The capital of Haiti, Port-Au-Prince has been heavily damaged by an Intensity 7 quake. The Navy will probably play a pivotal role in relief operations because they can move large numbers of hospital beds at 500 miles per day. The real race against time will be for those who are buried alive. The rickety nature of buildings in Haiti may work in the survivor’s favor. Easier to dig them out. Crowbars, reinforcing bars cut in 4 foot lengths and sharpened at the end — all these need to be pressed into service.
I had the misfortune of being in an 8 storey building about 150 miles from the epicenter of an intensity 7.7 quake and I can tell you for a fact that it taught me a great deal about human nature. I was in an open plan office with about 80 people in it. Three persons fell to the ground in complete hysterical panic. By that I mean kicking their feet in the air and writhing on the ground. Three persons went into a state of enhanced consciousness. By that I mean they were taking it all in and thinking. In less time than it takes to blink, the three had made eye contact with each other. The rest were in a state of shock and were literally open-mouthed. In about one or two seconds, the three persons in enhanced consciousness took charge of everything. The remaining seventy odd persons instinctively took their orders from the three and carried the panic stricken like hogs down the stairs.
I made two choices in a split second. One was to adjust my tone and voice to something I estimated would most carry authority; and the other of which was to tell the boys to head for the ground floor instead of the roof. Halfway down the stairs I was wondering whether the wager would come off. The real fear was being buried alive and the question was whether the building would hold up until we got down. As it transpired the worst was over and we all made it down. Nothing broke except the windows. And after about fifteen minutes several of us felt brave enough to go back up and do a sweep, in case someone else had been left behind.
But others were not so lucky.
In Baguio city, much nearer the epicenter, the buildings did not hold up. If the building I was in had been 100 miles closer to the quake, I doubt it would have stood it either. There was a seminar being held right outside of Camp John Hay, then a USAF recreational facility, and many participants did the “book” thing. They went under the tables. Most of them died, buried alive. The ones who bolted for the door lived. Many others died in at the Baguio Hyatt as the heavy concrete entombed them. The two lessons here are: if you want to survive a heavy quake, the best place for you to be is in a one story bamboo hut on flat land. Even if it collapses on you it is possible to kick your way out. Unless you’re saved by luck your first decision will either save your ass or be your last.
For years afterwards I kept a breaker bar under my bed and a pocket flashlight in my pocket. It also left me with a rule of thumb. In any disaster, about five to six percent of the population will stay calm. An equal number will panic. All the rest will wait for leadership. If the panic guys take charge, the panic will be universal. If the cooler heads take the lead, there’s a chance.
In Haiti a lot of people will be digging with crowbars tonight, by the light of flashlights or kerosene lamps. They’ll hear or imagine voices of those they love under the rubble. Remember them in your prayers or your charity tonight. And be glad it’s not you.