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After the Quake

A Haitian teen on helping her country's earthquake victims and her hopes for Haiti's future

By Danaë Victoria Estimé, 18

January 12, 2010, started like any other day. I left for school in the morning and returned in the afternoon, chatting with my mom in our living room. But around 5 p.m., our house started to shake. Our ceramic wall hangings shattered on the floor, and our TV fell from its stand. I could hear my grandmother and cousin screaming in the other room and people crying outside. At first I thought a truck had crashed into our house, but I quickly learned what had happened: A 7.0-magnitude earthquake had shaken Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.

Mostly because of poor building construction, a bad earthquake had catastrophic results. More than 250,000 people were killed and 300,000 more were injured. Hundreds of thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed, and more than a million people (in a population of 9 million) lost their homes. Most have since been living in hastily erected tent cities. I was lucky: Though some of my family's belongings were damaged, our house remained intact, and none of my relatives were injured.

But my high school, in the capital's Christ-Roi district, was among the 4,000 schools destroyed. Thankfully, none of my schoolmates were in the building at the time. But even now, I'm not sure whether all my friends are safe. Our junior year had come to an abrupt halt, and damaged telecommunication lines made it impossible to call or e-mail. Unable to find my friends and with no school to attend, I decided to use my time by helping those around me. I started working with an organization called World Vision, one of 3,000 nongovernmental organizations providing aid to Haiti.

For two weeks, I helped administer first aid in hospitals. I heard patients moaning in pain, and I tended to patients with horrible injuries, like a woman who had lost both her hands. Some patients waited days for treatment because there weren't enough doctors to handle so many victims. And the doctors who were there worked under very tough conditions: They had to use flashlights because the earthquake had knocked out the city's electricity, and they lacked basic medical supplies, like painkillers and rubber gloves.

But even with all the chaos and tragedy, I saw signs of hope. During my three-month stint as a Creole/English translator in the tents, I saw a boy who had become paralyzed gain some movement, and I watched children who had lost everything laugh and play again. On a larger scale, I saw ordinary citizens coming together to help one another. Residents in the more organized tent cities set up committees, and I worked with some of their "presidents" to communicate their camps' needs—like first-aid supplies, food, water, and clothes—to World Vision. It felt good to help out.

My mother and I had applied for residency in the United States before the earthquake, and our application was approved in April, so I'm having my senior year of high school in Connecticut. But many children back home have not yet returned to school. And nine months after the earthquake, Haiti—the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere—continues to need a lot of help.

More than a million people are still displaced. And the serious problems Haiti faced before the earthquake have only become worse: from high unemployment and a poor education system to a shortage of clean water and an inefficient agricultural sector.

Most of all, we need strong and honest political leaders. But Haiti cannot do it alone. The continued support from nations around the globe—including the U.S., which generously pledged more than $1 billion in aid—will be crucial if we are to have any chance of building a new Haiti, better than it was before.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, September 20, 2010)