Fear and trembling

By Jeremy Taylor

Shaken, Not Stirred: A Survivor’s Account of the January 12, 2010, Earthquake in Haiti, by Jeanne G. Pocius
(Outskirts Press, ISBN 978-1-4327-5835-6, 192 pp)

Cemetary in Petionville, Haiti, after the January 2010 earthquake

People walk past the cemetery in Pétionville, Haiti, on 29 January, 2010. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo

The earthquake began shortly before five on a Tuesday afternoon. Jeanne Pocius, a volunteer American trumpeter, was starting a class in jazz improvisation at the Salle Ste Cecile in downtown Port-au-Prince. She had warmed up her fingers at the stage piano and set out three rows of chairs for her students, some of whom were absent or late.

For no apparent reason, her ears began to pop. She heard a strange “low rumble, like an ominous timpani roll,” and thought it had to do with nearby construction work. Then the floor began to “buck and heave.” The stage “tilted sharply, first towards the stage right side of the building, then back toward the back wall.” Pocius was spun around and tossed to the floor. She screamed to her students: “Run!”

The piano rolled sideways, then backwards down the incline. Blocks of concrete fell from the ceiling; one smashed onto the place where she had just been sitting at the piano. The lighting grid crashed down from the ceiling. In the orchestra pit left of stage, something that “looked like a small volcano” rose thirty or forty inches into the air. There was a “constant rumbling” as aftershocks followed, and more and more of the building collapsed.

There was nothing to breathe but “choking dust.” Music students were trapped in practice rooms or pinned under rubble and cement. Pocius managed to crawl eventually out of the chaos, salvaging whatever she could, pausing on the way to help beat down a steel door with music stands.

Outside, she set up a rudimentary first aid clinic, using classroom furniture, wooden doors and planks of wood for examination tables and school chairs for the exhausted and traumatised. She raided the compound guesthouse for “sheets, pillows, mattresses, clothing and robes for blankets and to tear into strips for bandages/braces/slings.”

She found some Tylenol, “tampons and sanitary napkins for soaking up blood and dressing wounds,” a bottle of ibuprofen, a small tube of antibiotic ointment, paper towels and Q-tips, Lysol, Clorox, and Listerine, witch hazel, deodorant, nasal saline solution, some iodine tablets, and Special K cereal with yogurt drops. There was no tape, no anaesthetic, no Mercurochrome, no sutures, no peroxide or gloves.

With these resources, she began to do what she could for crushed limbs and broken backs, lacerated flesh and open wounds, exposed bone and tendon, bodies with embedded cement, blood loss, shock, and those about to die. “I moved from patient to patient, striving to clean and cover wounds to prevent the incessant flies from laying eggs in them.” Crushing was the worst problem. It produced burn-like injuries which split the skin open like “the flesh of a fire-roasted pig.”

There was no point in sending even the gravest cases to hospital: any hospital still standing was already overrun. Often, “we had nothing to give them but prayers and kindness . . . An extremely emaciated and elderly man arrived on a slab of wood. Naked, he had a crushed pelvis. I brought a nightgown to cover him. I blessed him and gave him Tylenol.”

Communications were down. Ambulances sped past without slowing. The stench of death seemed like teriyaki beef or “beef jerky.”

Jeanne Pocius sounds like the sort of person one would be relieved to see from under the rubble of a collapsed building: an Earth Mother figure, practical, efficient, big-hearted, radiating kindness, care, and healing. In this personal memoir, she says little about what brought her from Boston to a music school in Haiti, and nothing about her career as a trumpeter and music teacher, or how she acquired her basic first aid skills.

What she has a lot to say about is her religious faith and her sense of vocation, her urge to serve. She once had a vision at her Armenian Apostolic church in Boston: the door opened, a brilliant white light appeared, and a “tall thin figure was revealed, robed and sandalled and carrying a shepherd’s crook”; as he passed he tapped her on the shoulder and said “Jeanne, I call you.”

Pocius believes she is on a spiritual journey, and that her Haitian experience is part of it. The night of the earthquake, she interprets shooting stars as souls going to heaven; strange white birds are signs of the Holy Spirit; she blesses her patients, lays healing hands on them. She sees good everywhere and in everyone. She rips up church robes to make bandages (to the apparent anguish of a bishop who would prefer to store them). She sees miracles happening. She believes that a “tall heroic angel” uses his sword as a fulcrum to release one of her horn students. “We have the power to command angels,” she writes. “God provides.” In the acknowledgements at the start of the book, one of the people thanked is Jesus.

