Michaelle Dorleans, Fabiola Pascal Thomas and Marie-Lyne Thomas all live and work in or near downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti. SHRM Online reached them by phone and e-mail after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake decimated Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010.
These women, members of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), will likely never forget where they were the day the quake struck. Each has hopes for the future, despite the pain and uncertainty of the present.
In their words, these are their stories:
Like ‘a terrible war’
“On Tuesday [Jan. 12, 2010], I was home recovering from surgery, so I was not at work,” Dorleans says. “Thank God because [normally] at that time—4:53 p.m.—I would have still been at the office. I live up the hill, so I was in my bedroom talking on the phone with my secretary. Then I felt it,” says Dorleans, deputy director of Banque de la République d’Haiti in Port-au-Prince. “The conversation just stopped. The room, which is upstairs, was going back and forth with me. All of the furniture was moving. I started screaming on one side, and my mother in her room was screaming on the other side.”
After the tremors subsided, both women “went to the balcony to see what was going on, because people were screaming. Then we saw the houses and buildings exploding. They collapsed. In two minutes, the town was all white with dirt. It was like we were experiencing a terrible war.”
Immediately, despite her condition, Dorleans dressed to look for her husband and her sons, ages 17 and 12, who were safe. “The road was scary; [everywhere] people were screaming ... looking for their family members who got stuck inside collapsed houses. This was a torture, because I felt helpless. It was dark. There was no electricity, no phone, no service [of any kind]. I heard so many voices longing for help, but no one was there to help. People were so busy dealing with their own issues,” she says.
“When we got to my husband’s office, the building had not collapsed. I saw a dozen people in front looking for a place to stay and something to drink. I gave them blankets, towels, water—all I could find in the office,” Dorleans says. “They spent the night there. My husband and I went back home around 10 p.m. When we arrived home, we gathered into a small group with the boys, my mom and the maids to explain what was going on. In the meeting, I told everyone that we should live differently. We should use the facilities with care: water, light, food,” she says.
‘This is my life, sir’
Dorleans says she and her neighbors were lucky. Their houses did not collapse, and after initially sleeping on the streets and in a courtyard, they are now back in their houses, which have been evaluated. “But because we have gone through so much, we got closer. We started living as family members: We share food, drink, phone, radio news, advice.” They look after each other’s children. “Neighbors have become extended family members,” she says.
“I wonder who are luckier, the ones who died or
the ones who are still alive to endure all this mess?
Nothing will be the same. A part of my life has gone.”
--Michaelle Dorleans, SHRM member
Weeks after the quake struck the tiny island nation, food, water and medical care remained scarce. Thousands of families were living in makeshift shelters outside. They were fearful of being indoors should another tremor strike.
Not far from Dorleans in the town of Pétionville, an affluent suburb east of Port-au-Prince, Fabiola Pascal Thomas had just left a supermarket when the quake hit, flattening the building. “I was on the street going home and the car was shaking, but I didn’t know it was an earthquake,” says the operations director for I-Tech, which provides training for health care professionals. “It was only when I saw all of the people coming outside and everyone was screaming, calling out for Jesus,” she says, that she realized the magnitude of the event. “I got out of the car, and I saw the houses collapsed. People were injured.”
Newlywed Marie-Lyne Thomas, who works as an employment officer in Port-au-Prince, was in the first trimester of her pregnancy. “I was at my office, and I was trying to interview candidates by phone when [the quake] started, and immediately I went to a doorway because it was more secure,” she says. Fortunately, the building that houses her offices did not collapse.
“I left my office to go to my mother’s house [nearby] because I wasn’t able to take my car. We saw a lot of damage. We saw a lot of collapsed buildings. People were in the street. That’s when I started to cry.”
Her mother and sister weren’t inside when the house collapsed, but her great aunt was. “She’s still under our house because we don’t have money to pay for removing her from under the rubble,” Marie-Lyne Thomas says.
