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    Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    Why aren't you going to Chile?

    It's a fair question.  This post from the OxFam blog answers it much more succinctly than I could:

    There's a tendency to compare disasters, and I am sure many of us started to do that Saturday morning when we heard about the 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile. Another earthquake! Is it like the one in Haiti? The answer is of course no, Chile is a completely different place. Although the earthquake was a significantly stronger (something like 500 times stronger!) than the 12 January Haiti quake, it hit a much less densely populated area with a government equipped with resources to respond.

    I immediately remembered an article on the BBC website I read two days after the now infamous Port-au-Prince quake last month. It attempted something incredibly difficult: comparing the relative size, death toll, economic impact, proximity to urban areas and the poverty and population density in affected areas of three earthquakes in China (2008), Italy (2009) and Haiti (2010). A key point in this article, from our perspective here at Oxfam: "In places such as Haiti, where 72.1% of the population live on less than $2 a day, and in cities like Port-au-Prince, where many are housed in poor and densely-packed shantytowns and badly-constructed buildings, the devastation is always expected to be greater."

    The Haiti quake is making a much more significant impact on the country than the others because so much of the population was living in or near Port-au-Prince and was so severely affected, and it will have a much larger effect on the country's economy. It's hard to make valid comparisons between such tragedies. But earthquakes have killed more people than any other disaster over the last 10 years, according to the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Belgium, as explained in an article on the UN’s IRIN new service. And an increasing proportion of those affected by earthquakes are in developing countries. So if we can use the data and lessons learned from these comparisons to focus on poverty, and its propensity to increase vulnerability to disaster, it is worth looking. It is yet another fact we can use to mobilise people and resources to end poverty, because it will also save lives.

    2010 a bad year for earthquakes?

     That seems like a silly question, all things considered.  But the following from Reuters for journalists covering disasters suggests otherwise:

    IS 2010 WORSE THAN USUAL FOR QUAKES? To the untrained eye, it may seem like an unusually high number of earthquakes has occurred in 2010, including fatal tremors in Haiti, Chile, Mexico and China. But scientists from the
    U.S. Geological Survey
    (USGS) say the level of earthquake activity is nothing out of the ordinary, despite the devastation caused. The important thing about quakes is where they happen - how near major urban centres, in poor or rich countries, how far below the surface? A researcher with the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) says the
    risks are growing in low and middle-income countries
    with rising populations concentrated in cities. Meanwhile, aid workers are struggling to help those made homeless in the remote quake-hit Chinese county of Yushu after a choking sandstorm and heavy snow severed a vital air link
    . And May 12 marks two years since the
    Sichuan earthquake
    killed more than 80,000 people, including thousands of children who were crushed to death by collapsing schools.  

    Monday, April 5, 2010

    Haitian Cuisine

    I don’t know much about Haitian cuisine because I had so little of it.  In the compound, we were offered a menu that seemed clearly to be aimed at keeping Westerners (Americans, specifically) happy.  The menu gave us a choice of a club sandwich, a ham sandwich, chicken sandwich, hot dog, fried chicken, pickled herring, or tarot root fritters.  All with french fries.  I never saw anyone order the pickled herring or the tarot root fritters, so I’m not positive those were actually served.   
    There weren’t many places to eat outside the compound.  Even if there had been, we were generally advised against spending much time walking the streets around the hotel, so it would have been somewhat difficult to navigate.  So we had a steady diet of white bread, fried potatoes, and processed meat.  Toward the end especially, we favored the fried chicken, probably because we burned out on the sandwiches early on.   Interestingly, the fried chicken was *only* chicken legs.  No other part of the chicken.  What did they do with the rest of the chicken?  Maybe used it for the chicken sandwich or the interesting mixture of chopped chicken that was occasionally part of the club sandwich (as was the occasional scrambled egg).

    We did venture out one night to a place called Tom & Jerry’s.  Tom’s was on one side of the storefront – it was a small grocery store.  Jerry’s was on the other side – it was a small pizza place.  We ordered a sausage pizza – wait, they’re out of sausage – I mean, a mushroom pizza – wait, no mushrooms, either – I mean, a onion – ok, look, they had pepperoni pizza and cheese pizza.  So we ordered a pepperoni pizza.  Right before it came, Kathy spotted Michael outside the place wearing the You.Me.We. button Cheryl gave him when he walked us to the Red Cross.  We invited him in to have dinner with us; he accepted.  Our group garnered some giggles and stares from other diners – mostly twenty-somethings.  If I spoke Creole, I might know whether it was Michael, the white women, or the combination that was so ridiculous to them.

