Columbians Recall Haiti Earthquake and Respond
to Relief Efforts

Special from The Record
Jan. 28, 2010Bookmark and Share

Shortly before 5:00 p.m. on Jan. 12, Elisabeth Lindenmayer, director of the United Nations program at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), was in Port-au-Prince with six of her students, exiting a van outside the United Nations Development Programme building. A longtime U.N. peacekeeper and former assistant secretary general and deputy chief of staff to Kofi Annan, she and her students were in Haiti for a week-long trip. They were conducting research on the role of the private sector in social and economic development and its link to state-building. After close to a week of interviews, they were scheduled to leave the next morning.

Columbia Responds to Haiti Earthquake
The University joins with others around the globe in conveying our sympathy and support for all those affected by the terrible devastation in Haiti.

As they stepped onto the street, the earth shuddered. The building they were about to enter started to crack, and a deafening roar filled the air. “Get out,” Lindenmayer yelled. Some students threw themselves on the ground; others stayed in the van.

About 20 minutes later in New York, Joseph Chartier, the administrator for SIPA’s Department of International Affairs, answered the office’s general telephone. It was someone from an organization, saying that there had been an earthquake in Haiti and asking if Lindenmayer was all right.

Chartier found Lindenmayer’s cell phone number and dialed it; to his surprise, she answered immediately. Everyone was fine but shaken, she told him, and she spelled out all her students’ names and asked him to contact their families before the call abruptly cut off. He reached the families of three students; some hadn’t known about the earthquake until his call.

For Haitians, the earthquake was catastrophic. Deaths have been estimated to be as high as 200,000 and as many as 250,000 people are homeless. Survivors were still being pulled out of the rubble more than a week later, but at some point the chances of finding the missing will disappear.

Although members of the Columbia community lost family and friends, the Columbians who were in Haiti were extraordinarily lucky. Remarkably, no one was injured, and a total of 10 students, faculty and staff members were able to be evacuated out of the country with support from a team working from Morningside Heights. Lindenmayer’s quick thinking—with her years at the U.N., she knows how to navigate the world’s hot spots—helped ensure that everyone made it home. “We are just so fortunate as a community,” said Cassandra Simmons, the dean of student affairs at SIPA.

In New York, the first email about the earthquake was sent to SIPA deans at 6:56 p.m. By morning, all the University deans were doing a census to see if other schools had anyone in Haiti: In addition to the seven from SIPA, the journalism school had one student and the Earth Institute had two staffers there, Marc Levy and Alex Fischer. The University convened its Emergency Management Operations Team, a group of senior University administration officials, which held the first of dozens of conference calls to monitor the situation, resolve emergency travel issues and keep family members informed. Others across the University began mobilizing efforts to support disaster relief.

In Port-au-Prince, the car immediately behind the SIPA group was crushed by a pillar, its occupants killed. The MINUSTAH building directly in front of them had collapsed. By sheer coincidence, Levy and Fischer had just returned from outside Port-au-Prince and happened to be in the U.N.D.P. compound when the earthquake hit. Within a half hour, they had bumped into Lindenmayer and her students as everyone was evacuated through the compound’s parking lot. As part of a Haiti regeneration initiative run by the Earth Institute, they had often run into Lindenmayer when she was working there. “Haiti attracts people who care about the place,” Levy said.

All but the journalism student spent the night in the U.N.D.P. compound parking lot, “listening to the earth shaking and not knowing if there would be another aftershock,” Lindenmayer recalled. They formed a team and stayed together, turning their attention to the injured. “The students were fearless,” Levy said. “They instantly rushed out to see what they could do.” They tried to free occupants from nearby cars and worked with Fischer in a makeshift medical clinic, while Levy searched for medical supplies.

James Taylor, first-year master’s student at SIPA, helps a wounded child in Port-au-Prince. (Image credit: Elisabeth Lindenmayer)
James Taylor, first-year master’s student at SIPA, helps a wounded child in Port-au-Prince.
Image credit: Elisabeth Lindenmayer

Meanwhile, Erik Parker, the journalism school student, was traveling in Haiti with a photographer and a translator doing research for his master’s project on child slavery and on an assignment for Vibe magazine. As the quake hit, he heard what sounded and felt like a train roaring by, “Then I thought, ‘Wait, there are no trains here,’ ” he said. His wife was alerted by a friend that he was safe via Twitter, and she let the J-school know, but mostly he was unreachable except through Twitter. He spent the first night sleeping with about 50 people in the open air in Carrefour, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. As one of the few journalists there in those first days, Parker sent out a stream of tweets, pictures and videos, some of which were picked up by The New York Times, ABC News and MSNBC.

At the U.N.D.P. compound Lindenmayer kept close track of everyone’s movements to make sure the group stayed together. They were fortunate in that no one was injured and they were in a compound with a generator and plenty of water. Although communication was limited, the parking lot had a sweet spot of wireless service emitting from a wrecked building nearby, and people “herded like gazelles at a watering hole” to use it, said Levy, who called his wife and updated his Faceboook status to alert friends that he was safe. The students texted their parents, who would forward their messages to Simmons at SIPA; she started an email chain so that every time a parent got a text it was sent to all the parents and to her. “Through that parent link we could track their movements,” she said.

On Thursday everyone in the parking lot was moved to a U.N. staging area near the airport, and Lindenmeyer started working on getting her Columbia group out on a flight. She returned by car to Port-au-Prince in an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve their documents at their hotel (it had collapsed). And she also tried to get to Parker so he could be evacuated with her group, but the extent of the rubble made many roads impassible, and she was forced to return to the airport.

The University learned that Lindenmayer managed on Thursday to get the students onto a U.N. helicopter flying to Santo Domingo. The University helped Parker get on a later helicopter flight out of Haiti, and he arrived in Santo Domingo on Friday, Jan. 15.

From Santo Domingo, some students flew home to Canada, and some to New York. On the night of Jan. 16, Simmons waited at John F. Kennedy Airport with a Columbia van and a huge “Welcome Home” placard. When students and Lindemayer emerged from U.S. Customs, friends and family shrieked with relief.

Back on campus, the University put counselors from Health Services on standby to help all the Haiti evacuees. “Right now it’s really hitting us how close we came,” said Lindenmayer. “We seem to have a lucky star; I don’t even understand how we are alive.”

For Levy and Fischer, who are researchers at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, their project to improve Haiti’s ecosystem and make it a platform to create jobs and educate people on natural disasters is on hold. “All our efforts since we returned have been to support the ongoing relief,” Levy said. They are in daily contact with the U.N. staff there, providing expert advice on ongoing seismic risks. “We’re not breathing a huge sigh of relief; we’re still working with people there.”

So are many more Columbians, now working to raise money and contribute expertise to relief efforts.

—by Bridget O'Brian

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