Friday, January 10, 2014

Out of Sight, Out of ...

I'm back from Haiti.  It was pretty difficult to post from there with no electricity and one laptop for over 12 people.

Before I get into the meat of the service projects, I just want to post my impressions of being back in Port-au-Prince for the first time in nearly three and a half years.

The traffic in Port-au-Prince is just as congested as it was in the last quarter of 2010.  There were signs of sustainability in solar panels on the tops of the street lampposts.

But the most obvious change was the absence of rubble and numerous buildings in full or partial ruins.  Some of my colleagues in Hands of Light in Action who had been in the capital city during my absence noted the change in an October visit.

The other noticeable change was the lack of tent cities teeming with earthquake survivors rendered homeless by the seismic catastrophe.  The one near the airport was gone.  On a trip to Pétion-Ville, I didn't see any evidence of the camp in the Place St. Pierre across from the St. Pierre Church.  Apparently the settlement had been cleared in 2011, an occasion marked by some as a milestone in earthquake recovery.

An article in the HuffPost posted last April noted that the number of persons in tent camps had declined by 79 percent.  In the months immediately following the quake, the number of people clustering in these deplorable conditions soared to 1.5 million.  While the International Organization of  Migration issued a report that indicated that yearlong rent subsidies had helped some households to move out of the settlements into more secure housing.  The report said that six percent of the departures from the camps were due to evictions.  It didn't give a reason for the evictions.

In other cases, violence was used to empty out the camps.  I spent my first night in Haiti with a family who resides in Pétion-Ville.  On waking, I ventured outside to see the familiar blue tarps marking flimsy shelters on a steep hillside.  The displaced, like the poor, are with us still.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sowing Seeds of Service in Haiti

After three years, I'm about to embark on another trip to Haiti.  This time I'm allied with a California Lutheran University club SEEdS. (Students for Enlightenment and the Education of Sustainability) for Haiti, headed by Ryan Glatt, an Exercise Science Major from Simi Valley.  In all, 12 students from CLU will be heading to Haiti to do permaculture, and construction projects from Dec. 27 to January 17.  Due to family obligations, I'll only be spending five days with the projects.

The student club will be working with Hands of Light in Action (HOLIA), a charity  that has responded to disasters in Haiti, Washington, Illinois, and Boulder, Colorado.  HOLIA was founded by Nancy Malone, a physical therapist.

More information is available on the trip in a news story on the CLU website at http://www.callutheran.edu/news/news_detail.php?story_id=10202 and in a Maria Sanchez podcast consisting of an interview with Ryan Glatt at http://mariasanchezshow.com/ryan-glatt-clu/

I'm excited about the opportunity to accompany CLU students on a service project of their own creation, rather than recruiting them to travel study courses that I have originated, albeit with a service component.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Recycling Rubble and Haiti Rebuilding Riddle

Besides the political-administrative morass of a delayed presidential election and deferred donor aid decisionmaking, Haiti's recovery has been restrained by the obstacle of rubble removal.  Both Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti produced about the same amount of debris, 25 million to 33 million cubic yards, the equivalent of seven Hoover Dams.  In New Orleans, the debris issued from wood frame houses being knocked down and tepid floodwater ruining the interiors and furnishings of houses that otherwise suffered survivable structural damage.  In Port-au-Prince, the main population center for the nation's 10 million people, the debris consists of concrete buildings leaning at crazy angles, slabs and walls, and pulverized concrete in piles like potato salad at a park picnic.

As of my September trip to Port-au-Prince, only two percent of the rubble had been removed.  The photo above shows the destruction on the street where I stayed.  The one below is from one of the hotels three miles away in Petionville.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Tamara Lush suggested several factors delayed rubble removal:
heavy equipment must be shipped by sea;  large earthmoving equipment have a hard time negotiating the narrow, debris-filled streets; poor recordkeepiong makes it hard to determine who owns destroyed properties; no single person has assume the mantle of rubble removal czar, prompting NGOs to take on the job themselves.  Lush points out that the groups often fight over small amounts of money.

In a November Newsweek article, Jeneen Interlandi notes that the slow pace of rubble removal matches the lack of capacity of either the Haitian government or the NGOs to direct large-scale disaster recovery and reconstruction.  Virtually all of the rubble removal taking place in 2010 was performed by hand.  The groups competing for money have demonstrated expertise in emergency relief and skills in building hospitals and schools in nondisaster situations.  But competency in those areas doesn't mean they can reconstruct entire cities.  Interlandi includes a quote from Randal Perkins, CEO of AshBritt, a private company that recently won the first major contract for rubble removal from the government of Haiti.  While praising the NGOs for their "amazing" work in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Perkins warned "that the work that's needed now is of a much larger scale."

