The Story of... Earthquake Survivors

Robert and Bernadette Cawley, both 76, fled their home in Haiti for Central Florida.



Photo By Mark Losh Photography

Jan. 12 “started like any other day,” Robert recalls. “We were sitting at home” in a suburb of Port-au-Prince “when the earth started shaking.” Bernadette describes hearing a noise “like a train, and it was louder and louder as it came.”

The couple’s home withstood the quake, so they remained in it. But some of their neighbors moved into the streets, though their homes were spared, too. “There are people who are afraid of sleeping in their houses, because maybe their house didn’t collapse but their neighbor’s did,” Robert explains.

The couple’s most harrowing memories of the quake’s devastation are of suffering and death. “You see many things on the tele-vision—you see houses destroyed all over, you read about how many people have been killed by the earthquake—but you have no idea what it’s like to go down to a road and see a line of dead bodies in the street,” Robert says.

“There was a lady I saw who had a baby in a small crib, but the baby had died and had already started decomposing,” Bernadette recalls. “Everybody was standing around it with their faces covered, trying to muffle the smell.”

Communication between Haitians and their friends and families abroad was all but impossible in the first few days after the quake. However, the couple were able to contact family in the United States using a cell phone belonging to Bernadette’s nephew.

Trying to leave Haiti proved to be an arduous task, even with their family connections in Florida. “The first day we spent all day at the airport and then we went back home,’’ Robert says. “So we went back the next morning, and it was not easy—there were no commercial flights, and the U.S. Embassy was taking American citizens to the planes. So you had to go to the Embassy before we could get on the plane.”

A week after the earthquake, the couple were flown to Sanford and went to live with a daughter in Lake Mary.

“I was completely lost; I could not speak about it,” Bernadette wearily recalls of her first few days after leaving Haiti. “I would wake up and not know where I am.”

“The Haitian people need help now,’’ Robert says somberly. “If we already have 200,000 dead, we will finish with 300,000.”

Robert plans to return to Haiti, but his wife will stay in Florida for some time. “She cannot go back now. She is too emotional at this time to go back to Haiti,” he says.

“It’s easier to go back to your country to finish your life than to stay in the States,’’ Robert says. “People always want to come back to the place where they were born; the salmon go back to the river where they were born, even if they have to jump off a big cliff or swim upstream to go back. People do the same thing.”

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