On 12 January 2010, Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, killing approximately 250,000 people and making some 1.5 million homeless. The then German Ambassador in Port‑au‑Prince, Jens-Peter Voss, recalls the earthquake and its immediate aftermath.
On Tuesday afternoon at 5 p.m. – seven minutes before the end of the working day – the earthquake strikes. The Head of the German Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Jens-Peter Voss, his staff and his wife are in the premises of the chancery when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake lasting 35 seconds rocks Haiti. “Thirty-five seconds that can be very long”, Voss recalls today. The people cried for help, he said – “otherwise we stood under the door frame, which is what you are told to do in the event of an earthquake”.
The scale of the catastrophe
The German Embassy in Haiti is what is known as a micro-mission with fewer than ten employees, including two home-based staff members from Germany. The mission only suffers light damage at the hands of the devastating earthquake. At this moment in time, no one knows the extent of the destruction outside the Embassy grounds. “I didn’t even need to tell my staff to start making their way carefully home: everyone was concerned for their neighbours, their house, their possessions”, said Ambassador Voss.
Voss first telephones the Situation Centre at the Federal Foreign Office and says that all of his staff are alive and well and that the Embassy is intact. Then he and his wife take their private car and try to make their way to the hotel where they are staying – the Ambassador’s residence is currently being refurbished. It is only then that they become aware of the extent of the catastrophe:
We quickly arrived at a place where there was no getting through: rubble was blocking the street; a crane was trying to lift the roof off a children’s home. When we saw an employee from our hotel coming towards us in his working clothes – under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have left the hotel grounds dressed like that – we knew that the hotel must have suffered damage. So we drove back to the chancery.
The Embassy as a place of refuge
At the Embassy, Voss and his employees set up a satellite link, check the emergency supplies, send regular situation reports to the Head Office of the Federal Foreign Office and take in the first German citizens who have lost their homes as a result of the earthquake. While multiple aftershocks rock Port‑au‑Prince and surrounds, the family of a gardener whose house was destroyed find refuge in the Embassy.
On the next day, the first German citizens are evacuated to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, including the Ambassador’s wife. Voss himself lives in the office for the first six months following the earthquake – “kitted out with a camp-bed” – and coordinates the Embassy’s humanitarian aid efforts, which include finding and evacuating German citizens, coordinating the Federal Government’s humanitarian assistance and longer-term planning of financial support to reconstruct Haiti. Just three days after the earthquake, the first staff members arrive from Berlin to reinforce the personnel on the ground.
Emergency relief and reconstruction
The willingness of Germans to help and donate money is enormous – as is the appetite for information. Many German journalists are in Haiti and need to be looked after; a ZDF team camps on the Embassy grounds for a number of days. German aid organisations build the largest mobile field hospital since the Second World War and set up a drinking-water purification centre. The German Embassy offers its support in all of these efforts.
The earthquake of 12 January 2010 kills approximately 250,000 people and makes 1.5 million homeless. Four German citizens also lose their lives in the catastrophe. Ambassador Voss still vividly recalls his experiences today, five years later: “driving through streets lined with dead bodies; sensing the immense good fortune that you are still alive.”
His hotel collapsed like a house of cards during the earthquake – if the quake had happened a little later, he probably would not have survived. Voss remains Ambassador in Haiti until 2012; today, he is consul-general in Shenyang, China. It is only possible to process the things he experienced with a certain amount of inner distance, he says:
The shock helped us to distance ourselves from what happened, apparently as a mechanism of self-preservation: for weeks, I felt as if a film was running and was surprised now and then to find that I myself turned out to be one of the people on screen.