Yet another issue is where to dump whatever rubble is removed.  Huff Post's Lush notes that landowners have resorted to dumping debris in the streets, canals and the countryside, there's only one place in the entire country where NGOs using U.S. funds can take contaminated rubble: an approved and environmentally surveyed site.  Even a year after the earthquake, experts in rubble removal such as one I met are certain they will encounter human remains.  As Michael Zamba, the spokesperson for the Pan American Development Foundation said, "There's a lot of contaminated rubble with human remains in it.  It can't go in a standard landfill."

One solution may be at hand, courtesy of engineers from Georgia Tech in Atlanta.  Haitian-born Dr. Reginald Desroches, returned to his homeland in the aftermath of the earthquake.  His goal was to determine whether the buildings still standing were safe enough for occupancy.  Dr. Desroches and his team found the concrete in Haiti to be not just substandard but extremely weak.  One of his graduate students, Brett Holland, noted that "You could just scratch the surface with your thumb or finger.  It was like completely different from anything here in the U.S.  I was amazed."

Learning that little landfill space was available on the island and that the Haitian government was studying dumping the rubble in the ocean, the Georgia Tech team was determined to find a way to recycle it.  Bringing samples of the Haitian concrete back to Georgia Tech, they used Hait's natural resources to turn the rubble into a stronger concrete.  The process can be completed  by "nearly anyone in Haiti can do themselves without the use of heavy machinery."

Now that a runoff election between the two presidential finalists is scheduled for March 20, perhaps decisions will start to come from what had been a weakened government.  Perhaps the rubble will be reborn in buildings that will re-emerge from the dusty streets of Port-au-Prince.  And perhaps the decades that it takes to rebuild Haiti may be reduced if those in charge of the process listen to the ideas of the sons and daughters of Haiti like Reginald Desroches.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The First Anniversary of the Haiti Earthquake

Another cheerless anniversary has arrived, this time in Port-au-Prince, destroyed by a massive earthquake one year ago today.  The media commemorated the first month and the sixth month after the earthquake, recounting the death and destruction and assessing the recovery.  Perhaps the most heartfelt approach to observing the grim event came from Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, writing in an opening comment in The New Yorker Magazine.

Danticat shared a Haitian voudou tradition about the souls of the dead slipping into the waters of rivers and streams.  They remain submerged there  for a year and a day until ritual prayer and songs lure them from their suspension and they are reborn.  Danticat tells us that the year-and-a-day tradition is seen among families who hold it as an obligation because it maintains a continuity that has kept Haitians linked to their ancestors for generations.

Because of the scandal of recent presidential elections that are believed in many quarters to be fraudulent, the slow recovery of Haiti from the earthquake has likewise been suspended.  If Haiti is to rise from the ruins, the deadlock must be addressed.  In many ways, the election symbolizes the continuing ritual of suffering experienced by Haitians for its entire existence, but it also offers the opportunity for the spirits of the nearly dead society to rise figuratively from the waters where they have floated for one year.

I bore witness last night to the earthquake anniversary from Port Sulphur, LA, where I've volunteering in a Katrina rebuild five years after the hurricane.  I reminded the other volunteers that today is the first anniversary of the horrible event.  In this way, I try to explain how important it is not to forget the the dead and survivors who struggle to restore and, with luck, improve Haiti.

Monday, December 27, 2010

When Anniversaries Collide - The Haitian People Sit on the Sidelines

Sports fans in the United States wax ecstatic about the period from mid-October to late November as  because a perfect storm swirls through the sports world.  The boys of summer head through the playoffs into the World Series.  College football players are playing decisive games and their big brothers in the National Football League are starting to eliminate the weaker teams.  By the third week in November, the professional basketball players are finishing three weeks of their six-month season and their younger siblings are playing in holiday basketball tournaments in garden spots like Hawaii and Cancun.

Other contests with a lot more at stake took place in on the second Tuesday in November this year.  Barack Obama suffered the loss of his Democratic Party majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and saw a shaving of the party Senate majority.  Another critical election took place in earthquke-ravaged Haiti on the last Sunday in November, for the office of President.  Unlike the decisive United States results, described by Obama himself as a "shellacking," the outcome in Haiti, delivered amidst less-than-ideal polling conditions and charges of widespread fraud, left virtually no one happy.  The election council deemed that Jude Célestin, the handpicked candidate of incumbent René Préval, and Mirlande Manigat, the wife of former (and deposed) President Leslie Manigat, would face each other in a runoff.  Followers of compas singer Michel ("Sweet Micky") Martelly took to the streets, protesting their candidate's exclusion as another example of the deep-seated corruption endemic to the Haitian political culture.