Two days after the quake struck, Dorleans had decided to leave her husband and home behind in Port-au-Prince and board a U.S. Air Force transport to be evacuated to the United States with her children and mother; then she changed her mind.
“When I was giving my name to the soldier before getting inside the plane, I realized that I could not leave my people, my husband and my work like this. I have a social responsibility here. I’ll be more helpful here than being in the States.” So she decided to stay.
“The U.S. soldier said, ‘Madam, it’s too late to change your mind.’
“My answer was, ‘This is my life, sir. I’m not leaving my husband behind.’ ”
‘How can we rebuild?’
All three women have returned to work, but not without distress. While Dorleans is living inside her home again, Marie-Lyne Thomas and Fabiola Pascal Thomas are living with relatives or sleeping outdoors, entering their houses only to shower and cook.
“Going back to work has not been a really good experience,” Marie-Lyne Thomas says. “The good part is, when I head to work, my colleagues and I started to talk about our experiences. Sometimes we make jokes about it, but the atmosphere is less stressful then staying in a house. We are trying to make plans, but how can we help or provide support? Our HR department has almost 25 employees, and we are now sharing a little office made for two or three people maximum.”
Fabiola Pascal Thomas sees the devastation firsthand. Members of her staff have lost relatives and friends. Her company is working directly with doctors and other health care professionals providing aid to those who have been injured. “Headquarters sent us medical supplies and other supplies that we are collecting to give to the staff or to help other partners in need,” she says, adding that keeping busy helps.
The women say the biggest challenge will be trying to move forward, because so many people have fled the country.
“Before [the earthquake], people were leaving Haiti because of lack of state services, decent jobs, housing and medical purposes,” believing that better opportunities could be found outside Haiti, Dorleans says. “However, since the financial crisis in North America and Europe, many Haitian [emigrants] have decided to come back home because they have lost houses and pension funds. Since 2008, many people from the [Haitian] Diaspora expressed their intention to come back home. Unfortunately, January 12, 2010, has changed the plan,” she says.
Fabiola Pascal Thomas says she knows at least two dozen people who have fled the country. Dorleans notes that thousands of Haitians have crossed the border into the Dominican Republic. “It is difficult to evaluate the number of Haitian [emigrants] who are leaving the country. Of course, this will have an impact on recruiting and keeping qualified employees. Some businesses already are seriously complaining about it.”
Dorleans says that at the bank where she supervises the HR department, “I am doing an evaluation among employees to determine the number of missing and wounded. Some [employees] have lost their children, spouses or close family members; some more have lost their houses. Everyone needs help. Everyone needs a shoulder. So many already left Port-au-Prince to the provinces or foreign countries,” she says.
“The challenge today is how [to rebuild] when all qualified professionals have left or want to leave the country. We need to find some incentives to encourage these people to stay or come back. Journalists reported that … about 400,000 people left Port-au-Prince. How can we rebuild with this HR exodus?”
‘I have a mission’
Dorleans says she is determined to help those who remain.
“For some reason, I was among the survivors; I have a mission. I shelter people in my house. I went back to work on [Jan. 15, 2010] to help out. As the HR manager, I have to keep people’s spirits up!
“However, I’m a little concerned about the future because I don’t think that the current government has the necessary leadership to move things in a timely manner. I’m so grateful to all these countries and organizations that are helping to give a better quality of life to the Haitian population.”
Still, in contemplative times, Dorleans says, “I wonder who are luckier, the ones who died or the ones who are still alive to endure all this mess? Nothing will be the same. A part of my life has gone. When looking around, I lost all my references. My favorite church, my favorite shopping places, schools, banks, clinics, restaurants, hotels—they are all gone. I would like to be optimistic,” she says.
She and other Haitians realize, however, that despite reported problems of giving aid to the masses, all is not lost. Tens of millions of dollars have been raised for the people of Haiti, for, after all, if hope can emerge from tragedy, inspiration can materialize from despair.
Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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