From Happiness To Horror: Haitian VAR Recounts Earthquake Experience

Ralph Pereira was in a good mood walking to his car late in the afternoon of Jan. 12. The sun was setting, and Pereira was glad that a meeting with some petroleum executives had ended more than an hour early. Now he could go home and spend some bonus time with his wife and daughter. And then the ground started shaking.

Life changed forever for Pereira, president of Port-au-Prince, Haiti-based solution provider CompHaiti, and his fellow countrymen that tragic day.

Pereira knew right away that it was an earthquake and that he had to find a safe spot. He stepped on the gas of his Toyota SUV to find an open space near the street. Clutching the steering wheel, he could only watch in horror as surrounding buildings began to collapse, including the one that he had just exited. The sky turned white with dust and piercing cries for help soon replaced the sound of crumbling wood and stone.

Pereira got out of the car and ran back to the building where his meeting had ended on the second floor. Everyone in the meeting had made it out except for an 82-year-old man someone spotted trying to crawl out. The man survived, but the first floor of the building housed a supermarket that sustained such a tremendous damage and loss of life that Pereira can't describe it.

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Terrified for his wife and daughter, and also for his 60 employees at CompHaiti, Pereira jumped back in his car to get home. The devastation, combined with no power and darkening skies, turned what should have been a short trip into an excruciating journey.

His first stop was the CompHaiti office because he was concerned about some weaknesses in the structure of the building. It took him two hours to reach the office, but he found most of his employees milling about, dazed but safe. He yelled for everyone to go home to their families, as he didn't know when or where any aftershocks might occur.

He returned to his car and drove to a family-owned gas station where he thought his wife and daughter would be. They weren't there. With no way to reach them, he drove another two hours to his home, praying that they were there and safe. They were. His house, made of stone, had been shaken but was relatively unscathed.

"That was the worst four hours of my life," Pereira told in a recent interview.

Of course, Haiti's pain continues today. More than 200,000 people were killed as a result of the Jan. 12 earthquake and more than 1 million more lost their homes. Help has poured in from around the globe, including from the IT community here in the U.S., but the aid efforts can't erase all the pain.

"Every time a truck drives past we feel vibrations and we all get up and start running," Pereira said.

CompHaiti lost one of its employees as a result of the quake. A cashier in her early 20s has been confirmed dead, Pereira said. "She was one of our top employees. She left to go to school at night and we never heard from her," Pereira said.

Because he views CompHaiti as an extension of his family, the loss has hurt Pereira deeply.

"Every day as president I would go down and have a little chat with her. I miss her a lot," he said. "For the rest, we know they are alive but we don't much more. We're trying to get whatever we can: tents, water, food to distribute to them."

He believes everyone else has survived, even if he's not sure where they are or what condition they're in. At least 10 employees had close family members, such as children, parents or siblings, killed in the quake, Pereira said.

Next: CompHaiti Reopens

Nearly three weeks after the earthquake, CompHaiti, which deals in all facets of IT products and services except for ISP hosting, reopened on a small scale with senior management filling orders and scrambling to find equipment to help some vital organizations get up and running.

Although CompHaiti's building made it through the quake, about 30 percent of the IT inventory inside was destroyed. When you consider that the government, aid organizations and other nongovernmental organizations were desperate for working IT equipment immediately after the earthquake, it made the challenge to help those groups communicate and organize their relief efforts all the more difficult. "We were the lucky ones. We could open our store," he said. Pereira expects to have everyone who is returning back by March 1. "The problem is most of our customers' [offices] are damaged. Everything is flat down. They're trying to find different locations for temporary [offices]. Everybody is trying to set up networks, stuff like that. The banking system has frozen all credit activities. We have excellent credit with our suppliers, but nobody is supposed to import anything right now because the ports are not up and running yet [as of early February]," Pereira said. The city's main port was only partially open and has been reserved for rescue and aid supplies. Rightly so, he added.

Luckily, Pereira has been able to take a truck to pick up products from the Dominican Republic where shipments still arrive on a normal basis.

"The Dominican people are excellent people. I'm very thankful for what they've done for us," Pereira said. "We went over there to a supplier that I knew but never did business with and the guy shipped me product like that without any signed paper. He gave me $100,000 worth of goods for me to go back home and start selling. Nobody else would have done that and I'm very thankful to him." CompHaiti quickly sold all the new inventory, paid back the supplier and has since gone back for subsequent inventory pickups, he said.

Pereira is concerned about seeming to want to profit from the disaster, noting that he is only trying to keep his business running and his employees working. Pereira also has another reason to go to the Dominican. His family has been living there since the quake. His daughter is enrolled in a French school there and will remain there for the remainder of the school year.

Haiti was unprepared for the earthquake because much of the country did not take warnings to heart, Pereira said.

"The culture of poverty is to not look at tomorrow, not to look at anybody else. Just to get through the day," Pereira said. "That's the reality. That's the culture of our people. We just look at today."

Next: Pereira Looks Ahead

Of course, Pereira has to look at tomorrow. With dozens of people directly or indirectly under his care, he feels tremendous pressure to provide for them and his country. That pressure has mounted over the last month as the recovery has been painstakingly slow, he added.

"When you have 150 people looking at you, waiting for your proper decision for their families, it's not an easy game. They look at you. They trust you. They expect you to do something for them. And yet you don't even know what you can do for yourself," said Pereira said. "This is the time when you are a leader. You wish you had someone else to [whom] you could say help me. But there is no one for this tough situation. I do not wish anyone to be in my shoes."

Much like solution providers in New Orleans had to regroup after Hurricane Katrina, CompHaiti is unsure what the future holds.

"It's even a little bit worse here because we don't know if they're going to reconstruct the city where it was," he said. "There's also the threat of another hit."

About 40 percent of CompHaiti's employees have left the area and Pereira is not sure if or when they will come back. He also doesn't know when his commercial customers will get back on their feet.

"Right now we can be of assistance to the public sector, but the private sector, we have no idea," he said. "Banking we know will be working. But 70 percent of our customers we have absolutely no idea what's going to happen."

Pereira also said he doesn't know what he'll even do with his own house, his own land in Port-au-Prince. "We don't know how much this is worth. We don't know if this [office] is an asset on our balance sheet or not. It's a very, very unclear situation. We do what we can.

Even on Sunday, Feb. 14, Pereira was still working, but from home. "It's Valentine's Day despite all," he said. "We are still increasing in volumes every day. Thank God we could find a way via the Dominican Republic to get supplies and starting this week [of Feb. 15] we could resume to normal ordering and logistics process from the U.S., which is a good sign. We will be able to supply our customers more adequately."

From a grand perspective, the work is overwhelming, but each small victory allows the people of Haiti to recover a semblance of their former lives. And that's a start.