    On one of the last nights we were there, we had dinner with three women we had meet in the tarp camp across the street from the compound.  When the waiter brought us our menus, he told us – to our surprise and delight – that there was a special.  It was grilled chicken, greens, and Haitian rice.   We didn’t really even care if it was going to be good; we just cared that it was different.  So Kathy ordered the special.  And then I ordered the special.  Well, I *tried* to order the special.  I said, “I’ll have the special, too.”  The waiter looked at me and said, “Just one special.”  Confused, I said, “Okay, I’ll take that special, too.”  He pointed to Kathy and again said, “1 special.”  At the time, I thought he was telling us that only one person at the table could have the special, and Kathy had already called it.  In retrospect, I think it’s because I kept saying, “too.”  Maybe he thought I was trying to order a second kind of special, and he wanted me to know that the special Kathy was getting was the only kind available.  Nevertheless, at the time I didn’t know.  So I gave up and ordered fried chicken legs.  Again.  To avoid the rejection and disappointment I had experienced ordering the special, everyone else ordered the chicken legs.

    We’re hoping to return to Haiti this summer.  So in preparation for the trip, no chicken legs please between now and summer.   

    Saturday, April 3, 2010


    Jacmel is on the southern coast of Haiti. Between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel is Leoghane, the epicenter of the January 12 quake. We went to Jacmel to meet up with the folks from Make It Right and to see if the barge from New Orleans had arrived. Our new friend Phillipe (the cousin of a Touro law student) and his driver Eunelle took us to Jacmel. It’s 25 miles away from Port-au-Prince, but it’s through mountains, so it translates into a 2 hour drive.

    It took us quite a while to get out of Port-au-Prince, which seems to sprawl on forever. The effect of the sprawl is intensified by the rubble that you see all throughout the city. We thought we had seen some badly affected areas of Port-au-Prince, but it got worse as we moved through the city on the way to Jacmel.

    Going through Leoghane, the damage seemed not to be as bad as it was in Port-au-Prince, but this likely seemed to be the case because there simply weren’t as many buildings in the countryside. Every building that we did see had been reduced to rubble, and residents were living in tents next to the piles of rocks that used to be their homes. However, commerce seemed to continue. Lined along the road to Jacmel were vendors selling mangos, peanuts, tomatoes.

    There were clearly some services set up, mostly by Save the Children, in the countryside. We passed a food distribution “event.” A line of people wound its way up a hill toward a distribution center. The distribution was organized by Save the Children and secured by UN Peacekeepers from Sri Lanka. When we drove by and stopped, the soldiers were establishing a barrier between those authorized to receive food and those not authorized with a makeshift fence constructed of a roll of razor wire. We watched as three young children almost fell into the wire. A few days later, outside our hotel in Port-au-Prince, we witnessed a similar food distribution scene, this one supervised by the 82nd Airborne instead of the Sri Lankan UN force.

    When we reached Jacmel, we were greeted with yet another city that had been impacted significantly by the quake. However, Jacmel seemed to recovering at a brisk pace. The damage was not nearly as extensive as it was in Port-au-Prince, and the clean-up effort seemed to be progressing pretty well. There were trucks moving loads of rubble and people cleaning up from the damage. However, Jacmel – like Port-au-Prince – did still have the feel of a city that had been hit two days, rather than two months, ago.

    We made our way to the Make It Right camp. A meeting was in progress to talk about how to handle the barge. It still had not arrived, but it was expected any day. Plans were made to unload the barge and guard it from looters and vandals while it was in port. The people of Louisiana sent an extraordinary amount of goods. I don’t know how much of it was goods that could have been procured from Haitian suppliers. There is a tension between wanting to support the local Haitian economy and wanting to just get supplies from the easiest, most reliable source.

    The folks at Make It Right described the Haiti Restoration Village Project to us. Local residents would be given a canvas type of structure, about the size of a garage, that they could live in immediately. Over time, the structure would provide enough stability to serve as the shell for a more permanent structure as walls of something like stucco were added. The idea was that the stucco-type product would be composed of the powder that would result from crushing the rocks comprising the rubble throughout the earthquake zone. It sounded like a great idea. Overall, though, I was struck by how much more needy communities north of Jacmel were.

    And then we learned on of Haiti’s best kept secrets. Haiti has beaches. Beautiful, unbelievable, vacation-y beaches.

