LABADEE, HAITI – Kim Mangs had dozed off in her West Indian antique brass bed, beneath its rich mahogany headboard at 4:43 p.m. on Jan. 12.
“The bed began to shake and I woke up,” she recalled, the image still fresh in her mind. “I was scared, really scared, because I thought the heavy mahogany might break loose and come crashing down on top of me. The hard shaking continued for some 30 seconds – though it seemed a lot longer.
“At first, I didn’t know if I was dreaming or not. But seconds later the bed started shaking again and I realized I was awake.
“I had been reading and though I never nap in the afternoon, this time I did.”
She paused. “My husband, Tim, had been outside and when I began yelling, he rushed into the house to see what was happening.
“One of my three sons, Tyler, was in the next room, where we have a number of swings acting as chairs and he had been sitting on one, working on his laptop, when it began swinging back and forth, back and forth.
“We didn’t know what had happened and had no idea it was an earthquake that measured 7.0 on the Richter scale until one of my sons, Dillon, called to find out if we were okay and told us about the awful death and destruction that had leveled Port-au-Prince.”
Mrs. Mangs, 50, owner of Lu Lu’s, a boutique in Guilford, was sitting in her unique Branford home last week, a former skating rink remodeled by her husband, who is a builder. Nestled on Whitfield Road near Long Island Sound, it has high ceilings, an in-law apartment, and is packed with paintings, other works of art, photographs and different kinds of pottery – all from Haiti.
She flicked a switch on her laptop and the image of her husband – sharp and clear – came up on the screen. He was talking from one of the rooms in the home he built in Labadee, a fishing village of about 2,500 that is some 76 miles from Port-au-Prince, where most of the quake devastation occurred.
Mangs, 56, is six feet tall, has blue eyes and a face that mirrored what he was clearly feeling about an island nation he has come to love.
His voice was clear and he occasionally shifted the computer camera so the nearby beach and ocean, the mangos and the rolling mountains in the background were clearly visible.
“We were really lucky,” he said. “We are well above sea level; there was no damage to the house and none of us were hurt. But what has happened to these people is beyond description.”
“It is even more horrific than the television pictures show,” Mrs. Mangs said.
She has seen those pictures in Branford, but the couple does not yet have a television set in Haiti. “We have our own generator because the electricity generated by the government is a sometimes thing,” she said.
“We use it for our computers and lights when the power is off.”
“Dillon told us about 200 people called in Branford to see if we were safe after the quake,” Mangs said. “We are, but are doing everything we can to help the Haitian relief effort.”
Their third son, Max, 16, wrote a flyer appealing for funds for the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti (see editorial). His father is working with several people and a foundation toward the same end and so is Dillon.
The Mangs’ love for this island in the sun despite its abject poverty comes not only from its breathtaking scenic wonders but from its people.
“They were imported as slaves by the French and have never known anything but oppression and poverty,” Mangs said, his blue eyes flashing.
“There are no public schools here; so most of the people have no chance for an education and few of them can read or write.”
Creole is the Haitian language, derived from French, and both Kim and Tim Mangs speak it fluently.
“What got me really upset was talk that the reasons relief supplied were taking too long to be distributed was because of security problems and fears of looting,” Mangs said.
“That may have been used as an excuse, and no matter where you go, there are those who will take advantage of a situation like this. But those media reports did not do justice do the Haitian people.
“They sent in 12,000 Marines for security purposes, which were definitely not needed. The problem is distribution; the United Nation Headquarters collapsed, killing many, and they were supposed to take over logistic control – getting relief supplied where they were needed.
“Tons of supplies were sitting at the airport but at first, no one knew what to do.”
“Shortly after the quake,” Mrs. Mangs said, “there were planes overhead coming to and from then airport almost all the time – at least 150 a day.”
Her husband – the couple has been married for the past 24 years –described the Haitians, brought to Haiti from West Africa, as gentle and giving people “who help each other as a matter of course and have a wonderful sense of humor. They have been left to their own devices and get little help. But despite the colonial oppression, they (nine million strong before the quake) are basically a happy people who are the most gracious and hospitable in all the Caribbean.
“But right now, they are living in a paradise in hell.”
“The make an average of $200 a year,” Mrs. Mangs – slim and animated – interjected. “And eat a diet in which rice and beans are a staple – as well as grilled pork or goat. Goat is the poor man’s cattle in Haiti. They are truly resourceful at growing their own vegetables, even on the side of rocky mountains.
“Despite the oppression and abject poverty under which they have lived decade after decade,” Mangs added, “they have a spirit which is inspirational and I hope this disaster will, in the long run, result in rebuilding the country and raising their standard of living.”
Mangs, who is working part time as a private tour operator in Haiti and spends a good part of the year there, said he built the house in Labadee because “I wanted to leave our life of excess behind us.”
The house is really a number of “pods” connected by what Mrs. Mangs described as “outside space” – so there is a kitchen house, a living room house, a bedroom house and so on, all made of stone and cinder blocks.
Mrs. Mangs said that shortly after her son called, all cell phone communication is Haiti was dead and she had to get back to her Guilford business – though she praised her workers at Lu Lu’s for covering for her while she was gone .
“I obviously couldn’t get out of Haiti,” she said, “So I took a bus to the Dominican Republic. Dillon was working feverishly to get me and Tyler home and finally we got plane tickets out of Santiago four days after the earthquake.
“It was a seven hour bus ride from our village – an awful ride – and we just missed our plane and had to stay overnight at a hotel there. Tyler had to get back to his studies at Suffolk University in Boston where he is studying global business.
“We made it back okay while Tim – deeply involved in relief efforts – stayed at our house.
“One of our friends was staying at the Montana Hotel in Port-au-Prince which was totally destroyed and he was one of the incomprehensible number of people killed,” said Mangs – who at his wife’s urging has not visited Port-au-Prince since the quake.
“Some 500,000 people have left Port-au-Prince for the provinces and it is doubtful the actual death toll – now estimated by the Red Cross as 200,000 – will ever be fully known,” Mrs. Mangs said.
“But to see the faces of those children walking the streets with no place to go, and to know the kindness and spirit of the Haitian people is to break your heart.”