Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy: When Haiti’s earthquake struck

Man throwing bottle of clear liquid while standing in collapsed home (© Julie Jacobson/AP Images)
A man empties out the refrigerator of his collapsed home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 14, 2010. (© Julie Jacobson/AP Images)

The State Department is recognizing four American diplomats for heroism in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

A 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck 25 kilometers outside of Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. The earthquake and aftershocks caused mass casualties and destruction across the country. A total breakdown of basic functions and a severe humanitarian crisis followed.

The State Department sent 95 consular officers to Haiti to support the U.S. Embassy team already on the ground, assisting and evacuating earthquake victims. In partnership with the U.S. military, they:

  • Approved 750 Haitian orphans for humanitarian parole and immigration to the United States.
  • Evacuated 16,200 U.S. citizens — 13,000 within 17 days of the earthquake — on 240 flights.
  • Managed a crisis communications center that responded to 390,000 phone calls.
  • Worked on 22,675 requests for consular assistance, including 730 medical cases.
  • Helped 325 unaccompanied minors return to the United States.

The State Department’s Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy initiative recognizes past and present heroes who demonstrate intellectual, moral and physical courage while advancing U.S. foreign policy. On May 7, Roger Rigaud, Jennifer Savage, Dominic Randazzo and Shannon Farrell were honored for their work in Haiti.

Collage of photos of four people (Photos: Courtesy of Roger C. Rigaud, John D. Patterson, Crystaline Randazzo, Shannon Farrell)
Pictured (from left) are Roger Rigaud, Jennifer Savage, Dominic Randazzo and Shannon Farrell. (Photos: Courtesy of Roger C. Rigaud, John D. Patterson, Crystaline Randazzo, Shannon Farrell)

Eleven U.S. government employees were killed and dozens were injured when the earthquake struck. Randazzo went to the airport to determine if its runway was functional.

Returning to the embassy, he encountered one of his Haitian colleagues from the embassy and his child. The man had tried to dig out his wife and two other children after their house collapsed, but only he and one child had survived. Randazzo rushed them to the embassy for medical care.

Rigaud, a Haitian American diplomat who had served previously at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, was at a U.S. Consulate in Mexico when the earthquake hit Haiti. He volunteered to fly to Port-au-Prince the next morning to help organize evacuations of American citizens. “I was personally gratified to be able to give back something in the form of my language skills and experience at a time when Haiti, my locally employed staff friends and the department needed them.”

Savage remembered how, in a city wrecked by chaos and collapsed buildings, the U.S. Embassy stood as a beacon of hope, still with electricity and water. Thousands of people lined up outside the embassy every day for not only consular services, but also medical treatment, financial help and refuge. “It was heart-wrenching work,” Savage said.

Consular officers worked 16-20 hour shifts, slept on the floor at the U.S. Embassy, often ate only one meal a day and cleaned and shared two bathrooms among 1,000 people.

This experience changed the lives of all involved. “More than 10 years have passed since the initial consular teams descended on Haiti, but the experience of those two weeks on the ground remains transformative in my life,” said Farrell, who was among the temporary staff deployed to Haiti for her crisis-management skills following the disaster. “To witness the incredible mobilization of resources and personnel in response to such a horrific event is something I carry with me always.”

“The work we did in Haiti is the most important work I’ve ever done as a U.S. diplomat,” Randazzo said.