Alumna Mary Kelly Reflects on Her Experience in Haiti after Earthquake

1/14/2011

When alumna Mary Kelly graduated in 2009, she launched from Stevens with more than an engineering management degree and a fulltime position at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey.  In her time at Stevens, she also developed a strong sense of community and a desire to help others, qualities that proved particularly valuable in a situation she could have never imagined and in a place far removed from her life in New Jersey.

For nearly a month, Mary volunteered in the relief efforts post last year’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti.  And in that time, she unwittingly put her engineering skills and compassion to the test, experiencing the tedious, hard work of clearing crumbled homes and schools, organizing medical relief at a hospital encampment and witnessing the resilience of a people she would have never known.
 

On the anniversary of this catastrophic event, Mary recounted with our staff some of the details from her days in an area in Haiti where 90% of the buildings were damaged, no government infrastructure remained, and the death toll reached between 20,000 to 30,000, according to a United Nations assessment, she reported.  

After the earthquake, Mary said it didn’t take much deliberation on her end to decide to request vacation time at work, purchase a plane ticket and connect with the non-profit group, Hands On Disaster Relief (now All Hands).   Soon after making the arrangements, she was on her way to Léogâne, a coastal Haitian city about 18 miles west of Port-Au-Prince (the epicenter of the earthquake), and one that Mary refers to as the shattered city by the sea. “I realized that not only did I want to go, but I could.  I’m in good health, single, no children, and have the privilege of a job with vacation time,” she said. “All Hands had helped in other natural disasters, and the earthquake relief in Haiti was their biggest project. I was eager to be part of that.”  

As a volunteer, Mary gave her time and energy, at times risking her own safety and comfort, coping with, for example, the aftershocks and smaller-scale earthquakes that continued to shake the area.  But she said she also received a great deal.  For one, she learned some vital lessons about life in an earthquake-torn region, some of which are expressed in the journal she shared:
 
“Lesson One: Haitian patience. Upon our arrival, it was clear that patience was everything. It started with digging through two flights worth of luggage for our bags because there was no power for conveyor belts at the airport. But of course that expanded to wondering how we could help such a destroyed city in such a short amount of time. Yet after a few days removing rubble, it was clear that progress could be made, just at a much slower pace than we could have imagined. It seemed that by sheer force of will, among a street of collapsed houses, one would get cleared out and a little shelter would go up. Then shortly after, another, and so on. One wheelbarrow load at a time was slowly clearing Léogâne of rubble and giving families a place to begin building new lives.

Lesson Two: How to ‘Rubble’. ‘Rubbling’ entailed spending most of our time sledge-hammering broken schools and homes into bits small enough to shovel into wheelbarrows and then dragging them out to the street where we either crushed down the rubble to fix the roads or piled for the government workers to haul off in bigger dump trucks. My first rubbling assignment was at Pyramid School. Armed with shovels, wheelbarrows, sledge hammers and pickaxes, we would be greeted every morning without fail by the smiles and laughter of many of the children that attend the school. They worked side-by-side with us all day, every day we were there. I was even taught how to sledge-hammer by a nine-year-old boy named Orlando. After almost a week of back-breaking work, we were able to make the school safe and ready for classes to start. I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids so excited to go back to school.”

Mary recalled a day she was directed to help a woman whose family home – which had been steadily built and preserved over eight generations – had crumbled to ruins in the quake.  After hours and hours of rubbling, Mary asked the woman how she copes. “Knowing how long it had taken her family to build this big, beautiful home, I asked her, ‘How do you do this day after day without falling apart?  I don’t know if I could handle it like you are.’ And her answer said so much about her and maybe even the people of Haiti as a whole. She expressed to me a Creole saying, which in English translates: Little by little, the bird builds its nest,” recounted Mary. “Her answer said a lot about resilience, and it’s a something I’ll never forget.”  

All purpose and all encompassing, Mary said her work in Léogâne was simply about contributing all that she could. In addition to rubbling, she worked at a field hospital stepping in wherever needed.  In this capacity, she also used her engineering skills to develop a system for managing the hospital’s inventory, something she noticed didn’t exist, and a solution that was well-received, she said.  
 

Realizing the privileges that awaited her back in the U.S., she even accelerated her efforts in the end.
“Up to my last days there, I had at least been somewhat cautious and careful with my body to prevent injuries or illness.  But in the final stretch, I totally pushed myself,” she said.  “I thought, ‘I need to put in my all. Anything bad that might happen to my body, America can fix it.  I gave away my boots and some other things.  I even lost my camera somewhere along the way.  Those things seemed insignificant after experiencing what people can and do live without.”