Our current domestic problems, from running out of heating oil because the lorry couldn’t reach us, to the continuing failure of American Airlines to deliver my mother-in-law’s suitcase, all faded into insignificance on Tuesday night when news broke of the calamity in Haiti. The horror of such human suffering instantly put all petty concerns into perspective.
We watched it unfold on CNN. It’s not a network we normally use, but we wanted to get close to the heart of the story and CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta is only a thousand miles from the tragedy.
It was brilliant coverage. While the BBC had a rather scared newsreader desperately waiting for any sort of expert to rescue him and Sky relied on a hastily drawn map, CNN was painting graphic images of what life must have been like at that very moment in the poverty-stricken country.
Satellite maps swooped into close-ups of thousands of tiny shanty dwellings. You wouldn’t be able to see anything from the air, said the commentator, because of the dust from the disintegrated reinforced concrete. It’s nighttime: the power is out so there’s no street lighting, just thousands of tiny braziers the locals use for heating, lighting and cooking. They spun the map across the devastated region: from presidential palace, across the desperate shacks in the sea plain (no sewage, no running water, two million people in a city built for 50,000) to the smarter hills where the diplomats live and where a hospital had just collapsed.
CNN found a correspondent in its newsroom who had family there, another who’d just returned from the city, then a UN representative, tearfully fearful for her colleagues in the collapsed mission. A reporter drew diagrams on a map with an electronic crayon showing how the plates of the quake had moved and which parts of the country were likely to be affected most. It was exemplary television journalism, but even they couldn’t begin to portray the terror that must have swept through the city of Port au Prince less than two hours before.
It’s impossible for those who haven’t felt it directly to understand the power and dread of an earthquake. I lived for five years in Los Angeles and used to joke how disappointed I was that in all that time I’d only experienced one wimpy tremor. It was in the middle of a meeting where the room rocked gently for a few seconds like the deck of an ocean liner. Everyone froze, then breathed a communal sigh of relief.
I mocked Jo when we first started living together because she made us keep a large plastic bin outside the house, with fresh water, tins of food, torches, a radio and a change of clothes. I thought it ludicrous at the time, but watching the news on Tuesday night, she and her mother recounted stories of another January night in 1994, when a 6.7 strength earthquake struck less than five miles from their own home in Los Angeles.
They told of being awakened in pitch darkness by the terrible volcanic roar of grinding rocks; of being flung like dolls across the room, their desperate attempts to cling together under a doorway, clutching their petrified howling dog; of the fear that the earth would swallow them up; of their relief in the morning to find their home largely undamaged, only to see that their neighbour’s had slid down the hillside to destruction just a block away.
That night just 72 people died: if it hadn’t been 4.30 in the morning, and if building regulations had been less stringent, the toll would have been far higher. The sort of concrete they’re digging corpses out of in Haiti has been banned in California for generations. Poor Haiti. We must give them everything we can.