Finding peace in post-disaster Haiti

As an AP reporter covering the earthquake, I anticipated violent mayhem. What I discovered was a country united

Published May 26, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

Displaced Haitians walk the streets amidst collapsed buildings and rubble in downtown Port Au Prince Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, in Port au Prince, Haiti.  (AP/Julie Jacobson)
Displaced Haitians walk the streets amidst collapsed buildings and rubble in downtown Port Au Prince Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, in Port au Prince, Haiti. (AP/Julie Jacobson)

This article originally appeared in Acts of Witness, a magazine of the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism.

On January 17, 2010, five days after the earthquake in Haiti, while hurrying to a press conference in the back of a pickup truck, I spotted two bodies lying in the sun. This should not have been remarkable. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of corpses were strewn in the rubble those days, the air thick with their sour-sweet smell. But as I got closer, I could see these were different. They showed no sign of decomposition. When I yelled for the truck to stop and jumped out, it became clear: The young men sprawled facedown on the asphalt weren’t earthquake victims at all. Blood still ran from a single, recent gunshot wound to the back of each head. Their hands were tied together, and to one another’s, with a loop of twine. The fingers of the young man on the left, reaching out from a tan patterned shirt, still twitched.

I was in my third year as the lone Associated Press correspondent in Port-au-Prince when the quake struck. Suddenly, I was joined by journalists from all over the world. The double homicide on Route de Delmas could easily have led our main story for the day, fitting cleanly with the angle emerging in most news reports within 72 hours of the quake: the onset of violence.

The morning of the double homicide was a Sunday. Lt. Gen. P.K. “Ken” Keen, the top commander of U.S. forces in Haiti, was making the rounds on the network talk shows, alleging an increase in violence in the quake zone and noting his troops would heighten their focus on security in response. Keen’s interviewers pressed for more. Fox News’ Brit Hume told Keen, “I understand that jails were affected and criminals were running loose.” NBC’s David Gregory asked, “How many U.S. troops will be required to keep Haiti secure?” (Keen replied that he didn’t know.) News reports had been circulating, based on statements by a United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson, that the WFP’s warehouses had been looted.  That report was untrue: WFP had walked back its mistaken announcement within hours. News stories were widely quoting a spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti warning on January 14 that Haitians were “slowly getting more angry and impatient.” Fox News ratcheted that soundbite into a headline: “Haiti Nears Breaking Point as Aid Is Snarled, Looters Roam.”Only six hours after the quake, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who’d been in Haiti the week before, explained to CNN that he did not expect widespread violence but added, “obviously, looting may be an issue. People are so poor. [It’s the] the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”

Those stories and others like them added to the palpable perception that things were getting worse.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the headlines chased danger. When catastrophe strikes—whether an earthquake leveling a Latin American city or a hurricane sloshing onto a U.S. shore—it is often assumed that social disintegration will follow. The assumption starts with the first responders, the (mostly) men sent to rescue survivors and prevent chaos. In Haiti, most of the first responders were accordingly soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines—men trained to contain violence, intimidate criminals, and control disparate populations. Forty-two countries deployed their militaries to Haiti. The U.S. contingent alone would number 20,000 troops at the high-water mark in late January; a third of its $1.5 billion relief budget went through the Pentagon and its contractors, according to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

Even for outsider civilians responding to disaster zones, disorder can be a prevailing preoccupation. Security briefings become as essential as equipment checks; rescue crews deployed by the U.S. Agency for International Development received such briefings before leaving for, and then another upon arriving in, the disaster zone. In Haiti, where an undermanned national police force and United Nations peacekeepers and staff were hit hard by the quake, security concerns were paramount. On Jan. 18, the Washington Post warned: “There could be mass violence as hundreds of thousands of people suddenly lacking food, water and electricity begin to compete for scarce resources.” The paper headlined its story “Anxiety mounts in lawless Haiti.”

So if I had billed the apparent murders of these two men as evidence of burgeoning chaos, neither my editors nor readers would have flinched. But I would have been wrong. As I interviewed people in the small crowd gathering around the bodies, a different story came into view. No matter whom the bystanders blamed for the shooting—some said police, others their neighbors—everyone agreed on the same basic points: The dying men were from another part of Port-au-Prince. They had been caught stealing something, and their deaths represented communal justice done. Far from a lawless struggle over scarce resources, the lynching was a sign of continuing order.

