The 'Moses of Haiti' Bringing Aid to a Shattered Island

The American businessman and missionary Patrick Moynihan has lived in Haiti for 13 years, hoping to turn Port-au-Prince into a shining success. Now he's fighting to save what's left.

By in Port-au-Prince


The American said he thought the masks were silly -- they would only spread fear among the people and intimidate the children. Now, though, as he looks at the twisted body of a white-haired woman in a checkered dress lying side of the road, the stench is so overpowering that he can hardly breathe. He chokes and coughs.

But the smell remains. It is the smell of Haiti today, difficult to describe, and it permeates everything. Patrick, the American, hates it. By evening he is convinced that his own hands have started to take on the sickly sweet smell, the smell of the new Port-au-Prince, which has already saturated his clothes.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The North American Invasion
"The dead are already here," says Patrick Moynihan whenever he steps out of the car. Then he sees them, the row of bodies laid out on the ground next to a hospital, the children naked and thin, the twisted bodies, the broken limbs. Who undressed the children, one wonders?

"We were at the summit, but then we flew too close to the sun," says Moynihan. By "we" he means both himself and Haiti, a society that was finally making progress, until that Tuesday afternoon at 4:53 p.m.

The Two Haitis

It is now midnight, eight days after that Tuesday, and Moynihan looks exhausted. The 45-year-old, unshaven and wearing shorts and a T-shirt, is uncharacteristically silent. He rubs his eyes. "I've seen a lot of dead people here before, when the shooting was going on. I even saw someone crucified once. But children 10 meters from a hospital?" Then he leaves the room, hoping to get a few hours of sleep.

Two Haitis emerged after the earthquake. One is the Haiti of the living, of the people trying to find food and a place to sleep, who drag themselves to the Red Cross field hospitals and sit in the gutter scooping up brown water. This is no longer the Haiti of progress for which Moynihan has been fighting. Instead, it is a country of the needy and dependent, a Haiti occupied by foreign aid workers, people with good intentions who are unlikely to leave anytime soon.

And then there is the Haiti of the dead. Some are buried, sometimes wrapped in plastic sheets but usually not, the countless, unnamed, unidentified bodies that disappeared into mass graves on the city's outskirts, in numbers that must reach into the thousands by now. They were buried without dignity, but at least they were buried.

The sheer force of this quake, and the notion that there was no escaping it, becomes clear to anyone who looks at the buildings, now pushed together into clumps of concrete panels and steel beams, house after flattened house, interspersed with the occasional building that survived the quake. Trapped underneath it all are the dead, probably tens of thousands more, and no one can reach them.

The living are left with only one option: to keep living only meters away from the dead. The dead are everywhere, maybe up to 200,000. "But there's nothing you can do about that. The dead are dead, and it's time to focus on the living," says Moynihan.

Moynihan was once a North American capitalist, a "trader" who worked for Louis Dreyfus and traded in everything that could be bought and sold, from cotton to elevators. His older brother is Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America. One day, during a business trip to Memphis, Patrick Moynihan said to his boss: "I just don't care about winning and losing anymore." We do, his boss said.

Moynihan quit his job, became a teacher and a deacon in the Catholic Church, he married, had four children and became a missionary. He has been working in Haiti for 13 years, initially only for weeks at a time, but now, as he says, he's become a "lifer." He runs an organization known as "The Haitian Project," bringing a North American pace and discipline to the country. He insists that he doesn't want to make Haitians reliant on foreign aid, but to teach them to think independently instead. He also insists that he is the one who learns the most.

The graduates of his school can speak English, French, Spanish and Creole and often find jobs with the United Nations or in government ministries. "We are educating the future elite of Haiti," says Moynihan. There is no question that he is right.

At least he was right.

But is he still?

'We're Starting Over'

There were 316 students enrolled in his school on the morning before the quake. Now there are 160.

"We're starting over," says Moynihan. "I suppose you have to treat what happened here as a test. And, by all means, as an opportunity."

He wears dirty glasses, a short-sleeved Ralph Lauren shirt, beige trousers and dusty brown shoes. His gray hair is combed back and he has a sharp chin. As a child he was often sick, and the first time he saw dead people was in a hospital in Marietta, Ohio. He was later allowed to play rugby and even football. His parents spoiled him, he says. He was the youngest of eight children, and the only one to attend a private school. He went riding in the afternoons.

Moynihan, like his students, speaks English, French, Spanish and Creole. He is one of those men you can imagine working in any position or job in the world, because they are so agile and so passionate, even manic.

