ENCINITAS — The sights and smells of a devastated country are still fresh in the mind of Dotty Valdez who returned to her Encinitas home from Haiti less than two weeks ago.
Valdez, a longtime Encinitas resident and former owner of The Outgrown Shop on South Coast Highway 101, was on her second trip to Haiti as part of a small contingent of volunteers bringing supplies to the elderly living at St. Stephen’s Home outside of the capital city when the powerful earthquake rocked the country Jan. 12.
A soft-spoken woman, Valdez recalled her journey out of Haiti. “It took three days to get enough gas for our driver to make the 10-hour roundtrip from Les Cayes to the airport,” she said. Fuel was scarce and banks were closed, making the most routine activities, such as filling up a gas tank, almost impossible.
As Valdez set out with her travel companion, Wilma Tibbitts of San Ysidro, and three others for Port-Au-Prince, the car crept along the cracked roads at 10 miles per hour. “Once we were in the capital we slowed down to a crawl,” she said.
Valdez described the scene as “chaos” and “death.” There were no traffic signals in the capital city, no police to facilitate order in the streets. There was only despair according to Valdez. “People were holding up signs that said ‘help us’ written in English,” she said.
“We saw dead bodies everywhere,” Valdez recalled. Next to an open air market where food was being sold sat a field of dead bodies, rotting under the blazing sun. “They were igniting the bodies with kerosene,” she said. “The smells were the worst, but maybe the sights, too.”
In contrast to her previous visit to Haiti, Valdez said the difference between not only the country but the people themselves was painfully evident. “The Haitian people are beautiful people,” she said. “They’re very hardworking. But there was such a sense of despair.”
Upon arriving at the airport, Valdez and Tibbitts waited five more hours until they were told to board a United Airlines plane. “We had no idea where we were going, nobody did except the pilot,” Valdez said. The plane landed in Chicago and the passengers were bussed to a shelter where the Red Cross provided them with food, cell phones and computer access. “It was very well-organized,” Valdez said.
Finally, after days of uncertainty, Valdez arrived in California. “My daughter and my grandchildren met me at the airport,” she said with a smile. “The welcome home reception has been overwhelming.” She said her presence in the country during the earthquake created a personal connection for many people. In fact, a fundraiser will be held at Cordova Gardens on April 18 to benefit the people of Haiti.
Valdez said she witnessed a universally “crushed spirit” in Haiti but holds out hope for the future of the country and its people. “I know they’ll rebuild.”
“I hope the whole world continues to watch Haiti and doesn’t forget,” she said.