Five years ago today, a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, toppling historic landmarks, killing thousands of people, and displacing more than a million. Haitians mobilized to restore their communities, and the international community pledged billions of dollars in aid.
But ex-pats have an important role to play in rebuilding. WMFE's Renata Sago spoke with an earthquake survivor in Central Florida who’s made it her mission to give back to the country.
When the first tremors hit, Lorvena Salomon was at her aunt’s house in Saint Marc, an hour northwest of Port-au-Prince.
“And I’m just laying on the bed, and all of a sudden, the bed just started shaking...I was like, 'sak passe”, recounted Salomon, “What’s happening?”
Her aunt replied, “jezi ka passe”—Jesus is coming.
Jesus is coming? What does that mean? She says it means earthquake, there is an earthquake! Salomon had arrived in Haiti from Florida just two days earlier to see family. She was hoping this trip her fiancé and grandmother could meet.
"And I’m like ‘Lord, why did I come to Haiti around this time? Why am I here? And I thought about it? And it was like why are you not", Salomon said.
She made her way to the U.S. embassy to ask for help, but ended up translating and nursing the injured. After two weeks, the U.S. sent for its citizens and Salomon left, carrying her passport, a purse, and guilt.
“The hardest thing was getting into the plane and coming back home", said Salomon. "I had clean clothes to put on and I knew what I was going to eat the next day, and they had no hope.”
Over 1 million Haitians were living in tents in the weeks after the earthquake. That number’s now dropped to 100,000.
Salomon goes back twice a year to bring food and hygiene products. The 27-year-old is a now an MBA student at University of Central Florida. She’s a member of the Greater Haitian American Chamber of Commerce and is starting a non-profit to fill the gap in services in Haiti .
Dr. Louise Comfort blames that gap on a political vacuum where uncertainty reigned before and after the earthquake.
“This is a situation where the existing government in Haiti was very fragile. Resources came pouring in. It wasn’t a question of money", Comfort explained. "It was really a question of how do we get the work done.”
Comfort directs the center for disaster management at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s partnering with the Haitian state university to train students to use technology to assess building standards.
“International help can guide, can support, can suggest, "Comfort said. "But honestly, the Haitians have to do it themselves.”
Laurent Prosper is the Haitian Consul General in Orlando. He’s coordinated post-earthquake missions with doctors, nurses, and engineers in Central Florida—many Haitian.
"We are in a better situation than we were five years ago", Prosper said. "We have a pretty strong educated diaspora, and we’re hoping that with them, we can make Haiti get to the other level.”
Tourism to Haiti is up and new companies have emerged, but Prosper says education and job creation are key to rebuilding. Over 1 million children now attend school for free. And he wants to make sure they stay in Haiti.
"We definitely have been exporting our academic resource. Haitians go to a lot of countries in Africa and Canada and the US and not coming back", said Prosper.
But that’s not Loverne Salomon. Back in Orlando, she shares her earthquake survival story whenever she can. Salomon is preparing to get 501 c 3 status for her non-profit. She says if people like her don’t go back and help, then Haiti will remain the way it is.
"Because it’s not the government that’s going to change Haiti", Salomon said. "It’s people like us.”