    We had lunch at a beach restaurant. We placed our order (chicken or fish?) and then were told to come back 35 minutes later. The restaurant was owned by a woman who seemed to have a firm grasp of how to train her daughters to take over the business. We drove around Jacmel a bit, investigated the beaches, and then returned to the restaurant. We sat at a table inside the shack of a restaurant, received a squirt of Purell from the owner, and were served our lunch. I had the fish. It was extraordinary, served with Haitian rice, fresh mango from the backyard, and fried plaintains.

    After lunch, we headed back to Port-au-Prince, passing an overturned vehicle -- no hurt people, though -- on the mountain road from Jacmel. Reminders of the instability of Haitian life are everywhere.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010

    Artists of the Red Cross

    On the day that Michael took us for that walk to the Red Cross, we figured after we passed every tent in sight that he was not taking us to the Red Cross station in the tent city. We weren't sure where he was taking us, but we joked that he was going to drag us all the way down to the official headquarters of Red Cross Haiti.

    And that's just what he did. Next to the old, abandoned American Embassy is the newer, abandoned Red Cross of Haiti. The building was damaged. It didn't look horribly damaged, but looks can be deceiving when you're talking about earthquake damage. We walked around the building, noted the several Red Cross vehicles that appeared to be in good, working condition except for having their tires recently stripped from them.

    In the yard of the Red Cross property, we noticed two men who had set up easels and were painting. We slowly approached each of them to see what they were doing. Each had a number of already-painted canvasses behind him and was working on something new. Neither wanted to talk.

    As we milled around the Red Cross property, we noticed that the artists had apparently taken up residence, not just established the yard as their new studio. Red Cross vehicles were filled to the brim with painted canvasses. They were also carts in the driveway piled high with canvasses.

    As we walked around the back of the building, a stench hit us. It was the unmistakable smell of human waste. Over the fence, we spied the tops of four or five port-a-potties that were clearly not being serviced but were being used. A family was sitting right behind them, kind of cuddling. A mom, dad, and young daughter -- maybe 4 or 5 -- were just sitting together rocking back and forth. I was about 20 feet away from them, and I couldn't take the smell for even a full minute; I can't imagine what kind of sensory overload allows you to sit right next to the smell, rocking slowly back and forth as if you were all enjoying a breezy evening on your own front porch. In talking to a number of Haitians about the devastation they've experienced, I get the sense that they've done the emotional equivalent of taking the phone off the hook. The overpowering stench of other people's shit is really the least of their problems.

    When we left the Red Cross and headed back to the hotel, we passed a building that looked kind of like a store front that had been set up in a 1950's ranch rambler-style house. It was guarded by four guys in military uniforms carrying automatic weapons. We asked Michael what the building was. He didn't answer and instead walked across the street to ask the men. They had a brief exchange in Creole, and Michael came back. "What did they say?" we asked. "None of my business," he said flatly. Alrighty, then.

    Tomorrow, I'll write about the experience of being in the hotel. We're surrounded by doctors and journalists, and they clearly have a different agenda than we do.


    After however many days we have been here (and it's hard to keep track), we're starting to get a sense of what we can do to help internally displaced Haitians.  More about official issues and goings-on on the You.Me.We. blog.  Here, I share some personal observations about what we've seen and experienced.

    Although I'm going to take a stab at it, it's hard to adequately describe the strange disconnect between being in the hotel and outside the hotel.  The hotel is across the street from a large camp.  There are neat rows of tents, clearly laid out and set up by some organization or other.  But then there are the add-ons: tents adjuncted on to the ones that are sturdier.  These tents are made of corrugated aluminum sheets, plastic tarps,and whatever scraps of wood or cardboard needed to patch the gaps.  Every bit of space in Port-au-Prince that's not covered by an existing structure or rubble from a former structure is covered with a tent of some kind.  The fear of being indoors is pervasive.  The Haitians we've talked to have all expressed a preference for sleeping outside.  Fear of another earthquake is prevalent.

    And yet, the people of PAP seem to want to go home, so much so that we were told by one camp director that residents of the camp go back to their home sites during the day, if they're not going to work, and then return to the camp at night to sleep.

    A couple of days ago, we decided to take a walk around the area of our hotel in Port-au-Prince.  So we left the seclusion of our compound (what the doctors here call it) and headed out past our locked gate.  A man approached us as soon as we got out of the hotel, a pretty normal experience since we've been here.  Someone is forever offering his services as a driver, an artist, a guard.  This man's name was Michael, and he told us that he had been asked by our driver from the airport to keep an eye on us and to escort us anywhere we wanted to walk outside the compound.  He seemed earnest, so we let him escort us.  He asked where we wanted to go and we told him that we hoped to see the Red Cross headquarters for the tent city across from the hotel.  And we were off.

