When open, the big windows in our living room become a gateway for songbirds that confuse our wooden windowsills for branches. The space radiates serenity but could quickly become a nightmare under siege from a powerful storm.
Quietly, mindfully, I begin to go through a list of names. The names of people I care about deeply – people who have welcomed me into their lives and shared with me their most vulnerable moments.
First, I think of Venel’s family in Dessalines. It has been only a few months since the passing of their dear son. Venel, a timid and loving boy, became a close friend during my last semester of college when I photographed his journey undergoing heart surgery due to complications in his aortic valve. Moments were spent by his hospital bed, hoping his weak heart wouldn’t fail him. But it did.
Then, I remember Stephanie. During my last visit to her home in Martissant, an area that most avoid because of constant gang violence, she described the panic her family faces when it rains. “Water begins to fill up our bedroom,” she explained, her mother and young son at her side in their shattered shanty home in the slums. “We have to get buckets and work quickly to get the water out. We don’t sleep. We do this all night long.”
Joseph comes to mind next. His cautious driving and tranquil demeanor had made our recent ten-day road trip across Haiti a smooth and memorable adventure. As we drove through rich rice patties in Petite Rivière de l'Artibonite, he danced to konpa songs playing on the radio. On our daily lunch breaks in between shoots, he offered to watch our gear as he ate rice and beans out of street vendors’ Styrofoam containers. Today, I imagine his wife and kids huddled together, seeking safety under his arms.
I continue down my mental list and picture the many faces encountered during my 16 months living in Haiti - faces that quickly became familiar through selfless smiles and acts of kindness.
Sitting in my grandmother’s room, missing her while she’s away, the flame of a candle catches my eye. It flickers as quickly as Matthew’s downpour. I look outside again. Each gust of wind, each collapsing branch, transports me to the small and imperiled towns on the southern peninsula.
I have not yet checked the morning news as I wanted to empty my heart before doing so. But grandma was ahead of me. “You know,” she whispered over the phone, “there’s a little village in the South where the river is so flooded you can’t tell it apart from the ocean.”
I sit in silence, taking in her words. Not knowing how to respond, I hang up and continue writing even as daunting headlines illuminate the shattered screen of my phone. “The storm left a broad tableau of devastation: houses pummeled into timber, crops destroyed and stretches of towns and villages under several feet of water,” commented The New York Times. “With communications still down in many of the worst-affected areas, it will take days before a definitive death toll can be established,” later published The Guardian.
waking up to Matthew
Our first instinct is to pack food and water and head south, but another news story quickly stops us in our tracks. The Ladigue bridge, which connects the Tiburon Peninsula with the rest of the country, collapsed, isolating the survivors from aid. So we wait, impatiently, for the adrenaline to soften and the emotion to sink.
I turn to my side and notice my uncle’s portrait resting on my grandmother’s nightstand. Since his passing in the earthquake, she always keeps him close – as her screensaver, in her prayers, and through her firm belief in the afterlife. I stare at his image, attempting to decipher the message encrypted in his gaze, and feel a sudden relief take over. Haitians are resilient. Haiti will always recover.