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January 13, 2010

In Haiti, tragedy, a way of life, is redefined

EDITOR'S NOTE — Jonathan M. Katz is The Associated Press' correspondent in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He filed this first-person account of the moments after Tuesday's earthquake, which has redefined tragedy for a nation that knows it all too well.

PETIONVILLE, Haiti (AP) — I was sitting on my bed surfing the Internet when I noticed silence, followed by a weird groaning sound. I figured it was a passing water truck. But funny, I thought — sounds more like an earthquake.

The house started shaking. Then it really started shaking. I walked out of my room and kneeled slowly to the undulating floor, laptop in hand, as windows, two years' worth of Haitian art and a picture of my grandfather smashed around me.

I was not hurt. Not only that, the staircase in the house where I live and work, while completely invisible behind a choking white cloud of drywall and dust, was still standing. I yelled out for Evens, the AP's all-in-one driver/translator/bodyguard here.

To my shock and delight he answered: "Let's go."

I went. Barefoot, over rocks, past a crack running the height of the house, out to the street in my underwear, first to look for a telephone to call in what had happened, then brave any aftershocks and return to the house for a chance at shoes and pants.

It's been nearly impossible to get an Internet or phone signal since then. So consider it my pure but well-founded speculation that many reports of the destruction of Port-au-Prince include a phrase like, "Haiti is no stranger to suffering."

In the wake of Tuesday's magnitude-7 earthquake, which leveled much of the Haitian capital and left perhaps tens of thousands dead, it is both an understatement and an overstatement.

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