Even before the earthquake, in Haiti — with Port-au-Prince’s understaffed police, overcrowded prisons, and underpaid, easily bribed judges — the preservation of order often came through a vigilante mob. The post-quake idiosyncrasy here was having dragged the two men’s bodies to a main thoroughfare. Some witnesses said it was a warning to others not to steal. It might also have been a convenient means of disposal. A few hours later, a dump truck collecting earthquake victims would come by. The slain men would be thrown into the back and driven with the rest, to be buried in mass graves outside of town.

I called in the story, and gave the context. An editor stuck it into the morning story where it belonged: near the bottom. As the days and weeks that followed would confirm, the bodies in the road weren’t signs of trouble to come. Haiti, despite what you might have heard, stayed calm.


Post-disaster myths are amazingly durable in the face of countervailing evidence. Take disease. Repeated studies, dating back to the work of K.A. Western in the 1970s and since, have emphasized that disasters do not typically lead to epidemics. One more recent study, published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, studied 600 disasters between 1985 and 2004 and found only three were followed by a “significant outbreak” of disease. A prevailing subset of the myth — that large numbers of unburied corpses will spread disease — has been disproven so many times it’s impossible to count. Yet survivors, first responders and journalists expect people to get sick anyway. One United Nations worker in Haiti recounted in an internal memo that she and her colleagues could not leave their heavily-guarded security compound in part because, “there was talk of cholera, typhoid … and malaria, and infection was everywhere.” (Not only was that not true, but the first case of cholera ever recorded in Haitian history would not occur for another 10 months, when UN peacekeepers introduced the disease by dumping infected sewage into a river.)

The same goes for the myths of violence and panic. In disaster after disaster, the fear returns that people — under stress, freed by circumstance from the bonds of authority — will turn on one another. The clear consensus is that this has no basis in reality. In his landmark 1954 paper dispelling the myth of panic, E.L. Quarantelli, the father of modern disaster theory, noted that the existing literature at the time was “almost completely nonempiric.” In other words, people believed in the panic myth because nobody had really studied the evidence before.

Many disaster experts think such myths are propagated largely by Hollywood. Weeks before the quake, I’d watched the apocalyptic fantasy film 2012. Amid city-swallowing temblors, volcanoes and tsunamis, survivors drove each other off roads, abandoned one another atop glaciers and stampeded the innocent to their deaths. In 2008’s Cloverfield, a hand-held camera lingers on a group of mostly black men who’ve chosen to loot plasma-screen TVs while an alien monster smashes the Manhattan block around them. This Hobbesian nightmare is summed up in an ad for Eli Roth’s new horror flick, Aftershock, set in a thinly disguised Chilean quake zone: “The only thing more terrifying than mother nature is … human nature.”

A leading disaster expert, Erik Auf der Heide of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suspects another form of transmission: the news media. “Those are pretty widespread beliefs not only by first responders but also the mass media … There are people whose business it is to make things look dramatic,” he explained. “It just seems logical [to them] that people would panic in disasters.” Dozens of studies have been done on the overemphasis on violence in the coverage in 2005 of Hurricane Katrina. Some alleged racism: a 2006 study from Tufts University argued that “a disproportionate media tendency to associate Blacks with crime and violence” led to “exaggerated and inaccurate reports regarding criminal activity in Katrina’s aftermath.” My colleagues at AP came under fire for a photo caption describing a black storm survivor submerged in water “after looting a grocery store” while an Agence France Presse photo described white survivors, in a superficially identical moment, “after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.” An AP spokesman explained our caption: “[The photographer] saw the person go into the shop and take the goods, and that’s why he wrote ‘looting’ in the caption.”

The consensus since the storm has been that, however accurate individual reports may have been, the overall tenor of the coverage was wrong. A U.S. Congressional committee formed weeks after the hurricane to evaluate the efficacy of the response was blunt, asserting that, “Media hype of violence exacerbated public concerns and further delayed relief.”

Yet authorities themselves showed an equal — and often far more dangerous — tendency to overreact. Trymaine Lee, part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Katrina coverage at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, wrote a scathing report from New Orleans five years later for The New York Times. Having taken time to investigate and reflect, he reported that despite a popular belief that the storm zone had been an inherently violent place, “Today, a clearer picture is emerging … including white vigilante violence, police killings, official cover-ups and a suffering population far more brutalized than many were willing to believe.”