The yellow school buildings are still standing, flanked by palm trees swaying in the Caribbean wind against a deep-blue sky. A few walls have crumbled and there are cracks here and there, but the damage is negligible compared with what has happened elsewhere in the country. The Haitian Project, which has an annual budget of $750,000, is located in Santo 5, a district in the eastern section of Port-au-Prince.

Moynihan has 12 student teachers from the United States, young and recent college graduates like Jonathan, who was peeling potatoes when the earthquake struck, or Betsey, a young blonde woman who was sitting on a couch, chatting with the other girls. The women tried to take cover under the couch, but there wasn't enough room. Instead, the student teachers assembled the students outside, where they sang songs, and then took them to a nearby soccer field, where they watched films like "Happy Feet." More than 100 shivering students spent the night lying on the sand in front of a television set, trying to laugh.

Moynihan missed the earthquake. He had flown to the United States the day before for routine meetings with donors.

"Of course, I'm not comparing myself with such grandiosity," he says. "Moses didn't grow up in captivity with the Israelites either, but he did lead them to freedom. Maybe there's a reason I wasn't there. Maybe it's because my energy is needed."

On the Friday after the Tuesday quake, Moynihan was standing in the airport in Santo Domingo, the capital of the neighboring Dominican Republic, where hundreds of people were jostling and talking, because everyone there somehow wanted to get to Port-au-Prince.

He said loudly: "I have 360 children to take care of, and they're in mortal danger. I have to get on a flight. I'll pay more. I'll pay right now." He put cash on the counter, followed by credit cards, he went for walks with helicopter owners and then with pilots, and before long everyone at the airport was listening to Patrick Moynihan. He eventually prevailed. The Chinese Embassy made sure a flight was approved, even though the airport in Haiti was closed, and Moynihan got his ticket.

"Over all those years, it became my country," he said as the plane was on its final approach, and as he saw the devastation below. His dead country.

The American Way

There are many North Americans in Haiti again, and they're doing a lot of talking. On Wednesday the White House press office reported that "152,000 liters bulk water and more than 165,000 water bottles were delivered" on Tuesday.

They have also turned their words into action, as 11,500 US troops, wearing mirrored sunglasses and carrying machine guns, patrol the coast, provide security at the airport and walk the streets. Former President Bill Clinton was there, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was there and current President Barack Obama is expected to visit Haiti as well. When it's all over, perhaps they will have saved Haiti, or perhaps the country will have been intimidated or smothered. Washington has sent 20 ships and 51 helicopters. The officers claim that this isn't another invasion, but it certainly looks that way.

The American Way for Haiti? Would that be such a bad thing?

The Europeans who arrive there complain about US dominance, and yet the comparison between the Europeans and the Americans is striking. Especially when one spends several days with Moynihan, who never stops moving between dawn and 10 p.m., and occasionally runs into European aid workers about to leave for the downtown area at 8 a.m., only to find that they have forgotten to call their driver. Then they realize they have forgotten to pay a bill, or misplaced an address, and 10 a.m. their vehicle is stuck in traffic.

Some of the Europeans in Port-au-Prince apparently need a little more time before they will be in a position to help save the country.

Then there is the contrast between the Haitians and the North Americans, which is as bizarre as it is disheartening. The North Americans are determined, resolute and see everything with a positive spin. The Haitians are apathetic.

Haitians still cannot comprehend what happened. Why this earthquake, and why here?

There is no explanation. Justice and mercy are not part of nature. They are human standards, and for those who don't believe in a god imposing such standards, it makes no sense at all. For them, it's just a case of bad luck, of tectonic plates coming together in a place where the people are particularly poor and vulnerable.

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dermotgaffney 01/27/2010
1. Big Brother again
With a name like Patrick Moynihan it is certain that he is descended from Irish emigrants to the U.S. Which makes it all the more regrettable the manner in which he criticises European involvement in the Haiti relief effort. Apparently, we should leave everything to the U.S. Military - Europeans are only getting in the way, getting stuck in traffic, forgetting to pay bills, mislaying addresses, and so on. This ignores the fact that agencies such as GOAL and Concern have been present in Haiti for many years, helping in areas such as education, health, nutrition and construction, to train local people to help themselves - not to encourage dependency as he claims. This is not to take from the great work currently being done by the U.S. in Port au Prince - only to say they are just part of a great international effort. I also find it amusing that he uses the word "cronies" in relation to supporters of President Aristide who was elected by the people after the fall of the Duvallier regime. His politics were not acceptable to the Americans who subsequently assisted in his removal. Big Brother again! Dermot Gaffney
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