International Ministries

14 Years Under a Concrete Roof in Haiti

February 22, 2010 Journal
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The enormous tragedy last month of a 7.2 scale earthquake, right under the city of Port au Prince, was the realization of one of my worst fears during our years in Haiti.  We lived near Cap Haitian on the northern side of the island from 1990 to 2004.  Our house, built by various work groups, was a spacious ranch style affair made of cement block.  It differed substantially from a similar home found in the US in two ways: it sat under two enormous mango trees and it sported an impressive concrete slab roof a foot or more thick.

It seems Haitians perfected the art of concrete roofs.  Wood is scarce in Haiti, whereas sand, gravel, and rock are abundant.  Hence folks developed a technique for turning concrete into roofs.  A flat roof will leak at the tiniest crack because, as one Haitian friend remarked, “water has no thickness.”  So creative Haitians developed the technique of sloping the concrete slab so it shed water.  Ours had a mild slope - maybe 1 in 12 or less but it did the job.  As the skills in concrete roof construction grew more sophisticated, one highly peaked roof particularly interested me as I watched its progress.  The roof was easily twice as high as it was wide and covered an Episcopal chapel.  It baffled me how the concrete didn’t slide off while they were pouring it.

Mango trees shaded our roof  and I appreciated them immensely as they kept the house cool even during Haiti’s hottest months.  Our concrete roof, on the other hand, I regarded with suspicion and distrust.  We had a waterbed which served as cheap air conditioning through Haiti’s sweltering nights.  During the hot season it was a nice ground-temperature cool.  The northern part of Haiti had lots of minor tremors all the years we lived there.  Lying on that bed of water, you could feel it gently rocking, kind of like a seismograph amplifier.  I used to lie awake at night planning my escape if a significant tremor or worse should occur.  I planned to scoop up one boy while Katherine gathered the other, and we’d head outside to safety.  Unfortunately, Haiti also had epidemics of roving bands of armed thugs, so we’d fortified our house, and getting out was a challenge.  With a solid wood door and dead bolt lock securing the inside, an outer steel door with a deadbolt requiring a key still barred a speedy escape.  We’d do our best, but I knew odds were not in our favor should a big earthquake hit.  Sometimes, when picture frames at the head of the bed gently tapped against the wall, my paranoia level rose to 6 or 7 (on my anxiety scale) as I eyed the malevolent mass overhead.

Fortunately the worst never happened and the house still stands, as do many others 30 miles or more from the epicenter of last month's quake.  Some commentators ask the age old question how a loving God would allow such carnage.  This, as if an archangel or TV announcement some hours beforehand might have made a difference.  I remember my Haitian neighbors watching passively once while I busily boarded windows as the threat of  a hurricane bore down on the tiny island.  “Why don’t you take some precautions?” I asked, knowing they’d heard the news reports on the radio as I did.  “God will protect us”,  was their indifferent reply.  Perhaps the cost of the plywood, worth several days wages, might have been part of their calculation, but no one seemed concerned about impending disaster.  Living on the margin, there was little they could do to protect themselves anyway.  That time, the hurricane made a last minute turn and missed us.  The next day all my neighbors chided me about wasted expense, as if I lacked faith in God’s providence.

In the horror of last month’s earthquake, I still see God’s providence.  Earthquakes happen  because we don’t live on a billiard-ball-smooth earth.  Earth movements give us mountains with their beauty and streams that form rivers so we do not live in one giant puddle with nowhere for water to go.  But if an earthquake has to occur under Port au Prince at least once every 250 years, then I’d schedule it for 5 pm on a typical week day.  Five pm is the ‘cool of the day’ when folks go out visiting and kids are sent on errands to buy the day’s lot of charcoal and ‘Maggie’, bouillon cubes needed to make meager meals tasty.  An earthquake at 2 am would have meant total annihilation, but at 5 pm most folks are either coming home from work or heading out of the house for a bit of air and socialization.  Others see a merciless God, I see providence and feel gratitude.

It is hard to write about the terror of 60 seconds on Jan 12, 2010 in Port au Prince and the agony that will follow for days, weeks, and months thereafter.  I have many friends who have lost immediate family members not to mention homes, schools, churches and hospitals.  Haiti will need vast amounts of help to recover from this tragedy and we can only respond in generosity to their desperate needs.  Please remember our Haitian Brothers and Sisters generously.  We thank you and our Haitian friends thank you.

Wayne Niles

Democratic Republic of Congo

Feb, 2010