Haiti In Ruins: A Look Back At The 2010 Earthquake

Jan 12, 2020

Editor's note: This story contains images that some readers may find disturbing.

The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti in Jan. 12, 2010, left 220,000 people dead, 300,000 injured and rubble nearly everywhere.

NPR photographer David Gilkey and correspondent Jason Beaubien were among those who rushed to Haiti immediately after the quake to report on rescue and recovery efforts, medical care for the injured, distribution of food and water, and the government's struggle to reestablish essential services. A month after the event, back in the U.S., Beaubien shared his impressions with NPR's Neal Conan. Their discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Little is left of a neighborhood on a hillside near downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 15. More than a million people were displaced by the quake.
David Gilkey/NPR

CONAN: You reached Haiti the day after the earthquake.

BEAUBIEN: It was actually — took one whole day after the earthquake to get in, and then on Thursday, our photographer David Gilkey and I drove in from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

CONAN: And what did you see after you crossed the border?

BEAUBIEN: What was really striking was you came across the border, and things looked fairly normal in Haiti. And in Dominican Republic, which, obviously, shares that island, you weren't seeing really any damage at all on that side. And you weren't seeing much damage until you really got to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. And then as you get closer and closer into the heart of the city, things just got worse and worse and worse. And as we were coming in, there were people fleeing out. You saw people leaving, people trying to get out of the city.

Mexican rescue workers climb past the bodies of victims crushed during the collapse of a school outside of Haiti's capital.
David Gilkey/NPR

But it was amazing how, as you penetrated deeper into the city, the damage just got worse. There was more — there were more dead people, the buildings were in worse shape. It was almost as if a bomb went straight to the heart of Port-au-Prince.

Just two days after the quake hit, morgue workers struggle to deal with the thousands of bodies that have piled up at the central morgue at the hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince.
David Gilkey/NPR

CONAN: And that kind of — there's nothing to compare it to.

BEAUBIEN: Really, I mean, I've — I covered Africa for four years. I covered the tsunami. And this story hit me in a way that other stories just haven't, in part because of the concentration of the destruction, the fact that there were so many dead people, there were so many people with nowhere to sleep at night. Everything in the city — in parts of the city, absolutely everything was destroyed. It was really — it was very intense. It was probably the most intense story that I've — I think I've ever covered in my career.

With fresh water in short supply, men and women gather around broken pipes to collect drinking water in Port-au-Prince in the days following the quake.
David Gilkey/NPR

CONAN: And not to belabor a point, but the government in Haiti was not described as efficient before the earthquake, and it's — is it fair to say it's in ruins now?

BEAUBIEN: Certainly, the physical structure of the government is in ruins. Many government officials also died. That week right after the quake, there was this sense of just a country completely adrift, that the U.N. had also really been knocked back on its heels. Its main compound suffered significant damage. The head of the U.N. had died in the actual quake. It was kind of unclear at that point where was President René Préval. There was this sense of a country that had both been devastated, that was in ruins. There were, as I say, dead people everywhere, people sleeping outside and the sense that the country was leaderless.

Robinson Bernard, who had been hospitalized since November, cries outside of the main hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince. Family members used to clean and feed him, but none have come since the earthquake almost a week earlier.
David Gilkey/NPR

CONAN: Has that abated since?

BEAUBIEN: I think, to some degree, the Haitian government has come back and made it clear that — they've set up at a police station out by the airport — made it clear that they are going to attempt to lead this effort. Also, the international community has rallied and shown that they're going to try to work on this in a manner of consensus. But you never felt, while I was there in the first two weeks, that there was going to be somebody that people could rally around.

The earthquake has left the capital in total destruction. The U.S. military and aid agencies are arriving and trying to fan out across the city with relief supplies.
David Gilkey/NPR

And I went to the funeral of the archbishop. It was actually not the first Sunday, but the second Sunday after the quake. And people chased President René Préval out of that funeral, shouting "Aristide, Aristide." And Aristide is in exile in South Africa at the moment. So there was...

CONAN: The former president.

BEAUBIEN: The former president, Aristide. So this sense that there was great discomfort with Préval and disappointment in how he was leading things.