Kathleen Tierney, a sociologist and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, has called this reaction “elite panic” — a “pathological fear” of social disorder that might threaten the standing, property, and political power of the well-off. She argues that the vicious reactions of police that Lee described, empowered by poor journalism at the time, might have hampered rescue efforts by emphazing looting prevention, while “resident-to-resident helping behavior [might have been] prevented or suppressed because people were afraid to venture out to help their neighbors out of fear of being killed or arrested.”

These ideas have become near-orthodoxy among those who study disaster, yet are little known outside the academy – including among first responders to disaster. When Hurricane Sandy blasted across the East Coast in October 2012, authorities again went on alert for social breakdown. Their vigilance was intensified by the widespread blackout that befell all of Lower Manhattan. Seven thousand National Guard members fanned out across the eastern seaboard to aid in “transportation, security and supply.” An online NBC News piece, dated Oct. 31, 2012, insisted, “Looting fears persist as much of New York City stays dark.” But the only official reports of looting were thefts on Brooklyn’s Coney Island, and the arrests of 15 suspected burglars in the Rockaways. They were included in a New York Times story — 72 hours after the disaster — headlined, “New York Region Faces Rescues, Looting and a Rising Death Toll.”

A better headline might have better been: “New York Region Faces Rising Death Toll, Citizens Band Together.” Residents of affected areas say that even where they saw some crime, it wasn’t an overwhelming feature of the days after the storm. Jonathan Gaska, a district manager of the community board for the Rockaways, recalled, “There was no rioting, none of that was going on.” Gaska also talked about people stealing things from stores or abandoned homes, but he emphasized, “It was a very small segment of the population.” Jamie Najer, the owner of a Coney Island corner deli, also said there was looting “in the areas where there is always crime,” but noted: “In this neighborhood it was more like family. We helped each other out.” Emily Raisanen saw the same as she ventured into the flooded streets of Hoboken, N.J., to find generator-powered restaurants giving away free food. “We were all going through the same thing,” she explained, “and dealt with it until ‘normal’ life returned.”

That does not mean reports of crime in Coney Island or the Rockaways were false. Some crime did happen. It is likely too that there were crimes that went unreported, though experts such as Auf der Heide point out that what is reported as “looting” can also be the recovery of otherwise unavailable necessities, or even the salvaging of the accused’s own property. In fact, after the storm, crime across New York City fell. From Monday, Oct. 29, the day the storm hit, through Friday, Nov. 2, there was an 86 percent decline in murder, compared to the same period one year before, according to the New York Police Department. There was a 48 percent decline in larceny, a 44 percent decline in rape, a 31 percent decline in assault, a 30 percent decline in robbery, and a 24 percent decline in grand larceny auto. Burglary did rise—by 3 percent. Overall, there were 1,061 crimes committed in a city of 8 million people over the week after the storm, compared to 1,541 in 2011. Statistics were similar throughout the storm zone. Experts say this is typical.


The thousands of troops dispatched to Haiti came as soldiers do: well-armed and anticipating all possible threats.  Once the military was named the lead in quake response, this posture was inevitable, said retired Col. Gary Anderson, a former Marine with decades of experience in foreign disaster response. Anderson says the military is useful in a disaster because of its logistical skill, but “it’s a blunt instrument,” too prone to resort to force. (In a piece written, four days after the quake, for Haiti’s first responders and published in Small Wars Journal, Anderson advised, “The last thing you need to have on CNN is American troops clubbing desperate villagers like baby seals at a relief distribution site.”) After the mission was over, U.S. Army Maj. Kelly L. Webster, a top officer in Haiti, characterized his experience after the quake in the Small Wars Journal: “Foreign Disaster Relief is Counterinsurgency,” he wrote, invoking the strategies employed in Iraq and Afghanistan, “only no one is shooting at you (yet).” I recall a pair of armed, twenty-something U.S. soldiers in late January 2010, controlling a checkpoint in the face of a dozen shouting Haitian men. Speaking no Kreyòl, the soldiers had no idea the men were simply trying to start a conversation — thanking the Americans for keeping the road clear and asking them for jobs.

The soldiers had no idea the men were simply trying to start a conversation — thanking the Americans for keeping the road clear and asking them for jobs.

It doesn’t always have to be that way. Anderson recalled a debate he had with his commanding general during the response to the 1991 tropical cyclone in Bangladesh, which killed an estimated 138,000 people. Anderson’s commander wanted the U.S. landing team to go in without weapons, which he thought would make for a less threatening posture. Anderson, a survivor of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, disagreed. Ultimately the general won the argument, and the Marines left their weapons offshore. Anderson eventually came to the opinion that coming with a less-threatening posture ultimately made their assistance more effective. “If we’d gotten ashore and there had been a lot of looting around our headquarters, we would have rethought that decision,” he said.

