Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Reporter's notebook: Nothing can mask smell of death

By Arthur Brice, CNN

Haitians use whatever they can find to help cope with strong odors as bodies pile up in the streets following the deadly quake.
Haitians use whatever they can find to help cope with strong odors as bodies pile up in the streets following the deadly quake.
  • Reporter: Odors of Port-au-Prince, especially death, become soaked in your memory
  • Aftershocks give jolt four days after 7.0-magnitude quake rocked Haitian capital
  • Relief efforts seem more apparent as tents pop up, fewer bodies appear in streets

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- Here are some observations four days after Tuesday's massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti's capital:

What images can't convey

What is missing from TV or the photo images are the smells in Port-au-Prince. Depending on where you are, it can be any combination of strong odors that you still aren't used to after a few days. The worst, of course, is the smell of death. You can find it nearly everywhere, but especially close to collapsed buildings or places such as the morgue, where about 300 bodies have been placed in the parking lot.

In a poor country with few private toilets and public facilities and a large outdoor population, urine is a common smell. The smell of garbage, which is strewn everywhere, is common, too.

Gallery: Devastation from Haiti earthquake
Video: Mass graves in Haiti
Video: Chaotic scene of aid arrival
10 biggest quakes since 1900
  • Haiti
  • Earthquakes
  • Port-au-Prince

Against the smell of death, many Haitians wear masks, bandannas or even small pieces of orange peel wedged inside the tip of their nostrils. Many journalists wear masks, but the masks don't eliminate the odors, just slow them down. You bring the smells back to your hotel room, on your clothes, your hair, your skin. You want to wash them out, especially the smell of death, but you can't. It takes more than soap and water. The odors have soaked your memory.

Early-morning aftershocks

Aftershocks continued to be felt Saturday, with a mild temblor around 6:20 a.m. A strong jolt woke many people the previous day around 5 a.m. All the nonjournalist guests and staff at the hotel sleep on lounge chairs and pads in the parking lot. Asked if the journalists are too brave or too dumb by sleeping inside, the hotel's manager did not answer.

The bravado may be decreasing though. An Australian cameraman found poolside at 4 a.m. Saturday said he was "freaked out" about sleeping in his room after the previous day's strong aftershock. It didn't help that his two roommates also snore loudly, he said.

Tents sprouting up

By Friday, relief efforts seemed more apparent. New Coleman dome tents -- handed out to homeless residents -- started to sprout up in places. There appeared to be fewer bodies on the streets. Truck convoys carrying orange-clad international search-and-rescue workers also were driving around the city, though none were witnessed at disaster sites.

Relief operations 24/7

Relief efforts are ongoing 24 hours a day. At 4 a.m. Saturday and throughout the quiet pre-dawn morning, propeller airplane engines on large military cargo planes could be heard coming from the airport miles away. Jet engines also could be heard revving for takeoff. So many relief planes are landing and taking off -- 90 a day, by some reports -- that the Port-au-Prince airport is closed to commercial traffic.

See full coverage of Haiti's earthquake

Incessant sounds of choppers

Helicopters are a common sight and sound, too. They bear all sorts of insignia, from the large U.N. letters of the United Nations to the U.S. Navy and Air Force. U.N. armored personnel vehicles are seen sporadically on city streets.

A symphony of horns

Drivers here would be lost without their horns. Stop for more than a few seconds and vehicles behind you start to honk. A traffic jam Friday in central Port-au-Prince produced a symphony of horns. It's interesting to note the different sounds various brands of cars make and the rhythm and intensity of how their drivers use them. Horns are also employed to get pedestrians walking on the street -- and there are lots of them -- to move out of the way.

Car repair in middle of busy thoroughfare

Street lanes don't exist and drivers create their own paths. Generally, they stick to the right side of the road, but it really is anarchy on the streets. No crashes have been witnessed though in two days of driving around Port-au-Prince. But there was one guy who crawled under his old Mercedes-Benz to make repairs in the middle of a major thoroughfare alongside the Champs de Mars, the city's central plaza.

Hoodlums back to old haunts

No one here is happy about the destruction, but there's one structure that some people may have been glad to see crumble -- the tax building. Criminals in the Port-au-Prince jail also were happy with the quake, which knocked down part of the building and allowed them to escape. A Port-au-Prince native said he had already seen some of the thugs and hoodlums back in their old neighborhoods.

Quick showers

With so many people without food and water, it seems rather indulgent to complain about cold showers. But the hotel where CNN employees are staying does not have hot water. Some people used to long, steamy sessions in the shower are learning how to get the essentials done in the least amount of time.

Lights out and often

Electricity is being rationed at the hotel, with lights out at 1 a.m., a little later than summer camp. The power also gets turned off for a few hours in the afternoon. The hotel uses its own diesel generators to produce power. Hotel guests were greeted with a note from the establishment's management Saturday morning saying that further power reductions and fee increases are likely if diesel fuel is not available. Diesel was selling for $25 a gallon on the black market after the quake. It usually sells for $3 a gallon. CNN brought in two gasoline-powered generators to supply power during hotel gaps.

Rush at buffet

The hotel feeds its guests three times a day, and that started to become a problem by Friday evening, with lots of visitors lining up for the buffet. Guests will now be given a wristband to identify them as paying customers. Food did run out quickly Friday evening.

Barking and crowing

It's a myth that roosters crow only at dawn. They go at it all night long here. Dogs also don't seem to sleep and are happy to announce their presence at all hours.

Speaking of dogs, one wonders what they eat. Garbage, one assumes.

A stream of people

The streets are jammed with pedestrians, leading to a couple of questions: Where are they going? And with so many of them not seeming to work, how do they manage to exist?

Searing heat

It was downright cold when many CNN reporters left New York, Washington or Atlanta, Georgia. No worries about that in Haiti. Temperatures with highs in the 90s and a searing sun greet all who step off airplanes. Sunscreen and insect repellent, not coats and hats, are essential gear here.

Despite their efforts at protection, some journalists are starting to show sunburns. A couple of quick showers a day and a change of clothes make for a new person in the sticky heat.

Language barrier

Some Haitians were amazed Friday that an African-American CNN camerawoman did not speak Creole, the French-based native language in Haiti.

"How could that be?" a CNN interpreter said one resident asked another in Creole. "She's black. How could she not speak Creole?"