ATLANTA (AP) — Yvon Joseph knows how lucky he was. If not for a drenching Caribbean storm, the former Georgia Tech basketball star might have been right in the middle of Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake.
“I am a very blessed person,” he told The Associated Press on Friday, shortly after arriving back in the United States.
Joseph can’t say the same about his homeland. The powerful quake has left an already impoverished nation in utter ruins, killed tens of thousands of people and provided images that will stick with those who survived for a lifetime.
“You hear a baby crying in the rubble and you can’t do anything about it,” Joseph said. “That’s killing me. Right now, I’m dying on the inside.”
The 52-year-old Joseph played at Georgia Tech in the mid-1980s, a burly center for a team that also featured longtime NBA players John Salley and Mark Price. That trio helped the Yellow Jackets win their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship and reach the East Regional finals in 1985, before Joseph went on to a brief career in the NBA.
Now a businessman who provides water-purification systems to developing countries, he traveled to Haiti on Jan. 4 for a regular visit with his elderly mother. Joseph was scheduled to fly out of Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, about the time the earthquake rocked the Caribbean country.
But heavy rain on the north part of the island, where he was born and his mother still lives, kept the connecting flight from taking off.
“They wouldn’t let us fly because of poor visibility,” Joseph said. “Thank God. I would have been right in the middle of it.”
Even though he had remained in a small village near Cap-Haitien, about 90 miles north of the capital, Joseph still felt the earthquake’s wrath.
“We were rockin’ like a boat,” he recalled in a telephone interview from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he lives while maintaining business interests in Atlanta. “There was no damage there, but we really felt it. I can’t imagine what it was like in Port-au-Prince.”
The next day, Joseph decided to drive south to survey the damage for himself. He got within about 25 miles of Port-au-Prince, but no closer. The damage was too severe. Besides, he quickly realized there was nothing he — or anyone else — could do in a country that largely lacks even the barest of necessities.
“I saw children in the street crying and screaming,” Joseph said. “I saw people trying to dig out the concrete with their bare hands. They didn’t even have a sledgehammer. They couldn’t do anything. No one can do anything. I just realized that the people in the rubble cannot be saved.”
Heavy with guilt, Joseph turned around and went back. The next day, he drove east into the neighboring Dominican Republic, where he caught a flight back to south Florida on Friday.
“I had to get out and recoup, find my mind,” he told the AP. “But I need to go back. I don’t know how I’m going go back or what I’m going to be doing. But I need to do something. The whole capital will have to be rebuilt. With a quake like this, even if a building is still standing, it’s not going to be fit to live in.”
The Red Cross estimates that 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in the quake. Joseph expects the actual death toll to be much higher, and predicts the misery is only just beginning for all those at risk of disease in a country where clean water and electricity are luxuries.
“It’s going to be 50,000, maybe even 100,000 people,” he said. “Just wait and see. We’ll probably never really know how many people were killed.”
His sadness turning to anger, Joseph said it’s imperative that the developed nations of the world quit pumping millions of dollars of aid into Haiti with no conditions or oversight. He claims a corrupt political system siphons off most of the money for its own benefit, and the largely illiterate populace is so accustomed to its plight that it does little to buck the system.
“If you’re going to give money, get involved,” Joseph said. “If you’re not going to get involved, keep your money.”
Education is the most pressing need, he said, pointing out that most children never learn to read because they must pay for school even at the elementary level, a financial burden few can afford. Improved roads and power systems are imperative to bringing in meaningful economic development. And all those poorly designed structures that collapsed in the powerful earthquake need to be replaced with sturdier homes and buildings.
It’s a recovery job that will take billions of dollars and decades to accomplish, but Joseph said it’s vital for the rest of the world to say enough is enough in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s a very, very beautiful place,” he said. “When everyone here was dying in the cold, I was down there in short pants. I’m very, very upset. Not because of what happened. This is in God’s hands. This is nature. But I’m very upset we don’t even have a bulldozer to dig people out.”
Joseph also challenged his fellow Haitians, those such as himself who were lucky enough to escape all the hardship and find a better life in the U.S., to do their part to make sure some good comes out of this horrific disaster.
“We’re too scared to do anything,” he said. “We send a few pennies down there, but we’re too scared to organize, to go down there and get a project going. We’ve seen better in this country, so we don’t do it. We enjoy going there, having a good time and seeing our family. We give ’em a few pennies while we’re there, then we come back here.
“That’s my word from me to them. We need to act. We need to sit down, organize and do something.”