4 Things You Can Only Learn by Surviving an Earthquake

In January 2010, John and his younger brother were two of thousands of foreigners in Haiti. John was in the middle of chatting online with a girl he liked back home, pondering that age-old question -- what exact combination of emojis makes a woman love you? -- when suddenly the building began to buck and shake. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake had just struck the country, the strongest in over 200 years. John never learned the emoji love cheat code (it's cross-eyed face, four-leaf clover, heart with wings, for the record), but while living through the ensuing catastrophe, he did learn a few other things.

#4. Prepare All You Want, Sometimes Survival Is Just a Matter of Luck

Angel Valentin/Getty Images News/Getty Images

To hear John tell it, a bubble of invincibility surrounded the brothers while the world around them crumbled: Either one of them is secretly Sue Storm, or they both got incredibly lucky. Their living quarters were located in a small two-story annex of a sprawling hotel. The annex stayed upright despite the powerful quake, while the main hotel building -- all five stories and 145 rooms of it -- crumbled to the ground, killing 80 people. We're laying odds on "incredibly, incredibly lucky."

Logan Abassi/UN
Fuck it. Add another "incredibly" to that.

John freaked out as soon as the shaking began, which is a normal reaction when the ground beneath your feet tries to murder you. He ran from room to room like a chicken with its head cut off ... that was also caught in the middle of an earthquake in Haiti. Luckily, before John had a chance to run out the front door, his brother ordered him to stay put underneath the door frame.

Jean Mentens
The door frame the brothers crouched under. The annex can be seen immediately to the left of the door frame, still standing.
On the right, the edge of the main building, crushed.

John watched as an avalanche of debris slid right past them. The hotel and its annex were perched on the mountainside, and tons of concrete were sent roaring down the slope. Had John run out the door, he'd have been surfing a wave of rubble all the way to Valhalla, which only sounds awesome in theory. To this day, John agonizes over alternate scenarios. "What if my brother and I had gone out, like we intended to?" he asks. "What would have happened to us then?" Considering the death toll of the Haitian earthquake, those are some pretty easily answered hypothetical questions.

#3. Surviving the Big Earthquake Is Just the Start of the Danger

Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

John and his brother had survived the initial quake, but they still had to climb down from the unstable annex before it collapsed under its own weight. The buildings around them had been sheared away like God gave the Earth a buzz cut, leaving a fairly direct (if utterly terrifying) path down to the street below. The dirt left behind was extremely soft, like it had been churned. John sank to his ankles with every step. This kind of powdery soil is not uncommon after an earthquake. It's known as liquefaction, and it involves the top layer of earth blending with the groundwater during a strong tremor. The muddy concoction that results can feel like quicksand.

Japan National Committee on Earthquake Engineering
It is the diarrhea of Tor, the epileptic earth god.

An aftershock could have come at any moment, sending a two-story building right over like the worst possible game of Red Rover.

When they hit the street, the dust storm kicked up by all that debris led to confusion. "We couldn't see anything for like the first four minutes," John says. "We couldn't see the horizon, to see what was happening. I'd look up, and I couldn't see the sky." Eventually the brothers managed to make out two more people nearby: a housekeeper from the hotel and a photojournalist from Belgium (the one who took all the pictures). "When the dust cleared out," John recalls, "the whole city started to scream. And I mean everyone."

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Tragedy breeds unity.

John was still a bit rattled by his brush with death, followed by the blacked-out sky and a whole city of screams. He wasn't exactly in his happy place when his brother turned to him and asked, "Are you noticing it?"

"What?" John asked.

Presumably accompanied by ominous, swelling music, his brother told him to hold his palm against the ground. That's when John realized that the Earth was vibrating beneath them. From that moment until the day he left the country, he felt that constant buzz every time he stood still. That's because, when it comes to a 7.0-magnitude earthquake like the one in Haiti, the aftershocks can last for upward of a decade. Naturally, the tremors become less perceptible with each passing year, but for those first few days, they are frequent and seemingly endless, every 15 to 20 minutes. It's like the planet itself doesn't want you to forget that it is stone-cold crazy and will jack you up for so much as littering.

Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Getty Images
"I see you, motherfucker."

That's when John and his brother first realized that the big quake was just the start. There were the obvious dangers (crumbling structures, aftershocks), and the less obvious: Fires were breaking out en masse because of the compromised electrical grid. The most tragic fallout began nine months later, when a cholera outbreak swept the country. By 2013, it had claimed over 7,800 lives. So what caused it? Damaged sanitation lines? Lack of medical supplies? Pestilence, the Horseman of the Apocalypse, just getting a few cheap shots in while the country was already down? Nope: It was a group of U.N. peacekeepers who accidentally brought the disease from abroad when they arrived in Haiti to aid in the recovery. A plague of irony ravaged the population not long afterward.

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