There is no doubting Pocius’s sincerity, or the human value of the service she gives. She comes across as a truly good woman, optimistic, compassionate, and decisive. Her belief in education through music is admirable. Her worldview, however, is another matter. At one moment she explains that the earthquake has no cause, it is a natural event, not a divine punishment but something that “just happens.” But then she produces a startling scientific explanation:

I knew that the earthquake was not God’s doing, but a consequence of humanity’s rape of the earth. Had we not disturbed the subterranean stores of fossil fuels that provided a smooth surface and cushion upon which the tectonic plates could move, we would not be subject to such terrifying displays of the earth’s damaging power . . . And Haiti, being so close to Texas, received the brunt of it.

She assumes divine intervention wherever good stuff is happening. We are in a supernatural world of angels, spirits, miracles, visions, and flying souls. It is God’s mysterious will to call these Haitian souls home; this is to be accepted without question. When a house is left standing, God is to be praised for his mercy. If a student is rescued alive, it is a miracle, the work of an angel. Maybe this is a form of dualism, though Pocius doesn’t propose some unnamed Great Satan who does the bad stuff like earthquakes, while God picks up the pieces. Or maybe it is closer to muddle.

I don’t want to labour the point, but things either have natural causes or divine ones. Either there is a God or there isn’t. Either he intervenes in human affairs or he doesn’t. Either he is compassionate or he isn’t. If he can intervene to work miracles, he can certainly intervene to prevent earthquakes.

Pocius does not claim to be a writer, though she has published one previous book on the art of trumpet playing. Sometimes she can write with clinical detachment. This is the heartbreaking moment when she finds the body of one of her music students, the one who ran when she shouted “Run!”:

Dominique was in several pieces: his skull was separated from his neck, his left arm was missing, his legs were separated from his trunk. But there was no mistaking the clothing he had been wearing during jazz band rehearsal.

But at other times, concrete experience gives way to a fuzzy, unfocused enthusiasm. Large sections of the book sound like a girl’s breathless journal, and the last third consists of hasty notes. It’s not clear whether the title, an over-flippant reference to James Bond’s cocktails, is critical of Haiti (shaken up but not stirred into adequate action?) or admiring (shaken up but surviving?), or a bit of both. The book could certainly have used a good editor, not just for basic copy-editing but for consistency of treatment.

And for accuracy. Pocius twice challenges the casualty figures. Several official estimates were issued, mostly around 250,000 to 300,000 deaths (about the same as the Asian tsunami of 2004: so much death, in one small Caribbean city). One Dutch investigation arrived at a much lower figure of 92,000. But Pocius writes that she and other unidentified helpers put the toll at 1.2 to 1.3 million, a stupendous figure. She offers no evidence, and doesn’t seem to have attempted an accurate count (which no individual could accomplish anyway).

Having broken her arm in a fall, Pocius returned to the US in April, three months after the initial quake. By then, she notes, food and water were easier to find, but “the horror continues to assault us on every side.” People were living in fear, living on the edge, with post-traumatic stress. More people were homeless, more children were begging, gangs were resurgent.

Another seven months on, and there are still more than a million people in tents. Cholera is taking lives, and much of the promised international aid has yet to materialise. How can any one country be so unlucky? Haiti was already the poorest, the most wretched, long-suffering, ill-governed, gang-raped country in the Americas. Now there are warnings from the geologists that January’s quake may not even have been “the big one.” According to the US Geological Survey:

the segment of the Enriquillo fault to the east of the January 12 epicentre and directly adjacent to Port-au-Prince did not slip appreciably in the earthquake. This implies that the Enriquillo fault zone near Port-au-Prince still stores sufficient strain to be released as a large, damaging earthquake during the lifetime of structures built during the reconstruction effort.

Port-au-Prince has been devastated before, in 1751, and again less than twenty years later, in 1770; and earthquakes bigger than Haiti’s magnitude-seven tremblement have hit Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. The adoption of “earthquake-resistant design and construction practices” in the Caribbean, and in Haiti’s reconstruction, deserves a book in itself.

Haiti will suffer again. I hope the tall heroic angel with his sword is on stand-by.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2010

Jeremy Taylor was born in the United Kingdom, and has lived in Trinidad for over thirty years. He is a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher. Many of his essays and reviews are collected in Going to Ground (1994).