“Lines were dead. We were frantic”
by Howard Kohn
Leicia Monfort is a 2003 graduate of Montgomery Blair and as American as American can be, although she has always known her roots were in Haiti. Her mother, Leticia, grew up in Port-au-Prince before emigrating in 1977 to the U. S. Counting pennies Leticia then saved enough to bring over and marry her sweetheart, Phillippe, and the two of them talked often about taking Leicia for a visit to their home country.
That trip never happened, the way things turned out, and in another era Haiti might have remained a Poloraid snapshot to Leicia. But this is the era of Facebook and cell phones. Modern communications brought Leicia close to cousins and nieces and family friends who, on January 12, were in the zone that an earthquake changed forever, even as she went about a usual routine, working her front-desk job at the Takoma Park Recreation Department, checking in with an aunt and heading to a Laundromat.
“My aunt said that something had happened in Haiti, but I was in a hurry and didn’t think much about it until I got a text while I was doing laundry. As soon as I got back home my mom and my aunt were going crazy because they couldn’t reach anyone.
“All the family we know in Haiti, all my Haitian friends on Facebook, we couldn’t get in contact with anyone. The phone lines were busy or dead. We were frantic.
“The whole next day we kept trying to get through, and finally in the
evening we reached someone. That’s when I found out that my 10-year-old
niece was missing. She’d never come home from school. I was scared. I
was like, ‘Oh, no, that’s my baby!’
“The next evening we found out
my cousin had been killed. She was just a couple years older than me.
She had been studying to be a nurse, and she had two young kids. They
lived on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, and they were at home. The
house collapsed on top of them, and her kids died, too.
niece was safe. It turned out she had stayed late at school. Normally
she would’ve left school at 3:30, but she was taking an extra class in
order to earn a certificate, and that class didn’t end until 6:30. The
earthquake hit about 5:15 and didn’t do any damage to her school, which
was in Port-au-Prince.
“Her home was destroyed. They are homeless
now, but everyone else in her family survived. It was like a miracle.
No one was at home.
“All those people were on my mom’s side of the
family, but on my dad’s side we still hadn’t heard anything. My dad is
very ill, and I thought maybe he was being shielded from the news, for
fear of how he would react. But, no, there was no news. It took six
days, and then we heard that three of my cousins on my dad’s side had
“The same day on my mom’s side we learned that one of
my cousins had been found, but he was trapped underneath his house. He
was still alive, and we weren’t sure if they could pull him out. Or how
they would do it. It was chaos there.
“He was about to get
married. The wedding was to be in February. I kept hoping and hoping.
Lots of times Haitians go without food for days. They know how to deal
with hunger. But the next day we found out he’d died before they could
reach him. We still don’t know about his fiancée, whether she’s alive
“Then one more on my mom’s side died. That made five on her side.
now everyone in my family, and almost all my friends, their houses are
gone. They’re taking shelter in whatever buildings are standing. I know
one family – they’ve turned their house into a clinic for others who
“Haitians are a laid-back people. They weren’t
prepared for a catastrophe like this. My mom, when she crosses the
street, I have to tell her to look both ways. When she goes outside, I
tell her to wear shoes. I say, ‘You’re not in Haiti anymore.’
“But Haitians are also survivors. One day I’ll get to go there and meet everyone who made it through. They’re family.”