Ten days have passed since the small island nation of Haiti was hit by an unprecedented disaster.
On Jan. 10, early in the evening, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck just 16 miles from the nation’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. Within minutes of the occurrence, images were flooding the Internet, revealing massive damage to the island’s structures and unimaginable pain to the city’s approximately 720,000-person population.
Initial estimates of the death toll were plastered across Web sites, most notably that of the New York Times, which featured a photography slideshow of cracked buildings and lost, injured Haitians.
One image showed the Presidential Palace, which now looks like the set of an action movie, while another showed a modest apartment building with a tear through the middle that made the new dramatically twisted Cooper Union building in downtown New York look like a tasteless joke. Another showed a dust-covered woman, presumably having just crawled from the rubble, standing alone in a street.
Today, Reuters is reporting that the death toll could reach as high as 200,000, more than a quarter of the city’s population.
Although the disaster is reported to have been largely unpreventable, I remember when, almost five years ago Michaëlle Jean — a native of Haiti — was appointed Governor General of Canada and the need to help the vicereine’s childhood nation was felt with incredible urgency.
Highly publicized trips to Jean’s home country provided much of the general public with their first intimate views of the extreme poverty Haitians face, with videos of her meeting schoolteachers, playing with poorly clothed children and dancing with disabled musicians. They were shocking sights at first, primarily because her image was one of a poised public servant who often posed for photos in Chanel and Lanvin suits against the backdrop of her handsomely decorated government office.
It was clear then, as it has been made painfully obvious now, that Haiti needed help. Many of its weak structures were unprepared, its medical infrastructure completely ill-equipped and its people without basic emergency kits common to homes of more economically developed countries. Indeed, the disaster is of a more endemic nature; it isn’t unique to Haiti and it will take much more effort to resolve than a single bake sale in Woolsey.
Already, discussing the catastrophe feels mind-numbingly repetitive. While the details may be fuzzy to some, the apocalyptic disaster is familiar even to Yalies trapped in the college’s bubble.
Students have been quick to assemble relief efforts, baking cupcakes, organizing concerts and writing impassioned letters to panlists.
And it’s not just Yalies — last Saturday, Maggie Gyllenhaal, wearing a peachy Roland Mouret gown, stood on the stage of the Golden Globes and begged the audience to donate to Haiti relief efforts. Her expression appeared somewhat panicked and desperate, and her plea equally sincere. Gyllenhaal appeared to have a personal stake in the revival of Haiti, emphatically asking the audience to “give whatever you can.”
It seemed necessary, but wildly inappropriate, especially when the awards ceremony returned from the commercials to show drunken stars, joking, laughing and clutching glasses of Moët.
And a few days ago, during an Oprah Winfrey interview of Lady Gaga, the two took a moment in between applauding “freaks” and discussing “Pokerface” to ask Winfrey’s multi-million-person audience to donate to Haiti. It was a relatively flippant aside, with no association to the conversation surrounding the appeal, cementing the disaster as a popular cultural bandwagon that requires mention in any televised conversation regardless of context or significance.
But it’s not all bad, Winfrey ended the conversation with something of substance, shifting the focus off of an ephemeral cultural phenomenon, “weeks from now, still continuing when it is out of our consciousness, the people of Haiti are still suffering.”