16 February 2010

Haiti 1 Month After Quake: From American Survivor

Photo of my cousin Jeanne in red shirt pulling her trumpet from the rubble, photo courtesy of Episcopal News Service

One Month Anniversary After Haiti's Earthquake

From Denny: Update on my cousin who was visiting Haiti at the time of the earthquake and it took three weeks before we knew for sure she had survived. The following is an update on the progress in Haiti from a personal point of view of an American living in the camps with the Haitians and an account of her experience during the earthquake.

One Month Anniversary Concert 12 February 2010

There was many a memorial service in Port-au-Prince to commemorate the now one-month anniversary after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti just outside of the capitol city. My cousin, visiting music teacher, Jeanne Pocius, added her trumpet to the members of the Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra which is now Haiti's unofficial state symphony. Also in attendance was the school's renowned Les Petits Chanteurs men and boys choir.

"Some things are too difficult to express in words," said Jeanne, as she paraphrased author Victor Hugo. She was a visiting trumpet professor at the Diocese of Haiti's now-destroyed Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince. Jeanne continued, "You see people being absolutely stoic and when the music begins, the tears begin to flow. It's healing; it's a great medication. It's a gift of the Holy Spirit."

Orchestra conductor, Rev. David Cesar, told National Public Radio, "that he wanted to bring the orchestra to the gang-controlled neighborhood after the quake to let them know that Haiti will rise again."

His message struck home with Fordron Jacques, who told NPR that on hearing the music, she "started thinking that the country will survive."

5 Feb 2010 Bel Air concert: NPR audio link

During this 12 February service in which my cousin performed there were quite an eclectic number of religious speakers where the whole world of faiths came together in a common tragedy to help the country heal: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Voodoo ministers. Haitian President René Préval also spoke during the service.

Jeanne and her Holy Trinity music groups have performed twice since the earthquake, even though both the orchestra and chorus lost many members to the quake. They will perform again this week at the destroyed area of the Cathédrale Sainte Trinité (Holy Trinity Cathedral). Can you imagine what it was like to first gather your wits about you, survive, help others in the rubble, get settled and then turn your attention to the idea of practicing for a musical performance?

Here's why music is so important at this time in Haiti, as Jeanne remarked in a phone interview with Episcopal News Service, "Music is the great hope for Haitians. It unites them, it inspires them, it strengthens them, it connects them with the Almighty."

As to Pocius' thoughts about Haiti's future: "The basic resilience of the Haitian people, their deep faith in God, their willingness to help one another is what will get them through. You don't see a lot of selfishness down here."

Jeanne's Earthquake Experience on 12 January 2010

Jeanne was at practice in a concert hall of the music school complex next to the huge cathedral. The earthquake hit as she was rising from the piano bench to hand out sheet music to members of the jazz ensemble. She heard a deep rumbling. Her immediate thought was that recently a nearby construction site had caused the elementary school to collapse and she wondered if this was a similar incident. "Then the floor began bucking like an ocean in a hurricane," she recalled as she realized they were in the middle of an earthquake occurring.

"I remember shouting to the students to run," she said. "I sort of spun around in a circle, got down on my knees in the middle of the stage, put my head down and said, 'OK, Lord, this is it. I am OK with that. You can take me home,' and I felt absolutely no fear."

When the harsh shaking subsided, Jeanne started gathering up the frightened students, herding them close together to exit the building. She remembers hearing people walking on the auditorium roof, wondering how that could be. She discovered Cesar, the orchestra conductor, leading his staff to safety using the roof as their passage since their fifth-floor offices had collapsed in the violent shaking.

Jeanne said it was a group effort after the quake to help others lift heavy chunks of concrete so that others could be pulled from the rubble. It took five people to help a father pull his daughter out of what was left of their school. She was a member of the junior orchestra. The reason she survived is because she was cushioned by the dead body of a school employee, Dominique Lyons.

"I didn't lose control until I got outside the gates and saw that the cathedral had collapsed," Jeanne said. During her escape she thought "if I could get to the cathedral everything would be OK, but it wasn't OK. Nothing was OK."

Jeanne said she sustained deep tissue bruising on her legs, a scalp laceration and some scraping on her arms as she fled the building during the violent shaking of the building. Like many survivors, she went scavenging for medical supplies to help those severely injured as a stop-gap measure until they could be seen by a medical professional.

They created a quick make-shift hospital of first-aid supplies and over-the-counter pain killers for mild injuries. Over 300 people received help from their site. The wounds she saw were "heart-breaking" because there were severe scalp lacerations, virtual amputations and horrifying de-gloving where the skin literally peels back losing many layers of skin. She and her friends were nothing but resourceful with whatever they could find. They created bandages out of packaged sanitary napkins and tore up bed sheets just to bind up people's wounds.

Now a Month Later a New Music School for Children

In an effort to restore normalcy to the children, Jeanne put out the word that she was starting up a small school. There are about 3,000 survivors living in this camp where Jeanne resides, near the destroyed College Ste. Pierre in Port-au-Prince. As children heard of her school, a few trickled in each day and now the number is up to 100 children attending. Their space is small and cramped and Jeanne wryly smiles, "It's been a little cacophonous."

Initially, in the first days after the quake, Jeanne said they simply sang songs to lift their spirits. She and the children did some scrounging and later found paper, pencils, pens and crayons for the children to begin the journey of recording their stories of survival into small books. As a former public school teacher, she understood the importance of "trying to get it external, to get it out of them … to give them a little distance from the traumatic event."

Jeanne said that one boy by the name of Samuel, who wrote about his little brother who was killed when the family's house collapsed, was hoping his brother was watching him from heaven. She said that another boy so typical of many children, wrote that he hopes his family is still looking for him. He does not know if they are alive or dead.

Jeanne remarked proudly of her older students, seminarians from the diocese's theology school and from the music school, "I am so proud of my students. I have seen these young kids become adults overnight. Some of them willingly went out to collect cavaders. They're helping clean the camp. They're helping me with the school. It's practical Christianity. They're living their faith."

Jeanne Pocius is currently a member of Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Greater Boston in Cambridge, Massachsetts.

*** Thank you everyone who left such kind comments this past month as the family was searching for news of whether Jeanne had survived the earthquake!

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