When the Earth Shook
Conor Shapiro’s life as a community organizer and hospital administrator in rural Haiti had always been a challenge.
And then the earthquake struck.
Late on the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Conor Shapiro ’03, the 28-year-old director general of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, sat in his office on the second floor of a 60-bed hospital in a remote Haitian town with one streetlamp. He was speaking by telephone to his mother in Massachusetts when the earth quaked.
The phone went dead, oxygen tanks toppled, medical records flew. Conor Shapiro, a compact man with an athletic solidity, braced himself as his world rocked violently and then eerily, deceivingly, steadied.
Nothing would be the same again—for Haiti, for St. Boniface, or for Shapiro. But at that moment, in the southwestern mountain town of Fond des Blancs, the upheaval did not feel lasting. Soon after the shaking stopped, Ellen Boldon, a nutritionist, was able to access the Internet. “It’s unbelievable!” she cried. “There has been a 7.0 earthquake in Port-au-Prince.”
Shapiro’s Haitian wife had been staying in the country’s capital city with their six-year-old adopted daughter. His heart in his throat, Shapiro gathered three men whose families also lived in Port-au-Prince, and they drove toward the epicenter of the disaster. Along the rutted dirt road leading to the highway, people were sprinting down hills, waving their arms, terrified of what would come next.
Thirty-six hours later, after the rockslides had stopped and the highway was finally navigable, Shapiro arrived at the nightmarish scene whose images were flashing around the world. He saw a familiar landscape turned hellish, with roads buckled, neighborhoods flattened, and corpses strewn in the streets.
Thankfully, Shapiro’s wife and daughter were safe, huddled in a backyard with relatives. Within days, he had secured seats for them on a medical charter plane returning to the United States. They fled to his country; he stayed in theirs, his work—providing health care to Haiti’s poor—was suddenly more urgent than ever.
“I’m divided,” Shapiro said early one Sunday morning in March, sitting on a terrace at the St. Boniface Hospital, with badly injured earthquake victims filling a ward beneath him. “My wife, daughter, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and nephew have set up our own little refugee camp in the Boston area. And I’m here.”
Shapiro described his personal mobilization after the earthquake as a kind of humanitarian call to arms. “You feel like you’re at war almost,” he said. “All I know is that I feel very attached to this place, and I’m not going to leave it.”
Eventually he would reconsider.