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Escape from misery: Without even a shirt, Préval stays focused

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Haitian President René Préval survived the earthquake because he skipped his usual afternoon nap.

Now he is running his shattered country from a tiny room at the police investigative unit headquarters, sandwiched between the United Nations base and the airport. He wears borrowed clothes and scrambles under the worst of circumstances to help get the most basic of needs to his people.

"He has one white shirt that I keep washing and re-washing, " First Lady Elisabeth Delatour Préval said Tuesday.

Even as foreign troops rush to Haitian soil, aid is slow to get to those who need it the most, violence is on the rise, the danger for widespread disease looms closer -- and Préval tries to combat critics who say he has not been visible enough since the catastrophe.

"After I spent the night evaluating the destruction, I realized that I needed to go and organize the relief. Seeing people is not helping people, " Préval said.

Seven days after the earthquake hit, the president and his new wife (they wed in December) recounted the harrowing hours right after Haiti's capital turned to rubble:

The morning had been taken up by meetings. In the afternoon, Préval worked on the speech he was to deliver at an event marking the 150th anniversary of the founding of Haiti's State University Law School. He skipped the nap -- he didn't want to be late to the ceremony.

While he worked in the palace's second-floor apartment, elsewhere in the building the first lady chaired a meeting on Port-au-Prince's upcoming carnival, scheduled for Feb. 14-16.

Just as the couple was ready to head out to the event, the phone rang. The caller, Préval's sister Marie-Claude Calvin, also his special advisor, said the law school ceremony would be at 5:30 p.m., not 5 as originally planned.

With a little extra time on their hands, the Prévals decided to take a quick detour to the president's private residence just up the street in Canape-Vert.

When they got to the gated compound, Préval's 8-month-old-granddaughter, Alessa, was sitting outside with the nanny. He took the child in his arms to feed her.

Then the ground started shaking. Préval fell to his knees holding the baby. The first lady also fell. Unable to get up, they watched as the main house shifted to the left, then to the right -- then collapsed.

"If I had entered the house, or if I were at the palace, I would have been dead, " Préval told The Miami Herald Tuesday.

"We were sitting there just watching. The house just went plat!" Elisabeth Préval said. She turned to her husband and said "Port-au-Prince is destroyed. Let's get out of here before the ground opens up."

"Dust just rose, covering the entire city, " she said Tuesday. When the worst of it was over, she tried to call her children, but the phone lines were dead.

When the dome of the presidential palace collapsed, concern immediately swept through the government: Préval was famous for his endless meetings at the palace, and for his afternoon naps. It was likely that on a Tuesday afternoon, he would be there.

Officials quickly learned that the couple had departed before the earthquake and were headed for their private residence. The first to arrive was Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime. He was covered in dust, the first lady said.

Soon, the prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, arrived on the back of a motorcycle, followed by the police chief and justice minister, who say they don't know how they survived -- both the main police headquarters and the ministry of justice are now piles of rubble.

In the next hours, Préval and his ministers gathered in the dark outside the collaped home, wondering if the aftershocks were over and what the damages were. Elisabeth Préval and others opened the compound doors, inviting residents from the neighborhood to camp out on the grounds with them.

Soon more motorcycles arrived. The president got on the back of one. It was 9 p.m., he said. His first stop: Bel-Air, a poor neighborhood near the National Palace where residents lived in ramschackle concrete homes. Even in the dark, he could see the massive destruction.

"I'm wondering how many people died, " Préval said.

He then headed to the country's largest public hospital, passing the palace on the way. That's when he saw the caved-in dome. "God made sure I wasn't in the palace, " he said.

There were crowds in front of the hospital. The school of nursing had collapsed. "They told me there were a lot of young people buried underneath, " he said.

Still dark, Préval headed to parliament, where he stepped over bodies while Haitian rescuers attempted to dig out the president of the Haitian senate, Kely Bastien, former Senate President Joseph Lambert and several other senators.

One of the president's first contacts with the outside world was Ralph Latortue, Haiti's consul general to Miami, who managed to get a call through to Elisabeth Préval Tuesday evening by calling her sister's phone. The conversation lasted seconds before the line went down, with Mrs. Préval urging him to call for help.

More confirmation of the extent of the damages -- and that the president had survived -- came a short while later, when Haiti's ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, spoke to Fritz Longchamp, the director general of the presidential palace. Longchamp, too, called for help, saying people were trapped in the rubble.

"The first thing was to get the phone service back up. The second was to clear the streets so we can get circulation again, " Préval said.

He spoke to President Obama on Thursday morning via satellite phone while standing in the yard of the police unit now doubling as the seat of government. Despite the unprecedented challenges, Préval says he remains optimistic that Haiti can recover.

"The first thing is political stability, " he said. "Secondly, we hope the international community will help us in the short-term, mid-term and long-term. . . . There has been a good response, now it's just the coordination of the aid that needs to happen."

Elisabeth Préval defended her husband and the government against those who say relief hasn't come quickly enough, saying the criticism is unwarranted and the energy should be spent on getting assistance to those who need it.

"We don't have the resources of the United States, " she said.

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