Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti, Part 2: Hoping & Waiting - Some Good News Among the Tragic

Continued from Part 1...

When I saw an online report around 6:15 this past Tuesday that there had been a “devastating earthquake” in Haiti, my first thought was “Jeanne!”

Though I haven't seen Jeanne Pocius since the '80s, most likely, and have had only a little e-mail communication with her between then and, more recently, catching up as a friend on Facebook, I knew – according to her last Facebook status – that she was leaving for Haiti on a 5:30am flight from Boston that past Thursday, unhappy about needing to be at the airport two or three hours ahead of the flight but happy, at least, to be avoiding another weekend blizzard and cold snap: she would be in Haiti for five weeks, this time.

Where she was in Haiti, I had no idea. It's a small country and it was a huge quake: how far out did the impact of the quake strike? I knew she had been in other cities in Haiti: I prayed she was not in Port-au-Prince at the time – those pictures on the news were too horrible to imagine!

So I turned to Facebook. By the next morning, I found someone had set up a page there called “Haiti Music Schools – Earthquake Info Sharing” where people were posting questions about friends and family or reporting what they had heard and whom they'd heard news about. Meanwhile, on Jeanne's profile – she has over 2,000 friends there – questions, thoughts and prayers about her whereabouts and her well-being were being posted on what is called her "wall" one after the other.

The music school page was being organized by people in the United States who'd long been involved in these schools in Haiti – Janet Anthony at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and Steven Huang at Ohio University – but it was difficult for me sometimes, being an outsider with no ties to the people there or knowledge of the local geography, to know who was who when they would mention first names only or names that might be a church, a school or a town, for all I knew. Many of the posts were in a mix of French and Creole; slips in English could be forgiven whether it was a 2nd (or 3rd) language or not. Jeanne - who is actually Jeannemarie Gabriel Pocius - is of French-Canadian heritage, by the way, and Jeanne could be a fairly common name in Haiti. This would lead to a good deal of confusion, not just for me.

Consequently, I ended up spending a good deal of time googling this information, trying to get my cyberbearings: it turned out Jeanne was in Jacmel, a provincial capital almost due south of Port-au-Prince. As the country includes a long narrow peninsula jutting out from the main bulk of the island, the southern boundary to a central bay, the capital is in the southeast corner of this bay and Jacmel is on the southernmost coast of Haiti, facing the Caribbean but not that far south from Port-au-Prince (which I found was usually abbreviated, conveniently, as PaP) but who knew what the mountains in between were like? Would Jacmel have been far enough away to escape the brunt of the quake?

Then one map in the news showed the concentric rings emanating from the epicenter just west of Port-au-Prince. Jacmel was located on one of those rings. I found the Wikipedia entry for Jacmel announcing on January 11th, the day before the quake, Jacmel announced Comfort Inn was going to be opening a new beachfront hotel there.

The next day, all that changed.

One of the first posts I saw at the Music Schools page mentioned how someone's daughter had survived at an orphanage in Jacmel, though many of her classmates had been killed: they “watched the mountain above the orphanage split.”

In the frantic quest for information and the number of posts from people in the States and those who may have been in Haiti, I can't remember exactly, now, what order they came in or what all information may have been included.

One bit of good news: two of the names mentioned I knew from Jeanne's friend-list. Carlot Dorve, whom she listed as her son, and Mackelder Saintilus (I later found a photograph - see right - of him playing principal clarinet in the band Jeanne was conducting) were in Flint, Michigan, where I gathered, they were going to be teachers themselves. Mackelder said he had arrived about a week before the quake, Carlot and two or three others a few days later. One could say they had gotten out in the knick-of-time but now they were sitting in the Frozen North worried about the state of their family, their friends, their homes, their town, their country. While I felt happy for them for being safe, I felt great empathy for their frustration in being so far away.

Given the issues-on-the-ground with basic services like electricity, water, telephones and so on, it was not hard to imagine what the internet and cell-phone service would be like. Some people were on Twitter or sending photos and video out, shot from cell-phones. Others had no service and could not. Janet and Steven posted phone numbers they had for certain people at the schools there, hoping that someone might have the time to keep calling and hoping for a response.

