Published February 15. 2010 4:00AM Updated May 27. 2010 9:44AM
Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Dominique Georges was driving the congested streets of Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit on Jan. 12. The assistant director of the Norwich Mission House, Georges has family, friends, co-workers — nearly his entire world — in Haiti.
Yet, as everything around him devolved into chaos, as the landscape instantly turned nonsensical, as bodies littered the streets and buildings collapsed, Georges' mind turned to a list:
- Try to drive away from here. Can't.
- Park the car where the U.N. worker pointed. Check.
- Find my mother. Check.
- Get to the Mission House. Check.
- Find tools to rescue two trapped workers. Check.
On it went. On it continues.
For a month, Georges' mind has been making lists. He has organized the disorganized. He has been the main contact in Haiti for the ministries staff in Connecticut, the man providing updates and running errands and bringing a small sense of normalcy to a world upended.
"Dom has been absolutely amazing," said Emily Smack, the executive director of the Norwich-based group that runs a mission house and an orphanage in Haiti. "I can't say enough wonderful things about what he's been able to do."
Georges answers matter-of-factly when asked how he's been able to remain calm in the face of disaster.
"I do pretty well under pressure, really," he says. "That's my temperament."
And then he offers an example, as if this can compare in any way to the past few weeks. Even in school, he says, when his teachers would assign homework, if he had 15 days to get it done, he'd start on the 14th day and still get a good grade. He laughs about it.
"So I'm used to pressure," he says.
When it is pointed out to him that an earthquake is not nearly the same as homework, Georges concedes that it is not. He elaborates.
"I always think, it already happened," he says. "It already happened, and there's nothing I can do to change it. The only thing I can do is try to make life better after it happens. I think the thing to do is to keep the aftermath from spreading."
Checking on mother first
On Jan. 12, Georges finished his work early so he could drive to a mechanic's and argue about whether there should have been more gas in the car after recent repairs. A friend called Georges to warn him that students were protesting downtown and throwing rocks at cars. When Georges hung up, he glanced at the cell phone and saw that it was 12 minutes to 5.
Then the earthquake hit.
"I thought I was hit by a dump truck," Georges says.
Georges glanced in his rearview mirror, but the pickup truck behind him had not slammed into his car. In front of him, in oncoming traffic, a man on a motorcycle was thrown off the bike. The man landed in the road and skidded on his knees, and as the motorcycle bounced away, the man made the sign of the cross and then raised his arms toward the sky.
The tremors came in waves. Georges put the emergency brake on and clutched the steering wheel. He could tell they were washing through the earth from north to south because of the direction of his car, which was rocking from left to right.
At the side of the road, flower pots belonging to streetside vendors were smashed. When the earthquake stopped, Georges kept driving.
"I didn't realize how serious it was," he said.
Creeping along, Georges finally came upon a U.N. employee who told him to park his car and walk wherever it was he needed to go.
He received a call from the mechanic telling him the Mission House had collapsed and asking whether anyone was inside. When Georges said yes, that Americans Jillian Thorp and Chuck Dietsch were inside, the mechanic told Georges they were dead.
"I was between the Mission House and my mother's house," Georges said. "I was thinking where to go first. Should I go back to the Mission House or should I go down to see my mother, my family?"
He took a few steps toward the Mission House.
"And then I said to myself, 'No, they are dead. They are certainly dead. Let me go see my mother,' " Georges said.
It was difficult, he said, even to walk. Ninety to 95 percent of the houses in her neighborhood had been destroyed.
By the time he got there, a nephew had pulled his mother out of her house. At least 10 people died in the same house, Georges said, including three family members and a close friend.
A few hours later, Georges received a text message from a friend of Jillian's in Connecticut: She's alive. Please send someone to the Mission House. Georges received a second text message from the friend, telling him where Thorp was trapped.
He raced over to help. By then, it had been several hours since the earthquake and two other Mission House employees had started to chisel through the concrete.
Using pickaxes, the men would finally chip away a hole just large enough to free Thorp and Dietsch. At 4 a.m. Georges called the ministries staff in Connecticut to tell them the pair was safe.
Doing what had to be done
In the days that followed, Georges continued to anticipate needs and cross them off a mental list:
- He tracked down local Mission House staff and asked their needs, then relayed the information to Connecticut.
- He gathered the staff at the collapsed house each day for a meeting to ask what they needed and how they had managed overnight.
- He hired people to clear the road around the house.
- He made sure the security company knew that the house still needed its patrols, and when the guard on duty said he was nervous overnight, Georges arranged for a second armed guard to prevent night-time looting.
- Georges sent the Mission House dog, Tamar, to stay with the friend of a friend and stashed the solar panels from the roof in a safe place.
- He saved the extra gasoline from the Mission House.
- He moved the Mission House's Land Rover to a friend's place with a locked fence, and the Mitsubishi Montero he had dug out of rubble, the roof popped up and the car made operable.
Still, looters move quickly, and they stole cash from a safe before Georges could secure it. With the banks in Haiti closed, Georges couldn't cash any checks. The Connecticut staff enabled his credit card to make cash advances, but Georges could only get access to it in the Dominican Republic, more than six hours away.
He retrieved his car and drove to the Dominican Republic to get cash and supplies. His visa had expired, and Georges gave a border guard 100 pesos— about three U.S. dollars — to let him in.
He crossed into Cap Haitien, a town where his father had once served as sheriff and where he had an aunt he had never met. An older man heard him asking for his aunt, who is blind, and it registered: Mrs. Bad Eye. The man gave Georges the address and he spent the night at his aunt's.
In the ensuing weeks, Georges would continue to piece together a routine, driving the visiting ministries staff to appointments, paying bills, setting up Internet access.
The Haitian staff is living in a house just outside of Port-au-Prince that the ministries will rent for a year or so.
"There were days when I sensed a great deal of tension in his voice," Smack said during an interview in Haiti, "but he never lost his cool."
Three nieces and six neighbors of Georges had died in the earthquake.
"He's had personal tragedy on top of it, and I don't think he's really had time to process it," Smack said. "It's like everybody — you're just on a whirlwind trying to catch all the details and find out where everybody is and keep track of people."
Georges said he's acknowledged his losses. But again, he can't go back.
"I think about it," he said, "but I don't cry. There are so many dead people."