NCTA, Perspective

August 2020 Virtual General Meeting: Remembering the 2010 Haiti Earthquake

by Thilo Ullmann-Zahn

Ms. Pamela Gilbert-Snyder, a certified French-English interpreter, was the presenter for the day at NCTA’s second pandemic-necessitated Virtual General Meeting in August 2020. She shared with us her experiences as an interpreter for a volunteer medical team that a New Jersey NGO sent to Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake.

The Haitian earthquake was a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 Richter event. The epicenter was near the town of Léogâne, approximately 25 kilometers west of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, and 52 aftershocks followed. The death toll was estimated at 160,000. The physical damage was extensive, including over 250,000 residences, 30,000 commercial buildings, the National Assembly building, and the Presidential Palace (source: Wikipedia).

Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. The original Taino tribes are now extinct, but the name of Haiti is taken from Taino, meaning “mountainous land.” The 1697 Treaty of Ryswick between Spain and France acknowledged the French settlements on the north coast of the island and established the divided jurisdiction over the territory. Following a slave revolt in 1791, France became the first European nation in 1794 to abolish slavery in its colonies in the Caribbean, freeing all African workers on the island’s plantations.

On January 22, 2010, “the most watched telethon in history” raised $58 million in one day. It was meant as a fundraiser to help the people of Haiti recover from the disaster.

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Ms. Gilbert-Snyder showed us slides portraying the terrible conditions that she encountered on the island, the widespread destruction, the endemic poverty, and the industriousness of the population, buying and selling anything they could lay their hands on. Particularly striking to her was the prevalence of divine names on shop and restaurant awnings. They emphasize the influence and strength of the various local churches as significant engines of the recovery and the care of the injured.

The team that Ms. Gilbert-Snyder worked with had never before used an embedded interpreter. Her team also engaged young Haitians to interpret between English and Haitian Creole, related to French and the most widespread language in Haiti.

All supplies required for the care of patients had to be brought along on the flight from the US. Moving around in a rented 35-passenger bus, the team established four successive mobile medical clinics in tent cities to provide triage and treatment. The services were offered not only to those who had been injured during the quake, but to whoever showed up with any pre-existing or chronic condition aggravated and exposed by their post-earthquake living conditions.

The culminating task was the successful assembly and installation of a bio-digester to process human biological waste into methane to be used for cooking.

Ms. Gilbert-Snyder’s profound and unforgotten experience sparked a lively Q&A session.