Some reported no service, others that they left voice-mail.

What were the chances, under the circumstances, someone's cell-phone would be functional (would they even know where it was?), that they'd have access to a computer even if they had internet service?

Then, someone – Mackelder, I believe – reported he'd talked to Pere David and that “Jeanne was in alive” but that “Ste Trinite complex is gone. No school no cathedral.” The context implied Jeanne Pocius who I thought was in Jacmel? I took “was in alive” as a typo for “was alive” - but could it mean “was in [hospital but] alive” or “in[jured but] alive”? And was this Jeanne “Jeanne Pocius” or some other Jeanne – good news, either way, but better for me if I'd known it was my friend. I asked for a clarification: was this Jeanne, Jeanne Pocius the trumpet teacher?

It took about 43 minutes before Steven Huang responded “Yes.”

For most of those 43 minutes, I think I was hitting the refresh button every 30 seconds or so to see if anybody posted an update between reading other posts and sifting through names and locations unknown to me.

It took quite some time to realize that “Ste Trinite” (Holy Trinity) was not in Jacmel: it was in Port-au-Prince. She was at the school at Dessaix-Baptiste there and it was apparently okay, still standing. THAT was good news.

So I assumed Jeanne was okay – or at least alive, which was pretty good news considering how easy the alternative could've been the case, when they're talking about a death toll in the thousands with people unaccounted for under the rubble of collapsed buildings. I mean, if large well-built banks and even the Presidential Palace could practically collapse into rubble, what chances did the poor shanty towns on the hills in and around the capital have?

At some point during the morning, I had been contacted by Diana Fishlock, a Facebook friend who is a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, looking for people in the area with connections to Haiti. After seeing my status updates about trying to find Jeanne, she contacted me. Mostly, we connected through Facebook e-mail. By the time I had heard that Jeanne was apparently alive, even though there'd been no direct confirmation from her, I wrote up some information about it and sent it to Diana, there not being enough time for a phone call and interview: she asked me a few follow-up questions (it hadn't even occurred to me that if Jeanne was a freshman student in 1976 or so, she'd be 52 now!). I had been dancing around the house at the news Jeanne was okay but I felt guilty that others were not getting such good news or were still waiting. I returned to the computer and continued to click on this site or that update, hoping to find more information.

After all, there had been no direct confirmation from her: everything was second-hand. Was that not good enough, I wondered?

Most of the day had been spent at the computer – hours went by unnoticed even more fluidly than usual. My whole day had been spent, ironically, with Facebook and on Google – and a couple of e-mails to friends of mine on Yahoo who, believe it or not, have not actually succumbed to joining Facebook! Both had known Jeanne when we were all at UConn.

I watched the news and saw more and more coverage from Haiti, relieved that I, at least, knew my one friend there was safe. But seeing so much destruction, so much misery and death, the rest of the reality there – beyond the idea of rescue – was horrifying. How could one possibly face such a thing? Suddenly, my life's problems seemed to vanish by comparison. I sat and prayed and wept and hoped.

The next morning, I was met by seeing Diana's article from the Patriot-News posted from one of Jeanne's friends on her Facebook profile. Most of the article was about families from Haiti in the area who were trying to connect with other members of their family, still there, or with people who'd served in missionary projects there in the past. At the end was my little story, finding that Jeanne was alive, the one bit of good news in the report.

There was e-mail from one of Jeanne's sisters, Marci. I had already connected through comments with her brother Jimi – I had not known either of them, before – but Marci was asking if I'd heard anything directly from Jeanne to prove she was alive.

But... but...

It had only been second-hand: there was nothing directly confirming it from Jeanne herself. And then I saw the post from someone who implied the “Jeanne” that had been reported with Pere David was possibly someone else, Jean-Bernard. Perhaps all our hopes had been built on this one misconception. Perhaps the person who had talked to Pere David had assumed it was Jeanne Pocius and not Jean-Bernard he had been talking about?

Suddenly, I was back on the ground, starting over.

