School of International and Public Affairs professor Elisabeth Lindenmayer and six SIPA students were on their way to a meeting at the United Nations Development Programme in Haiti. They had just stepped out of the car when they were thrown to the floor. The earth was shaking. The UNDP building cracked. The building that housed the United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti, or MINUSTAH, had seven floors, but within an instant, it had one. In a daze, Lindenmayer realized that all of her colleagues were under the rubble. "The car behind us was crushed. We spent the night there trying to release them. We were told the palace had crashed ... the government was dead," she said. There could be rioting, she was told. 'We played chess with death and won by a hair' When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti on January 12, killing tens of thousands and decimating the country, Lindenmayer had arrived just days earlier with a handful of students eager to take part in the UN Studies program, where she is the director. Lindenmayer brought the students to learn about peacekeeping operations in Haiti and assess ways to address Haitian poverty. Since last year, they had been working with MINUSTAH, which is a relatively new UN peacekeeping mission there. "2009 was a very quiet year," Lindenmayer said, despite the natural disasters MINUSTAH has seen since its conception in 2004. And Haiti had begun to improve, she said. In between her two visits to Haiti, she said that she saw the country change radically. "The difference was amazing. You could see there was a hope for Haiti," she commented. This year, the UN Studies Program group was researching the opportunity for the role of the private sector in the Haitian government. Lindenmayer said that they had a series of meetings with the army, the police, and the electoral team, along with many other groups in Haiti. They also met with people in the private sector, which they had never done before. "They are all dead," she said of the people they met. Immediately after the quakes, her SIPA students quickly busied themselves with trying to best help those around them. "I think the students immediately did everything they could to keep themselves busy. It was the only way to cope. I did not stop them," she said. "Less than five minutes after the earthquake, the boys were trying to release the people from the car which had been crushed. The women and the team were holding babies and helping the wounded. We were busy the whole night." The next day, they started to evacuate to the MINUSTAH base. Along the way to this base, they met Marc Levy and Alex Fischer, workers at Columbia's Earth Institute's Center for International Earth Science Information Network. Levy and Fischer went with the group to the base. They stayed at the base two nights and two days. "All the wounded started to arrive and we started to take care of them. But we had practically nothing. No bandages. No medicine. We talked to them. We held their hands. The earth continued to crumble." Hundreds of wounded arrived at the base. There were only two doctors present to help them. Lindenmayer realized she would have to get her students out of the country as soon as possible. Lindenmayer arranged a helicopter to Santo Domingo, where they stayed with the Clinton foundation. Lindenmayer and three of the students arrived back in the United States on Friday night, while the other three returned to their homes in Canada. Lindenmayer acknowledges the enormous impact the devastation had on the students, who she calls on a daily basis. "They have seen what they have been through. We came so close to death ourselves. We are alive and others are not. All the people they have met have disappeared in one second. They have seen the suffering of the people of Haiti. We left people behind. You feel guilty by leaving," she said. "If they can go over the trauma, they will be stronger people and will be inspired to continue the work of their colleagues that are no longer." "We played chess with death and won by a hair," she added. "About 150 of the UN staff is dead and thousands of the people of Haiti. Their agony has no words. We are coming back from hell. But we are alive. We were lucky." 'We need every single person on board' The earthquake in Haiti has led to an outpouring of support from campus groups. A handful of student groups, still fresh from break, will try to hash out details this week for a unified plan to support the people of Haiti, where chaos and mass suffering continue. "This is an emergency, so things have to happen quickly," said April Simpson, CC '11, president of the Caribbean Students Association. Simpson said the first test of a student-led relief effort will come on Wednesday night, when the CSA, working in tandem with the Haitian Students Association, will hold a forum open to the public to discuss how students in New York City can lend a hand. CSA and HSA are still in the process of selecting which charity to work with exclusively. Kessandra Agenor, BC '10 and president of the HSA, said she hopes to form a partnership with Howard University and other schools. Students at Howard have been working closely with the Haitian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and have already been promised that any supplies they can collect will be delivered to Haiti. The CSA holds an annual music showcase called 2 Dollarama to support developmental education in one Caribbean nation a year. Until last Tuesday, this year's beneficiary was supposed to be Simpson's homeland of Jamaica. But the group soon agreed that the $2 entrance fee should be changed to $2 and a canned good or $4 to benefit the people of Haiti. The groups changed the fees to collect more funds and canned goods. According to Aviva Buechler, BC'11 and president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, their group started talking with HSA in the days after the quake, and are hoping to raise $1,000 in the next few weeks for Haiti relief. "Generally, whenever disaster strikes whoever it affects, it's important for groups across Columbia to unite and collect funds," Buechler said. Agenor said that it's been a hard week for Haitian students, whether they were affected directly or indirectly. Their friends and family are mostly safe, she said. But Agenor said that several hours after the quake, her family learned that her grandmother in Haiti did not survive. She said that she hopes relief efforts at Columbia will let students know that they can make a difference. "We need every single person to be on board," she said. 'The government has nothing. Their palace was destroyed. The president is homeless.' Columbia experts have been weighing in, and for at least one, response has been lacking. According to Irwin Redlener, founder and Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, reaction to the crisis, particularly the U.S. response, has been lackluster. According to Redlener, the response was initially an assessment of the extent of the disaster, rather than an immediate mobilization of resources. "The fact is that it was very clear within the first couple of hours that this was going to be a catastrophic disaster, that not only was an enormous earthquake in a city and country already impoverished, but it was striking the capital city and seat of government, the only source of stability in the country. The response should have been more rapid and efficient than we've actually been observing. Wasting time doing a detailed assessment instead of sending in search and rescue teams, that was not appropriate," he said. Redlener is also the president and co-founder of Children's Health Fund, a philanthropic organization that helps to develop health care programs in underrepresented areas. A delayed response is also catastrophic from a medical standpoint. The concern for lives hinges on potentially fatal injuries like crush and penetration injuries to the chest and head. Lindenmayer said that the Haitian government has done everything it can do in the aftermath. "The government has nothing. Their palace was destroyed. The president is homeless," she said. She thinks the largest problem Haiti will face will be keeping international attention long enough. "It will be much more difficult to keep the attentions of the international community on Haiti," she said, stating that she believes that the rebuilding will be "a 20-year enterprise." The coming months are critical for effective ongoing response, as Haiti is only seeing the beginning of secondary and tertiary effects of a disaster of this proportion. Redlener explained that following a disaster like this, there are often many public health concerns, ranging "from contaminated water supply, to infections, water-born illnesses, and a host of other things that will require substantial public health understanding to keep in check." Long-term goals for Haiti are multitudinous and will require an integrated effort. Redlener said, "The notion is to rebuild better." firstname.lastname@example.org Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Lindenmayer and her students arrived back in the United States on Saturday. Lindenmayer and three students arrived on Friday night, while three students went to Canada, where they are from. Spectator regrets this error.
Patrick Yuan, Staff photographer