A man carries a shotgun in an attempt to keep looters at bay as he walks through a collapsed burning building in the commercial district of downtown Port-au-Prince.
David Gilkey/NPR

CONAN: The situation for the aid, as it came in, clearly, it came in too slowly.

BEAUBIEN: It came in too slowly, but at the same time, the logistical challenges where huge. And when you're there on the ground, you saw it. Just moving around that city was incredibly difficult. The earthquake had knocked buildings into the streets. The port was extremely damaged and, actually, they were using parts of the port which later they've said they shouldn't have been using.

CONAN: Because it was unsafe.

BEAUBIEN: Because it was unsafe. The airport was down to one runway. The U.S. Air Force had basically taken over control of the airspace over Haiti to try to manage the flights that were coming in and out. So, and a road from Santo Domingo is not normally a road which you get heavy trucks coming over, because the relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti are just stressed at best of times. And so, basically, you had this city that was both in ruins and cutoff.

A smoldering church bell lies in the middle of street as a Catholic church burns in downtown Port-au-Prince.
David Gilkey/NPR

CONAN: And you can now expect to be going back to Haiti from time to time, I suspect?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, in a couple of weeks, I'm going to be heading back.

CONAN: And if there was one thing you could take back with you that would help people, what would it be?

A woman watches from the back of a old school bus carrying passengers heading out of the capital and going north and to the city of Cap-Haïtien.
David Gilkey/NPR

BEAUBIEN: The amazing thing about this disaster was the number of times David Gilkey and I were sharing a vehicle and driving around, a number of times, we turned to each and just said, "How are they going to rebuild from this? How are they going to overcome this? How are you going to feed this people and house people in the days to come when the city is in such ruins?" And it was really overwhelming. And I have to say I don't have some clear answer of what it is, but I think leadership is obviously going to be key.

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Police patrol the streets in the commercial district of Port-au-Prince. Nine days after the quake hit, residents have turned to digging out as the looting is significantly tamped down by the police.
David Gilkey/NPR
Buildings throughout the capital have been reduced to rubble. A week and a half after the quake, relief supplies are coming in slowly and the main hospital is up and running with the help of foreign doctors.
David Gilkey/NPR
Men move blocks of ice to sell on the streets of Port-au-Prince. With the power still out, ice is the only way to cool and store any food.
David Gilkey/NPR
Haitians stand in line as peacekeepers from the U.N. World Food Programme distribute water and humanitarian rations in front of the National Palace 10 days after the quake.
David Gilkey/NPR
A patient — identified as one heading to the U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort — waits for a helicopter evacuation in a staging area in front of the National Palace in Port-au-Prince.
David Gilkey/NPR
A Haitian man tries to keep a crowd of people from rushing a U.S. Navy helicopter as it touches down to drop off water in downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 16, 2010.
David Gilkey/NPR
A Haitian woman smiles as she walks past soldiers from the 82nd Airborne after receiving her first ration of foreign aid, which has been coming in to a soccer stadium in Port-au-Prince, four days after the quake hit.
David Gilkey/NPR
A man stands on rooftop in a leveled neighborhood yelling out for any sign of his missing relatives. It has been estimated that hundreds of thousands died in the disaster.
David Gilkey/NPR
Business owners return to Port-au-Prince's commercial district to see what was left of their stores and to remove any goods that remained.
David Gilkey/NPR
A man collapses to the ground in grief in front of a cathedral in Port-au-Prince, where the funeral for Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot was held on Jan. 23.
David Gilkey/NPR
Men stand in front of the destroyed cathedral in Port-au-Prince and listen to the archbishop's funeral service.
David Gilkey/NPR
Thousands of people gather at the center of the destroyed Haitian capital. Within days, the government would announce that the search for survivors was coming to an end.
David Gilkey/NPR
Women celebrate during a morning prayer service in the Champ de Mars square near the National Palace. Haiti's three-day Carnival, which is a national holiday, was called off and replaced with an equal period of mourning. Religious leaders shouted out sermons to their followers packed tightly together in the central square.
David Gilkey / NPR