Agronomy and Soils Professor Experiences Haitian Earthquake Firsthand

By Katie Jackson

Being in the right place at the right time sometimes requires being in the wrong place at the worst possible time.

That seems to be the case for Dennis Shannon, a professor of agronomy and soils at Auburn who arrived in Haiti on Monday, Jan. 11 – the day before the small island nation was devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

Shannon, who has worked extensively in Haiti over the past 20 years on soils and agroforestry projects, returned there in January with U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Florida colleagues on a food security project for the U.S. Department of State. The team spent Tuesday formulating a plan for soil sampling and testing to help Haitian farmers rapidly increase food and crop production in the country. Arriving back at their hotel, the Villa Creole in Petion-Ville just outside Port-au-Prince, at about 4:30 p.m., Shannon and UF agronomist Ed Hanlon were in the hotel lobby when the quake hit.

“There was a sort of rumbling, bumping noise that I didn’t pay much attention to,” says Shannon. “I thought it was a dump truck or something banging down the street. Then it got louder and Ed said ‘Everybody out!’ It sounded like a freight train coming right through the hotel.”

About that time the ground began to shake. “I felt the ground moving short distances and then it started moving harder and harder. As I was turning to move, I could hear cracking noises as bricks came apart, and as we were running out there was a crashing noise as part of the wall in the center of the hotel fell down,” Shannon recalls.

Shannon dashed outside to relative safety but fell twice in his dash because, he later deduced, he was running against the earthquake’s movement. The earth was moving east-to-west; he was running from north to south, so the quake’s movement tossed him from side to side. Luckily, neither Shannon nor anyone else in the hotel sustained severe injuries.

Following the initial tremor, Shannon and other guests and employees gathered outside near the hotel’s pool where they all spent the first night. Aftershocks continued for hours, though gradually lessened through the night, but the human activity soon increased on the hotel grounds.

“About an hour after the earthquake someone brought a five-year-old boy in with a big gash on his skull,” says Shannon. Henry Bahn, the USDA economist who was leading their food security project team, was trained as an EMT and went right to work on the boy’s wound. As night fell, and with no electricity for illumination, Bahn worked on the child in the glare of car lights and flashlights.

During the night, as more and more injured survivors showed up for help, the hotel grounds became a temporary triage unit under the guidance of Bahn and a young woman named Anne Wanlund, a U.S. Agency for International Development AIDS project office worker in Haiti. Shannon, Hanlon and others fetched supplies and tore up hotel sheets to use as bandages. But their resources were extremely limited. “We were breaking broom sticks and pieces of wood we found on the ground to make splints for broken bones,” Shannon says.

Shannon, who speaks Haitian Creole, also became an interpreter making notes dictated by Bahn that could be passed on later to a doctor. Eventually Shannon also began cleaning wounds and performing basic first aid procedures.

None of this came naturally to Shannon, whose sister asked when she heard his post-earthquake story, “Do you remember? You used to be pretty queasy.”

The group worked nonstop through Wednesday and began again early Thursday morning, until the exhausted Bahn slipped and injured his leg. Shannon filled in for Bahn as best he could and was busy working on injured people when an evacuation team arrived about 9 a.m. to escort their team out of the country.

“I had my passport in my pocket, but I saw more injured people coming in,” says Shannon. “I looked at Henry and said ‘I can’t leave.’ I guess I felt a greater responsibility because I could speak Creole and I could talk directly to the wounded and their families.”

Shannon and two Haitian high-school boys formed a team to continue work on the injured, but had few resources at their disposal.

“From the time of the earthquake until I left on Saturday morning we received absolutely no medical or other assistance from the U.S. government, Red Cross or United Nations,” says Shannon, who agonized even after he returned home over the slow pace of medical assistance for the victims. “The only help we got was a church-related group that dropped of some medical supplies that we went through relatively quickly,” he continues. “Then, on Wednesday night, a group called International Medical Corps got rooms in the hotel and their doctors worked on some of the worst cases.”

This group of doctors left the hotel on Thursday to help reopen a local hospital and took some of the worst cases from the hotel with them. On Thursday and Friday two Haitian doctors arrived and began helping with patients, all on a volunteer basis.

Meanwhile, Shannon did all he could to help – cleaning wounds and trying to determine which cases were most urgent. Many of the injuries were horrific – head wounds, crushed bones, compound fractures and deep gashes were common.

Several cases were particularly difficult for Shannon, including a little girl about seven years old whose parents were killed in the quake. A man rescued her from a collapsed home with a broken leg and severe wounds on her body and brought her to the hotel. Shannon cleaned her wounds with the help of a 12-year-old Canadian boy who had some first aid training and bystanders made sure the weak child got a few sips of water and grains of rice to keep her stable until more skilled care arrived.

“The owner of the hotel, Melissa Padberg, made sure the child spent the night next to a family that could keep an eye on her,” Shannon says. The next morning the Haitian doctors treated her and she was eventually transferred to a medic unit.

“I really want to know what happened to that girl,” says Shannon, who has three daughters of his own. “I wanted to take her home with me. At least I know that she was given medical treatment because she would have died within a day if we had not helped her.”

They also lost some of the victims. Shannon knew of at least two deaths on Wednesday, but heard another four people also died before they could get sufficient treatment.

On Friday, journalists and more doctors were arriving at the hotel and Shannon decided it was time for him to leave. But getting home was no easy task. Shannon left the hotel Saturday morning and, after a long wait at the American Embassy, eventually got on a flight on a C17 air transport plane at 1 a.m. Sunday. He was taken to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey where he rested on a cot while waiting for a flight home. He arrived back in Alabama around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 17, and reported to work on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

The earthquake experience and his role as an accidental hero are not circumstances Shannon wants to repeat, but he may consider taking first aid training classes, and he will willingly return to Haiti in the future if he has the chance.

For now, he mostly wants to see proper and sufficient help reach the Haitian people. “This is Katrina all over again, only the consequences are 1,000 times worse,” he says, adding that he was appalled by the slow response pace immediately after the quake.

While he remains frustrated by the initial relief effort, Shannon believes that future rebuilding projects for Haiti need to be well planned and thought-out. In fact, within days after getting home, Shannon was already talking with Bahn and others about how they can continue their original mission.