Worse came the news that, no, Jeanne was not in Jacmel that day, where the school was still standing: she was scheduled to be in Port-au-Prince, at Ste. Trinite, that afternoon, the place that no longer existed...

And no one could reach Jeanne's cell-phone or other numbers that people had supplied for her. No one could reach Pere David, either, any more.

More hours trying to confirm anything, to sort out the confusion, meant more frustration spent waiting.

Meanwhile, I googled: like the information-overload commercials for Bing, I could start spewing off all kind of facts without understanding their context – about Jacmel which had a music-festival there, about the school there and in Port-au-Prince and about Ste. Trinite Cathedral.

A reporter had posted over 50 photographs from Port-au-Prince, very few of them labeled, very few of them needing labels. The ones of dead bodies under the rubble or covered by sheets – including the city's bishop – were difficult to look at. I kept searching for Jeanne, afraid to find her at all.

But there were two pictures there labeled “Ste Trinity Cathedral.” It was in very bad shape but not leveled. One of the stateside teachers who'd been there many times said that was the “catholic cathedral,” not Ste. Trinite. Confused, I tried to find out what the difference was: I didn't even know most of these people were associated with the Episcopal mission in Haiti and that it was “Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral” in Port-au-Prince, not that it mattered all that much in terms of people's lives unless you were trying to pin point with some accuracy where somebody may have been at the time of the quake!

I found that Pere David was Pere David Cesar who was the director of the school at Ste. Trinite and was also a conductor of the orchestra there: one of the posts I found was a report from Jeanne Pocius about her performance with the Ste. Trinite orchestra which included one of the most calming pieces of music I could think in times of stress like this, “The Prayer of Saint Gregory” by Alan Hovhaness (on September 11th, 2001, my colleague Cary Burkett had selected this as the music WITF would use throughout that awful day: coincidentally, it had been the performance recorded by another student of mine, Chris Gekker, who'd been in my freshman theory class when I was a teaching assistant at Eastman!). I couldn't find a performance Jeanne had made of it so I posted one I'd found at You-Tube (with organ) on my Facebook page and hers as a prayer to send out to help calm our friends who were following the news that day.

There was a report from one of the ministers in Les Cayes, a seaport further west on that narrow peninsula across the south of Haiti. It turned out the convent at Ste. Trinite had collapsed but the sisters were alright. Then he mentioned a building I later found was in Les Cayes. I asked if there was a Ste. Trinite in Les Cayes, too, or was this the one in Port-au-Prince? Someone said “In Haiti, when you talk about 'Ste. Trinite,' it's the one in PaP.” So even though the buildings there were severely damaged, people had survived. Maybe there was still hope?

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

In a time when so many people are focused on Haiti, so much mental energy, so many thoughts of love and prayers of hope have been sent there to help find information about family and friends, sending a little bit of money to help in something where we all feel, no doubt, powerless. Looking at the news photos from there, where does one even begin? It is easy to become numb: in fact, given the ubiquity of news coverage and disasters around the world – whether it was September 11th or the Christmas Tsunami in South Asia a few years ago or the earthquakes in China and, now, Haiti – it is easy to sigh and switch the channel, to focus more on the weekend's football game or the fate of Late Night TV shows. It's far away and remote from our experience, sitting comfortably in our homes not having to worry about food or having a bed to sleep in, so we don't want to spend too much attention to it because it's such a bummer.

And then, with all the needs our good Christian leaders urge us to remember – to love one another, to show compassion for our fellow men – there are thoughts sent out into the world by the likes of Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh whose words I find almost as unbelievable as the quake itself.

You can credit or discredit them on your own according to your beliefs, religious or political, as easily as you can change the channel to avoid the uncomfortable news you feel powerless to do anything about. That doesn't mean they no longer exist, they no longer have power to wound and destroy.

