It’s late summer and Hurricane Irene is blowing, counterclockwise, toward the United States. Roovens Monchil is sitting in a hot, dingy Valley Place Apartments unit near Stone Mountain Highway. The door hangs open, but there’s no breeze. Roovens is far enough from the Atlantic coast, which Irene is expected to slam with 100-mile-an-hour winds. The thirteen-year-old watches the news on a donated television, digesting information in a new language. Someone stole his Nintendo Wii two weeks ago. It was a gift from the nurse.
According to the man on the TV, the hurricane will hit Haiti before reaching the United States. Haiti is where Roovens’s mother lives, where he spent his first decade. It’s also where he lay in a courtyard by the street almost two years ago, presumed dead.
Photograph by Zach Wolfe
If asked, he’ll display the seven-inch scar along his right thigh, and point to the one beside his right ear. American metal is in him now. It helps him stand, and move. But don’t be fooled: His strength comes from somewhere else.
Roovens can’t remember the last time he spoke to his mother. A few months ago, he guesses. He hasn’t seen her since he left. He worries about her in his silent way, his big eyes tracing something on the floor. He picks at a thread hanging from his white basketball shoes as the news anchor describes what could happen to his country, a plagued Caribbean island the size of Massachusetts. He looks up and leans closer to the screen.
Haitians are being evacuated to emergency centers . . . a possible resurgence of the cholera epidemic unleashed last October . . . devastating landslides . . . fields destroyed . . . tent camps washed away. It goes on. Roovens processes the words. Some he knows, some he doesn’t. But he understands.
Hurricanes, like political upheaval and extreme poverty, are normal to Haitians. They talk about hurricanes the way we talk about heat waves. Along Haiti’s coast, as Irene approaches, people nail down the tarps and scraps of sheet metal that are their homes. Birth certificates and holy books are wrapped in plastic. Oil and water are stockpiled. Shanties become bunkers. Their occupants hunker down.
Optimism surfaces in small observations. For instance, a sheet metal shanty can be better than a cinder block house: A house can crush you. Roovens Monchil learned this when the earth gave way at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, killing 230,000 Haitians and leaving more than a million homeless. Or rather, he learned this later, when it was told to him.
Another boy from Haiti, a twelve-year-old who lives with his own father in this same Decatur apartment, passes between Roovens and the TV. A rope of saliva hangs from the boy’s lower lip. He survived the earthquake too, though not so well. He walks into the bathroom and comes out with a beetle, holding it up for inspection. Roovens’s father shakes his head. Their home in Haiti was cleaner than this place. Fortunately, this is their last day here. They’re moving to another apartment, one that isn’t dark, crowded, decomposing. Where a Nintendo is safe, and stuffed animals are free of mildew. It will have its own problems, but none of these, they hope.
The news anchor is still talking. The USNS Comfort, an 894-foot Navy hospital vessel, intermittently docked off Haiti’s west coast since the earthquake, has suspended operations due to Irene. People as far away as New York City are boarding up windows, heading inland. It’s predicted to be the largest hurricane to hit the East Coast of the United States in seventy years. Roovens turns from the TV, looking at his possessions packed in a corner, wondering why disaster has followed him here; why storms get names, but earthquakes don’t.
The USNS Comfort is the ship that carried him back from a place he can only imagine. A resting place, you could say. He can’t remember the ship, or the man who took him there. Or the man who found him in the rubble, or the one who laid him among the bodies. Or the falling house before all that. He just remembers a cartoon, a helicopter, and then this place: Atlanta.
The mind is funny, the way it blocks out pain. It’s a survival mechanism, but it’s still strange to him that he can’t remember. Everyone else seems to know his story. They tell him what happened. They tell him that he was very brave.