COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- The day after an earthquake reduced much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to what Valerie Kaussen described as "tabula rasa" a blank slate she sat down with neighbors in an outdoor camp.
And finally cried.
"It's just incredible sadness," Kaussen said in a phone interview with the Columbia Daily Tribune. "Even now, I haven't really figured out my feelings. Your emotions can't catch up with what you're witnessing."
Kaussen, a University of Missouri associate professor of Romance languages and literature specializing in Haiti, was in the Caribbean capital on Jan. 12 when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the ground and created an apocalyptic landscape in a matter of seconds.
Kaussen returned to Columbia four days later to the relief of her 7-year-old daughter and her husband, Carsten Strauthausen, chairman of MU's Department of German and Russian Studies.
"I needed to get back to my family," Kaussen said. "If I were single, I might have tried to stay."
But shortages of food and water were quickly developing, and secure sleeping conditions were in ever shorter supply, she said.
"I had the chance to leave, and others didn't," Kaussen said. "I didn't want to take up resources."
And there was the overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
"I was walking by places where people were begging for help," she said. "If you can't help, then you're taking up space and taking up resources."
When the earthquake struck, Kaussen was traveling in downtown Port-au-Prince in a taxi. Loud noises and the sight of people falling in the street resembled a shootout or civil unrest, and Kaussen and her traveling companions ran for cover.
"I hid in a storeroom of all places -- the worst place to be," she said.
When Kaussen emerged, the devastation was unmistakable. "At that point, I knew it was an earthquake. More buildings were down than were up."
Kaussen, a native Californian and no stranger to earthquakes, said initial news coverage overplayed reports of isolated looting and unrest.
"By far, in the majority of the city, there were people gathering together, making camps, assigning tasks, pooling resources and cooperating and helping each other," she said.
Kaussen saw no violence or tension but is aware that unrest is growing "because they're starting to starve and die of dehydration."
Delivering disaster aid is complicated, but Kaussen said she thought more could be done to get emergency assistance to the victims.
A lack of communication and networking between the U.S. military and aid organizations already in place in Haiti seemed to be delaying help, she said.
"For whatever reason, aid hasn't been getting there fast enough," she said.
Even though the United Nations lost staff members and facilities in the quake, it still should have been able to mobilize more quickly, Kaussen said.
"I felt the absence of the U.N. presence and visibility was problematic, to say the least," she added, noting that the United Nations didn't have a good reputation in Haiti to begin with. "That mission costs millions of dollars. They were virtually invisible."
Kaussen said she hopes to return to Haiti in the spring to continue working with Friends of SODA, a group working to provide free schools and libraries and fill other community needs. One of Kaussen's recent projects looked at how disasters are represented in literature and film.
"I'm frighteningly well-placed to continue that project," she said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Have you seen the forecast for tomorrow?
Get the latest St. Louis weather forecast