By Matea Wasend
Jolle Vitiello had not even finished unpacking her bags when the earthquake hit. The Macalester French professor sought shelter in the doorway of her Haitian hotel room as solid ground rolled beneath her.”I heard the noise first,” Vitiello said. “It was almost like automatic gunpowder or a jackhammer.very regular. Then the ground started shaking.”Vitiello has traveled to Haiti almost every year since 1996, researching the local arts and culture and often collaborating with local organizations that empower women.When the tremors had passed, Vitiello and her fellow hotel guests emerged into the square outside, where she said the damage was not immediately visible.”Mostly there was just a lot of people running,” Vitiello said. “Luckily there were no tall buildings in our square.”A team of doctors who had been staying in Vitiello’s hotel immediately started treating people who had been injured by falling rubble. Vitiello and other guests assisted survivors in any way they could. Vitiello remembers comforting one girl who had lost her shoes while running through the streets in search of her family.The hotel guests slept in the street that night. The hotel’s generator provided light to survivors searching for trapped victims and doctors treating the injured.The next day, Vitiello met another Frenchwoman who had a car. The pair drove in search of a means of communication, as nobody had any way of alerting family and friends that they were safe.”We went into town to see if we could get our cell phones to work,” Vitiello said. “It was there we saw the true devastation. But we also witnessed people helping each other.trying to find relatives, seeing how they could assist other people.”When they returned to the hotel, someone had finally managed to access the Internet on their Blackberry. The guests were able to alert their loved ones that they were safe. Two days later, Vitiello and many other Americans were evacuated from the country through the U.S. Embassy.”It was so hard to decide to leave,” Vitiello said. “But staying would have depleted resources that the Haitians need, and because I am not a doctor or a nurse there was not much I could do.”Now back in Minnesota, Vitiello has been devoting much of her energy to tracking down the people and organizations she knows in Haiti. She updates her findings on her Facebook page, as well as communicates with a network of people in the Twin Cities who are accumulating information about earthquake victims.Directors of some of the organizations Vitiello was in contact with have been pronounced dead. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Port Au Prince was demolished, killing many of the workers inside. A colleague of Vitiello’s, a fellow writer who had been in Haiti for the same literary festival that Vitiello planned to attend, was killed along with his wife when the earthquake hit.Despite the heartache that will accompany her on her visit, Vitiello plans to return to Haiti this summer.”As I was leaving, a woman said to me, ‘No one will ever be back,'” Vitiello remembered. “I told her, ‘No, we’ll be back. At the moment, it is time for doctors and surgeons.but I will be back.'”For Vitiello, Haiti is not just the rundown country often described in the newspapers. When she first traveled there in 1996, she said she was amazed by the country’s thriving culture.”I was struck by the energy and resilience of Haitian people.the way culture is important at every stage of life,” Vitiello recalled. “I was impressed by everyone’s efforts to participate in the life of the country.”Vitiello encouraged Americans to keep Haiti in mind, even after the sensational stories begin to fade from the newspapers.”I’ve been struck by the amazing solidarity for Haiti around the world,” Vitiello said. “Barely a day goes by without a benefit, auction, etc. What’s important is not to forget Haiti once immediate care is given.to still see what is needed, even after a few months.