Haiti has one golf course, the Petionville Club, a little nine-holer on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital. Since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the country on Jan. 12, the course has been transformed into a refugee camp manned by the 82nd Airborne Division.
The golf course has been covered with shabby tents assembled from poles and sheets. Near the ninth green, relief workers pass out water, MREs (meals ready to eat) and high-protein biscuits. Helicopters drop provisions, but not everyone gets a ration. Last Saturday the soldiers handed out more than 2,500 meals before they ran out. The latest estimates have more than 10,000 people living on the course.
Bill Evans, a 62-year old American, is the general manager and president of the club. He lives at the modest facility, where non-members can play for $30. Built in the early 1930s during the last years of the U.S. occupation, the course now claims around 300 members. The short layout doesn’t include any par 5s, and all the grasses are indigenous and self-sustaining. The club is not exclusive to the international elites who keep it afloat. In the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where water and electricity are luxury items, there is little room for a golf elite.
“On a typical day you’re going to find caddies playing with members,” Evans said. “It’s not some snobby, elitist golf course.”
When the earthquake started at 4:53 p.m. last Tuesday, Evans was walking through a grove of lime trees on the club’s grounds in a spot overlooking the city to the north. (They grow their own limes because the fruit is too expensive in the open market.) The grounds crew was gone for the day, so Evans was alone on the grounds. He has vivid memories of that terrifying moment.
“I was thrown to the ground with this three-dimensional screeching noise,” he said. “I couldn’t get up but I was situated in such a way that I was watching the city. It was like in slow motion. One of the buildings that I could see just popped like a firecracker and the ground smoke came out. But the reality is that it was a six-story building disintegrating. One after another I saw buildings disintegrating. Poof! Poof! Poof! Then the intensity of the tremors got worse. Then a cloud of dust went over everything. I couldn’t see the city now. It was like this mushroom cloud. It made me think of the clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I couldn’t see my hands in front of me.”
Evans found his workers clustered in the parking lot, near a clubhouse, whose temporary open-air roof had been destroyed. He found a half-empty swimming pool: the water jarred from the pool by the tremors. He used his cell phone to call his wife in Miami, and then he tried to reach out to Kenneth Merten, the American ambassador to Haiti, to give permission to use the golf course for relief efforts. (The ambassador’s residence is adjacent to the club.) By 2 a.m. the next morning, U.N. peacekeeping forces began arriving at the club. Within two days, the 82nd Airborne was there too. “No one got any sleep that first night. It was scary,” says Evans. “The tremors went on and on.”
The morning after the earthquake, most of the club’s 60 employees arrived to assess the damage. According to Evans, only one employee had a relative die in the earthquake. By that weekend Evans had evacuated to Miami to be with his wife and daughter, but he plans to return to Haiti and the Petionville Club on Monday.
“When I get back I’m going to do whatever I can,” Evans said. “I would like to get the club up and running again. We can get the big generator running and the pool and kitchen operating for the army. The Petionville Club won’t be a golf course any time soon, but it can in some way be of service to the army and the people of Haiti. I know it will be a long-term process.”