Robertson finds blame for the quake – he's always seems to be fixing blame, rather than just looking ahead to hope and to help when he says things like this, regardless of what the rest of his ministry may accomplish – in Haiti's “pact with the devil” to overthrow their French colonial rulers (“true story”). True or not (and it doesn't matter to him whether it is or isn't), he'd been saying stupid things like this long before Hurricane Katrina, finding reasons for natural disasters like this. And “smiting” is so Old-Testament, really: doesn't the New Testament talk about forgiveness of sins more than finding blame for the cause of it? Anyway, as for him and Rush Limbaugh, I can only respond by posting Keith Olbermann's response.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

By late afternoon, I had to leave for a meeting downtown. After running some errands, I came back to find I was having trouble with the computer: trying to get back into the Haiti Music Schools' page, one of the cats stepped on the keyboard and before I knew it, there were 25 tabs opening up for Firefox HELP which I could neither stop nor close down. I was even having trouble trying to close down the browser. So I shut down the computer – even that took a while – and I just walked away from it: how many hours had I spent on it the past two days, anyway? I needed a break and I needed to get dinner.

I had missed the news on TV but I sat down to watch Jeopardy and then Bones (one of my guilty pleasures) before getting back to the computer.

When I did, I found things on Jeanne's 'wall' that could have been wishful thinking -- “she apparently lost her cell phone” (well, yes, I had figured that was very likely, under the circumstances: was this a reason why we might not be hearing from her? Sure!). But then I started seeing other positive posts like these: since I was scrolling around trying to find something specific, I don't know what order these were originally in and it's a little difficult trying to distinguish whose posts I'm looking for, considering so many of us have changed our profile picture to the Haitian Flag (left) in support of the people there.

“Phillipe the trumpetist was pull out the rubble”

“Arianne is fine . Fritz the violist is fine . most of the sainte trinite musicians are in College st Pierre soccer field near the French ambassy.”

Oh??? And finally, I found:

“Jeanne Pontius is located at St Pierre . Near French Embassy”

I saw Jeanne's brother Jimi had posted a frustrated clarification for “Jeanne Pocius or Jeanne Pontious?” and the person responded “Pontious the trumpet-player.”


Another post I had overlooked earlier: “Fabrice said that Frito Leroy ran innto Jeanne in PAP - she has lost her phone. Pierre spoke with her as did Fabrice. Don't knwo where she is staying or how to contact her.”

“Have just learned from Fabrice Lafond that Frito LeRoy spoke with Jeanne in PAP - she is fine he says”

Then, Jimi posted: “jeannie is alive and i PAP, she lost her phone, best f****n' news i've had in years!!!!!!!!”

At 9:45, I changed my formerly uneasy status to: “{{{DANCING!!!}}} Her brother said Jeanne's in Port-au-Prince - two people have talked to her and she is OKAY! She lost her phone, has no internet access... but from what I'm seeing on her profile and from other posts at the Haitian Music Schools/Earthquake page, SHE ***IS*** ALIVE! [insert performance of "Hallelujah Chorus" here!]”

There were comments to post, celebratory e-mails to send, thanks to give and – oh yes – update my yahoo friends since they're not seeing all this stuff on Facebook ;-)

Looking back at some of these posts today, though, I'm confused that some of them are time-stamped after 11pm EST: I know I had seen them between 9:15 and 9:45. Doesn't matter, all I needed to know was she was alive. I didn't know if “being alive” equated with “being okay,” but Jeanne is a strong person: even if she weren't “okay,” her primary role would be to help the people around her. That's Jeanne. I knew that thirty years ago and it was confirmed time and time again reading the thoughts and prayers posted for her on her wall.

Today, three days after the quake, the posts continue: “Just read from the status of the Quisqueya Christian School Alumni Coordinator Els Vorvloet that people are being brought out ALIVE from Holy Trinity!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Praise GOD!”

“Skander Desrosiers just called me! He said that he is ok, in Carrefour now, he was at Ste Trinite with Jeanne, Phillippe and Mejeun when it happened. It was hard to hear...” (Phillippe “the trumpetist” had been pulled from the rubble, according to an earlier post.)

Mackelder, one of the former students now in Michigan, just got word that his family is okay – his father was injured but alive – but it is not all good news: he says he heard his university had collapsed and many students and teachers are dead.

Other people continue to wait and hope.

And the rest of the world joins with them.

To be continued: Part 3 - some before/after photographs & updates...

No comments:

Post a Comment