In the continuing electoral limbo in a country the United States has never been shy about invading and occupying, and manipulating the affairs of,  perhaps not many observers have noted the shadow cast  by the last closely contested U.S.  presidential election.  The Supreme Court decision that awarded the White House to George W. Bush, Bush v. Gore, came down on December 10, 2000, in an act of judicial activism that usurped the jurisdiction of the Florida Supreme Court that was in the process of ruling on a recount of the Florida vote.

Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker Magazine legal writer, has noted that, unlike the landmark Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade cases on school segregation and abortion rights, respectively, which produced numerous citations in subsequent cases, Bush v. Gore as a precedent is significant for having produced nothing but a resounding judicial silence. 

In my humble opinion (I'm admittedly neither an expert on Haiti or politics, but I do have a sharp eye for historical irony), what links the two elections is a fear, in some quarters, that a protracted period of electoral indecision opens the door to political and economic instability.  Miami Herald writer Jacqueline Charles' lead from a Dec. 20 news analysis says it all: "In a traumatized nation with a poor history of clean voting, Haiti's recent elections were a disaster waiting to happen."  When I was in Port-au-Prince, I heard that the $9 billion in international aid wouldn't be distributed until after the Nov. 28 election.  U.S. Senator Richard Lugar warned that "political uncertainty" caused by "dueling political candidates" could cost Haiti the reconstruction dollars it so desperately needs.

And what did the "political uncertainty" that hung over Florida and Washington, D.C. threaten a decade ago?  As Toobin points, even former President Bush in his recently released memoir has little to say about the momentous decision that opened the door to his presidency beyond that he felt "relief," something that the Haitian people are getting precious little of.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

60 Minutes: Right on Time

Last week, I blogged about a perceived lack of coverage of Haiti following the outbreak of cholera, Hurricane Tomas sideswiping the island nation, and the continuing misery of 1.3 million displaced persons subsisting in refugee camps in and around Port-au-Prince.

Sunday night, 60 Minutes stepped up with a segment on the status of post-quake Haiti.  The segment, titled "Haiti: Frustration and Anger," was significant in that 60 Minutes is the long-running news magazine and one of the staples of the number one U.S. broadcast network.  According to the TV ratings website, Zap2it.com, 60 Minutes took second place to a Fox football broadcast at the 7 PM hour.

Starting out with an interview with the mayor of Carrefour, a town adjacent to Port-au-Prince, Byron Pitts took viewers on an investigation about the slow pace of recovery and the failure of 5 billion dollars in aid to reach people on the ground.  Carrefour is home to a refugee camp on the median of a busy thoroughfare.  The battle to contain the cholera outbreak, rubble removal and reconstruction delays, and the political environment all made it into the story, which ran 12 minutes.

President Bill Clinton and the prime minister of Haiti, Jean-Max Bellerive were the key interviewees.  Given the huge proportion of the population in tent camps, housing is the biggest problem.  The fact that a show with the 12 million viewers of 60 Minutes, a key to CBS ratings success, should draw needed attention to the lack of progress in resolving this and other problems following the tragic disaster in Haiti.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Flooding and Cholera in Haiti Barely Registers in U.S. Media

Last weekend's passage of Hurricane Tomas, left Port-au-Prince relatively unscathed and despite the continuing deadly outbreak of cholera that has reached the capital, stories about the double disaster hardly flooded U.S. broadcast and cable outlets.

I don't mean that networks like ABC didn't carry the stories - both ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and Good Morning America have carried stories over the last 72 hours.  CNN did a story on the links between uncollected garbage that has mushroomed since the earthquake and the cholera epidemic.  CNN also ran a story occasioned by the landfall of Tomas last weekend titled Haiti's trifecta of disaster attempted to provide a context for the persons displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake.  The story featured an interview with a spokesperson from the Haitian Red Cross who talked about lack of investment in infrastructure and disaster preparation.  She predicted it would take years to make headway against this legacy of neglect.

It is stories last this last one that try to take viewers to a vantage point where they can get a perspective about the swirl of factors that make it hard for outsiders to make sense of what's going on in the hemisphere's first black republic.  These rare stories approach the job done by print and multimedia journalists such as Ansel Herz who details the choice aid groups are forced to make, surveying damage after Tomas while displaced families wait for shelter.

Viola Nicola's flooded tent in Leogane (courtesy Ansel Herz)

While poignant, photos and footage of patients sick with cholera, can't compete with the "disaster porn" of hurricane-driven rain and wind lashing reporters and flood waters washing away shelter.  Ironically, the time bomb of epidemics set in motion by the January earthquake offers a grim opportunity for the spotlight to be turned on the stalled disaster recovery.  Given the glancing blow by Tomas, sensational video didn't emerge from the island nation.  Despite this blip on the radar screen of world attention, it's not clear that even a raging cholera epidemic centered in crowded Port-au-Prince will bring the sustained awareness that could lead to an outcry about the slow pace of solutions being implemented.