March 3, 2010

'Earth had turned to Jell-O' during quake, Mainer recalls


— By

Kennebec Journal

Austin Webbert and a group of his college classmates were relaxing at a downtown restaurant in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, the day a 7.0-magnitude earthquake turned most of the Carribbean capital into rubble, killing tens of thousands.

Webbert's group was taking a break from the volunteer work they had undertaken in Cité Soleil, a slum on the outskirts of the Haitian capital.

''We had just left the building and gotten into our SUV when the earthquake happened,'' Webbert said. ''I was shocked to see the restaurant heave up and down off the ground before slumping over.''

The 22-year-old college student from Wayne was on his fourth trip to the nation of 9 million. He evacuated to the Dominican Republic late last week, then landed in Miami on Saturday.

Webbert, a 2005 North Yarmouth Academy graduate and University of Miami senior, shared some of his firsthand observations with the Kennebec Journal this week in a Facebook message.

When the earthquake struck, Webbert said, his first thought was that the sport utility vehicle he and his fellow students were riding in had been hit by another vehicle. He quickly realized the situation was more serious.

''The earth had turned to Jell-O, the ground and road swam like a wave,'' he wrote. ''A cloud of fine dust spilled out and descended around us as bodies flew by.''

The city came to a standstill, Webbert said, as fallen buildings, abandoned cars and ''the bruised, bloody, dazed and dead'' blocked the streets.

Webbert's work in Cité Soleil focused on assembling a network of youth community centers in impoverished areas. When the earthquake struck, Webbert and the students he was working with were meeting with a handful of local Haitian leaders involved with the students' efforts.

Amid the wreckage, Webbert said he and a Haitian student attempted to find their way back to the building housing the organization they'd been working with.

''We trekked through the disjointed mounds of concrete rubble, cracked steel and loose wiring,'' he wrote.

Webbert said he took part in efforts to clear the streets to make way for rescue vehicles, but there was little help to be had.

''Most painful was the feeling of powerlessness,'' he said.

The journey to the building took four or five hours.

''We passed the night jittery and sleepless in the driveway,'' unable to reach family to inform them of their whereabouts, Webbert said. The next morning, Webbert and fellow students hiked to the U.S. Embassy, which coordinated their evacuation.

Webbert said the slum where he and his classmates had been working still has yet to see much relief.


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