On Tuesday, 12 January 2010, at 4:53 p.m., an earthquake struck Haiti, killing tens of thousands of Haitians and causing the highest number of casualties among United Nations staff in any single event in the Organization’s history.
In the wake of the disaster, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon decided to travel to Haiti to help ensure the coordination of the huge amount of aid that had begun pouring into the country, and to show solidarity with the people of Haiti and with his United Nations staff. He arrived in Port-au-Prince on the morning of Sunday, 17 January.
The Secretary-General was briefed by Edmond Mulet, who had been appointed on 13 January as Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Acting Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
Secretary-General Ban’s first meeting was with President René Préval. They discussed the need for an effective, coordinated response, led by the United Nations, side by side with the Government of Haiti. Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega Sanz of Spain, representing the European Union, the Presidency of which her country holds for the first half of 2010, also attended the meeting, held at MINUSTAH’s logistics base.
The Secretary-General visited the Christopher Hotel, which housed the MINUSTAH headquarters and which collapsed in the earthquake, killing or trapping many United Nations staff and visitors. He watched in silence as rescue operations continued, later speaking with rescue workers and relatives of some of those still unaccounted for. Representatives of the Mission’s civilian, military and police components handed the Secretary-General a flag retrieved from the ruins, to be carried back to New York.
Shortly after the Secretary-General left the site, a search-and-rescue team pulled Jens Kristensen, a Danish United Nations staff member, out of the rubble, dehydrated after five days without water or food, but alive and conscious. (He returned to work after a few days.)
“I am very glad; that was a great sign of hope,” Mr. Ban told the media afterwards. “Saving lives is our first priority, and I hope that we see more such miracles.”
He then visited Champs de Mars, the main city square, where he met people on the streets and heard about their immediate needs: food, water and shelter. But they also asked for jobs and the chance to rebuild their own city and country. That prompted the Secretary-General to call for a cash-for-work scheme, to be activated along the lines of a similar 2008 post-hurricane programme. He also received an update on the situation in Haiti from journalist Michéle Montas, his former Spokesperson, who had returned to Port-au-Prince prior to the earthquake.
At a press conference later, the Secretary-General reiterated his message to the people of Haiti: “We are with you. You are not alone. Help is already arriving.” He praised their resilience and appealed for patience because aid would take time to reach all those who need it.
Mr. Ban outlined the main priorities for the United Nations in Haiti: saving lives; emergency relief; and coordination of international efforts. He also flew over the city and port by helicopter to assess the damage and the scale of the tragedy.
Before departing Haiti, he held a town hall meeting with United Nations staff, telling them: “We do not have to create [United Nations] heroes. We have only to look around. There are many heroes. I am proud to serve with you.”
Returning to the United States late on Sunday night, the Secretary-General’s plane bore the coffins of the two most senior staff who had perished at the Christopher Hotel: Hédi Annabi of Tunisia, Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Haiti; and Luiz Carlos da Costa of Brazil, Principal Deputy Special Representative.
Upon arrival at Newark Liberty International Airport, fire trucks sprayed the plane with water as a salute to fallen staff of the Organization. Family, friends and colleagues then took part in a solemn arrival ceremony held in an aircraft hangar, where the Secretary-General handed United Nations flags to the Annabi and da Costa families.