That pacific posture wasn’t deployed in Haiti. Paratroopers landed, rifles in hand, on the lawn of the destroyed National Palace, while thousands more troops waited aboard warships in the bay of Port-au-Prince, never to disembark. The U.S. Southern Command cited “serious concerns within the (U.S. government) and international community that the security situation could sharply deteriorate, and that the U.S. military might have to provide security broadly in the affected areas and beyond.” (Anderson, who was not in Haiti, said he agreed with that posture, noting: “The Haitians are very demonstrative people, loud, and there’s insecurity there on a good day much less a bad day.”)

UN peacekeepers, whose ranks also swelled after the quake, organized food distributions with a defensive posture, herding thousands of Haitians into open squares under the sun’s apogee, then standing in front of food with riot shields, clubs and rifles at the ready, pepper-spraying and beating people as they came to get the food, with no clear provocation. News accounts often referred to these scenes as “riots.”

Nowhere did news coverage, authorities and perhaps more than a touch of “elite panic” converge more clearly than along a stretch of Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The heart of Port-au-Prince’s commercial district was known as the “Grand Rue,” many of its stores and warehouses owned by Haiti’s wealthiest families. Some people came there after the disaster to recover or steal supplies, including food, from the rubble. Police and soldiers followed. So did the cameras. That was where, on the sixth day after the quake, a Haitian boy was standing near a store where people were fighting over boxes of candles. A chunk of concrete lobbed from the melee struck the boy in the head, cutting him and releasing a stream of blood. Moments later, the boy was in the arms of Anderson Cooper; the CNN anchor had been taping nearby, and his crew kept filming as he carried the child a few feet away, lifting him over a pile of debris. Some other Haitians came by and took the child with them (possibly to seek a doctor, though Cooper couldn’t say).

For many viewers, the moment became a defining image of both Haiti and the CNN star. The American network aired the video for days, often heightening the drama and Cooper’s heroism by stressing the “graphic nature of the footage.” Cooper described his actions in a blog post titled, “In the midst of looting chaos.” But the news channel did not provide any context for the moment. Was this situation typical? Was it indicative of a larger trend?

In fact, Grand Rue melees were the exception, not the rule. Just as in New York after Sandy, responders and many journalists looking back on the postquake moment would highlight the lack of unrest in their after-action reports, often crediting their own presence, such as the UN adviser who told the Los Angeles Times: “There has been no rioting over food, and we avoided people dying of hunger or thirst. This is no small accomplishment.” As Auf der Heide has written, “Even when looting is not actually observed, that fact is often attributed to the extraordinary security measures that have been taken rather than the fact that such behavior is inherently uncommon.”

As in New Orleans, there was a price to the preoccupation with unrest, which shifted priorities unnecessarily and sowed panic. The command-and-control organizational structure of the military meant that responders often stayed close to base, overly centralizing efforts and leaving parts of the quake zone unattended for days. Search-and-rescue teams deployed into the field were forced to return to base on vague reports of civil unrest. Haitians were left to wonder, as former Haitian defense minister Patrick Elie did, why so much focus had been putting on bringing soldiers instead of humanitarians. “The foreign countries that came to our aid fell victim to their own propaganda,” Elie told me in 2010. “They were afraid of a monster that never existed except in their own fantasies … that Haitians are bloodthirsty savages.” (In retrospect, many of the responders have come to agree. Perhaps out of embarrassment, USAID refused to grant a phone interview for this article about its security protocols in post-quake Haiti.)

In the aftermath of the quake, life in Haiti went on. Sometimes that meant crime, or violent attempts at preserving order. Sometimes Haitians feared that violence might come from another neighborhood, or a different part of the country. But as in New York and New Orleans, most Haitians who lived in the quake zone remembered above all the compassion and community that arose after the disaster: families sharing meager supplies of food and water, people risking injury to save others from the rubble, acquaintances embracing like long-lost siblings each time they met. As a Haitian friend in the quake zone once put it, “Everyone was uniting, everyone was participating, everyone was collaborating.” In the hours after the quake, long before the first responders could arrive, I recall Haitians on a downtown road waiting patiently for plates of cooked food for sale under the flicker of a generator-powered light. Everyone standing there knew the days ahead would be difficult, and that they only way to get through them was together.

By Jonathan M. Katz

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