Ten years ago Sunday, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti. At least 100,000 people died but some estimates put the total at more than twice that. There was roughly $8-billion dollars in damage. In the months that followed there was a cholera outbreak that claimed thousands more lives. Dr. Louise Ivers of Massachusetts General Hospital was on the ground in Haiti when the earthquake happened. She recently returned to the country for the 10 year anniversary and spoke with WGBH News' All Things Considered anchor Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: The earthquake hit just before 5 o'clock on the afternoon of January 12th, 2010. That was a Tuesday. At what point were you on the ground?
Dr. Louise Ivers: I was actually there on January 12th at 4:53 p.m. on the Tuesday afternoon when the earthquake happened. I was in a meeting with colleagues. When we first felt something, it felt to me as though a truck had hit the building. It was a rumble, but then the rumbling didn't stop, and it just became more and more intense. And then the ground to me was very violently moving, up and down, back and forth. Some of us fell to the ground, and finally someone yelled we should get out, get out.
Rath: You were a leader for Partners in Health, the Boston-based medical non-profit, in Haiti. Were you kind of thrown into a first responder roll almost right away?
Ivers: I think as a medical doctor, just at a human level, I certainly had an impetus to try to help, although I really didn't have tools to do that. But there was a lot of trying to do some very, very basic support to injured people. And then very quickly, I was able to send a message out saying, we're devastated, help us.
Rath: Could you give us a sense of the scale of what you were dealing with compared to the resources that you had to deal with it?
Ivers: Well, I think there's kind of phases of that. So in the initial 24 hours, initial 48 hours, there were essentially no resources. At that time in Port-Au-Prince, there was really no good trauma center, no medical center. There was no field hospital. And then if you look at the subsequent days and weeks, we had this influx of hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. There were medical supplies turned away inadvertently, and it was very complicated trying to get things into the country. Then if you look at the longer-term, billions of dollars were committed to Haiti such that after the initial shocks, you might have thought we really would be in a better situation than we are now, 10 years later. But unfortunately, despite what appeared to be many, many resources, we still didn't really make the progress that many of us would have really wished for and that people deserved, frankly, and never got.
Rath: Compounding the effects of the earthquake, of course, was the cholera outbreak that struck afterwards. I understand you authored the paper that pinpointed the cause of the outbreak. We ultimately came to know that it came from U.N. workers who were there to help. That was obviously a very controversial finding. Did you have a sense of how difficult that might be? Was it difficult to release those findings?
Ivers: Actually, the first people who really were suspicious that the United Nations peacekeepers introduced the epidemic were Haitians in the town of Mirebalais. They were really raising the alarm. I think the culpability of the United Nations has been complicated, and has certainly complicated the humanitarian response to the epidemic over the years, because the U.N. is obviously made up of many parts, and the peacekeepers are one part. But then the U.N. also has a number of humanitarian arms who really are positioned only to try to respond and help do humanitarian work. And so when you have this complexity with the peacekeeping operations, who had faulty sanitation in their base, and you're also working with organizations that rely on the humanitarian branches, you can be in a very complicated situation. But I think I have always been pushed by my Haitian colleagues, by patients I've seen that were harmed, and they wish for some reparations for that harm. And so I took some courage from their encouragement to be part of a group of different people who continue to push the United Nations to support and make up for the error that they made in introducing the epidemic.
Rath: And given how complicated that was at the time, how was the cholera outbreak ultimately stemmed? How it was ultimately conquered?
Ivers: 2019 saw a huge decrease in cases. So I think many of us are looking very tentatively and thinking, OK, is it over? Unfortunately, the conditions that allowed cholera to spread have not been transformed. So I think that would be another kind of disappointment over the last 10 years, that despite the fact that the epidemic seems to be under control for now, we still have the risk.
Rath: It seems amazing from the outside that that's still an active concern 10 years later. Can you talk about what else has changed medically in the last 10 years, for better or for worse?
Ivers: Around the country, you'll find organizations and institutions, especially community-based and grassroots organizations that are run by Haitians and by Haitians, that are having individual successes. But if you look at a population level, I think there's still a lot of disappointment that we just haven't gotten to the place where we'd like to be. We had an outbreak of diphtheria in Haiti the last year or two, the Zika epidemic was widespread here. We still have a health system that is underdeveloped and could be so much better. There are certainly stories of success, and I think it's important to see those and find those and really talk about them actually, because too often I hear the story that Haiti is too difficult. But it's not too difficult, it's just that you have to do things the right way.