Quake-battered Haiti hotel offers refuge for all

PORT-AU-PRINCE Fri Jan 15, 2010 3:01am EST

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Crumbled walls cover priceless works of Haitian art. There are dead bodies outside the entrance. Food will run short soon.

Following the devastating earthquake that wrecked Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, the once-elegant Hotel Villa Creole, set on a hillside with lush tropical vegetation, is still, astonishingly, open for business.

The establishment is operating a hospital in its front entrance and allowing scores of aid workers, journalists and others to camp out on its grounds.

"A hotel has to be like a father, mother, everything at the same time," said its Haitian general manager, Frantz Rimpel, who began at the establishment washing dishes 42 years ago.

He and the Villa Creole staff have lived through their fair share of crises in the poor Caribbean state -- the fall of governments and devastation of hurricanes -- but nothing quite like this.

Tens of thousands of Haitians are feared dead after Tuesday's powerful earthquake, and countless more are hurt or homeless.

"When (President Jean-Bertrand) Aristide was thrown out in 2004, it was tough. An Italian journalist had toothache, and when I took him to see a doctor, they nearly killed us at a roadblock," he said. "But this earthquake overshadows everything. We were totally unprepared."

Like many of the buildings in the upscale Petionville district of Port-au-Prince, the hotel has taken a big hit from Tuesday's disaster, its central structure crushed.

Beautiful paintings and carvings lie covered in dust and cement blocks.

No staff members were hurt in the destruction, although like all Haitians at this time of national disaster, most have lost relatives and friends.

In the first few days, the hotel simply -- and generously -- left its doors open, allowing foreign aid workers, correspondents and others with nowhere to go to come in for free. A generator kept power up, and an Internet service was occasionally conjured up from somewhere.

When one aid group started handing out medicine and bandages to the injured, word spread, and soon scores of Haitians began to gather outside the front entrance. Some died, and their bodies were left lying in the road.

Overwhelmed by the scale of the injuries coming to them -- gashes, internal bleeding, trauma, broken limbs -- workers from aid groups Hope for Haiti and the International Medical Corps, both based at the hotel, went out on Thursday in search of facilities to carry out operations.

SLEEPING ON THE FLOOR

"My grandparents founded this hotel," said co-owner Melissa Padberg. "We have lost priceless works of art. But this is nothing to do with money now. We are just trying to keep open to give basic services to our clients, and allow ourselves to somehow help."

The hotel's once peaceful swimming pool area is now filled with the chatter and clicks of satellite phones and computers as the world's foreign media use it as a forward base.

"Yes sweetie, that is the hotel I'm staying in, I'm not joking," said one American reporter, as he chatted with his daughter on the Skype Internet telephone service, a Web cam allowing her to see the destruction behind her dad.

"I'm OK -- don't worry about me -- but a lot of other people aren't."

Hotel rooms are shared (this reporter is with six others), but that does not matter as everyone sleeps in the open air due to aftershocks still hitting Haiti and shaking the Villa Creole every few hours.

In the night air, a melee of sounds floats across the hotel grounds from the streets below: dogs barking, women singing religious chants, coughs and cries of pain, and sudden shrieks and cries of grief as another earthquake victim succumbs.

With the poor and injured lying on the floor outside, and privileged guests inside -- albeit sleeping on the lawn and the concrete floors -- the Villa Creole has some echoes of Rwanda's famous Mille Collines hotel where many took refuge during the 1994 genocide in that African country. That story inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda."

Rimpel is not thinking of such comparisons, just fulfilling what he considers a patriotic duty. "We all want to get Haiti back on its feet. This is just our way of helping."

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Cooney)

FILED UNDER: