As Haitians Rebuild, a Photographer Captures the Catastrophe

Michael McElroy is a South Florida-based freelance photographer who spent seven days in Port-au-Prince after the January 12 earthquake. Click here for a slide show of images that he captured, and below is a dispatch he filed after his trip.

The day after the earthquake in Haiti, I was on assignment for the New York Times, shooting the reactions of Haitian residents in Little Haiti. I knew I needed to get down there. I was able to book a flight to the Dominican Republic. Everything happened so fast. There wasn't any time to make plans, so I went into this blind. No ride, no place to stay.

When I arrived at the D.R. airport, I saw an ABC cameraman I knew from covering the presidential elections in 2008. ABC had chartered a bus and agreed to give me a ride. The Hotel Villa Creole in Port-au-Prince had opened its doors to the media and aid workers, but when I finally made it, they were out of rooms. I slept by the pool in a chair. I had brought some water and food (Fruit Roll-Ups, jerky, sunflower seeds). But I hardly ate anything. I just wasn't very hungry and gave most of my food away.

I never expected to see what I saw. The amount of destruction was unimaginable. The whole scene was a sensory overload. There were thousands of people in the streets, some with open head wounds and broken limbs. People were hungry, thirsty. It looked like a war zone. Whole neighborhoods were gone, with rubble everywhere; bodies began to pile up and were left in the streets. And the smell was overwhelming. It was everywhere; you couldn't escape it.

It is obviously very difficult for a person to be where death is all around you, where children have lost their parents and families have lost their homes and possessions. It's conflicting sometimes, because you're trying to be an observer, to tell a story, trying not to get involved, but then you see somebody who is clearly suffering and needs help, so you help because you're human.

As far as dealing with what I saw, I haven't. Or at least, I haven't had to. I'm sure down the road, it will be something I will have to figure out. In situations like these, I try to detach myself from what's going on around me and just try to be as unobtrusive as one can be in an environment such as this. In the moment, if I thought about what had just happened to Haiti and its people, it would have become overwhelming.

The only way I can justify my being there is that people will see my work and hopefully learn something from it, possibly causing a person to react and to help those who are suffering.

I arrived two days after the earthquake, and things were chaotic. But as the days went by, there was a certain vibrancy in the streets that life would go on.

At this point, Haiti's future holds promise to be brighter than it has ever been before. A million people are expected to leave the city of Port-au-Prince. There are an estimated 200,000 dead and rising. Countless people have had arms or legs amputated. Thousands of children lost their parents. In spite of all that, the Haitian people are not lying around waiting. They are rebuilding their homes. They are sharing the little they have with those around them.

Since its independence, Haiti has carried a heavy burden of poverty, corruption, and one natural disaster after another. Fortunately, the spirit of the Haitian people hasn't been broken, despite the tremendous loss the Haitian people have just suffered. I believe a new day will dawn for Haiti.

 
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