published Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Quake ignores class divisions of a poor land

By MARC LACEY and SIMON ROMERO

c.2010 New York Times News Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Earthquakes do not respect social customs. They do not coddle the rich. They know nothing about the invisible lines that in Haiti keep the poor masses packed together in crowded slums and the well-to-do high up in the breezy hills of places like Petionville.

And so it was with the devastating temblor that tore through Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, last week, toppling residences large and small, and trapping and traumatizing residents no matter where they stood on Haiti’s complicated social scale.

The quake’s casualties, yet to be fully reckoned, are likely to fall heaviest on the poor, who make up the majority of the population. But the death toll already includes the archbishop of Haiti, senior government officials and prominent business leaders, as well as working people like Seth Darius, a handyman at the Hotel Montana whose wife and brother stood outside the hotel’s wreckage mourning him.

“Our lives, our jobs, our existences, have been completely turned upside down,” said Cate Immacula, a protocol official for the prime minister.

President Rene Preval was the most vivid example of just how democratic natural disasters can be, his grand office at the presidential palace flattened and his home badly damaged. The dazed look in his eyes was that of every Haitian.

“It doesn’t matter how much you had, whether you lived in a shack or a mansion,” said Henry Y. Hogarth, whose middle-class home collapsed. “Now we have a level playing field. Everyone is starting from scratch.”

Before the quake hit, Haiti had one of the world’s greatest divides, and that is not expected to change. The elite will be able to dig into their savings to rebuild, or pay the air fare to relocate overseas. But politicians, big-business owners and other well-off people who fly back and forth to visit relatives in the United States were clearly in distress along with the many Haitians who live hand-to-mouth even in normal times.

Harold Marzouka, a businessman who was worried that unrest was looming, chartered an 18-seat executive jet to fly members of his extended family to Miami. Standing around their luggage, they complained of nightmares and worried of aftershocks, the same things heard often among the people wandering aimlessly through the streets with their few possessions bundled in their arms.

“It’s time to get out,” said Marzouka, who owns packaging and spaghetti factories in Port-au-Prince. One of his warehouses is full of food and he said he fully expected it to be looted as the situation in Haiti grew more dire in the days ahead.

“I understand it and I don’t mind,” he said. “I’m expecting it.”

The unsettling feeling of seeing one’s home collapse, no matter the size, affected Haitians of all social strata. Nobody had running water to bathe. Food was hard to come by no matter the size of one’s bank account. Gas stations were mobbed by people driving late-model sport utility vehicles and others clutching gas cans. The stench of dead bodies entered the nostrils of everyone who passed.

The quake also did not discriminate between institutions of the powerful and institutions of the poor. This capital’s cathedral was destroyed, and Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot was killed. Senior officials perished in the collapse of the justice and ministries.

Destruction was also on display up and down exclusive residential areas like Pacot, near the old center, and Petionville, in the hills above the city. Mansions were flattened and moneyed families slept in the street in front of their destroyed residences, clinging to possessions like SUVs and iPods. Those prominent public structures that emerged relatively unscathed were almost immediately besieged by people fleeing their destroyed homes.

The business-class Hotel Montana in Petionville, now a mound of rubble, captured the exposure of the powerful to the quake. Elite rescue crews from Spain, France and the United States desperately dug through the remains of the five-story structure in an attempt to find victims, including Nadine Cardozo Riedl, one of the hotel’s owners and a prominent investor here and in the Dominican Republic.

“I cannot find the words to express our situation,” said Garth Cardozo, Riedl’s sister, sobbing as she watched the rescue crews go about their work.

Foreign luminaries were also exposed to the disaster. Zilda Arns, the director of a renowned Brazilian children’s organization and a member of a prominent Brazilian family, was killed while attending a conference here.

The elegant and sprawling residence of the ambassador of France, the former colonial ruler of Haiti, was also badly damaged, and people here murmured to one another with astonishment that the ambassador, Didier Le Bret, was reduced to sleeping on the lawn in front of his home after the earthquake.

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