    Having seen a lot of rubble the night before, it didn't surprise us to see more as we took off down the street, past rows and rows of tents.  For a few minutes, I thought that I might even just get used to the sight.  You've seen one building reduced to rubble, and you've seen 'em all, right?  Not exactly.Initially we were walking primarily past the tent city, so there wasn't a lot of rubble to see.  As we got further down the street, though, we saw something staggering.  It was the National Palace, looking like a wedding cake someone had dropped.

    All along our way, we were followed and approached by young boys or men:  "Pretty lady!  Pretty lady!  Give me some money!"  Some were clever enough to ask if I spoke one of their languages before they launched into the Pretty Lady routine.

    We didn't just meet men, though.  We met young women.  Not even.  Young girls.  We had stopped to take pictures of some men digging through rubble to find the metal embedded within it so they could sell it (above), and we noticed a beautiful young girl -- about my daughter Emma's age, I would guess -- staring at us.  I asked her if I could take her picture.  She spoke no English, and I speak no French or Creole.  So I pointed to the camera and then to her.  She shook her head, no.  So I smiled at her and put the camera down to let her know I understood.  She shyly pivoted on one foot, looking down at the ground, and then nodded yes.  I pointed the camera in her direction and smiled at her.  She smiled back and I took her picture.  I closed the few steps between us and showed her my camera viewer so she could see the picture of herself.  She smiled shyly.  I asked her how old she was; she didn't understand, of course.  I asked Michael to translate for me, so he asked her how old she is.  She told us through Michael that she is 15.  I gave her the look I give my daughters when I know -- know -- that they're not telling the truth.   She revised her answer:  13.  I looked at her, smiled, and held up ten fingers.  She didn't deny it.  Why would a 9- or 10-year-old girl tell perfect strangers that she's 15?  The obvious answer makes my heart ache.  My own daugher is 9.  She's afraid to be in the house alone when I walk to the corner to retrieve her sister from the bus stop.  Her favorite store ever is Build-a-Bear.  She wants to be a zoologist.  She doesn't have the first foggiest idea why a girl her age would need to tell strangers that she's 15.  I wish this girl and all the girls like her in Haiti didn't either.

    Our guide Michael is tall, gentle man.  His English is excellent, and he seems very protective of us.  When we asked him to take us to the Red Cross, we thought we were going to the Red Cross tent in the tent city.  After a while, though, it was clear that's not where we were going.  To be honest, there were times when it occurred to us that maybe we were being led into some kind of horrible ambush.  He took us through some parts of town that made us nervous, despite our bravado.  We walked down one very long street that was lined with vendors selling scrap car parts, scrap metal, scrap wood, motor oil, antifreeze, you name it.  The street was filled with groups of men talking, arguing, fixing cars, watching football.  We were the only women on the street and the only whites on the street.  We stood out.

    Michael (above, talking to Kathy) helped answer the "why" questions that we had as well as the "what" questions.  For example, why does that pile of rubble have three neat concrete slabs through it?  Because that was a three-story building that completed collapsed to the ground.  The slabs that had once been the foundations for each floor were almost completely intact.  Michael pointed out what was dawning on us:  there was no possible way to have recovered the bodies from those buildings.  Filling the piles of rubble on either side of the street were the lost, the dead, the missing.  What must it be like to walk down the streets of your neighborhood and wonder about  your wife, your child, your friends:  is she in  there where she worked?  or in the house next door where she visited friends?  was my child crushed in her school?  or maybe underneath a building she walked near on the way home? 

    That's probably enough for now.  I've learned quickly in Haiti that you can only process so much at a time.  We've been here days.  It feels like months.  We want to go home.  We want to stay.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010

    Every Day an Experience

    We're getting the lay of the land.   We've made contact with a magazine publisher who is going to help us with our trip to Jacmel tomorrow.  In the meantime, we're acclimating and learning what is and isn't safe to do, go, drink, eat.

    Getting information out has been a challenge.  Cheryl tried four times to upload blog information last night.  Each time, the Internet connection dropped right as she was uploading and she had to start again.  It only had to happen to me once before I gave up starting relying on text messages and phone calls to get basic information to loved ones:  I'm here; I'm safe; there's lots of work to be done.

    We go back and forth between being energized and excited about what we might be able to do to be of use and being completely overwhelmed and feeling unequal to the task.  Usually, it's when we speak to individual Haitians about what they need and what their vision of Haiti is that we feel energized.  Realizing that huge piles of rocks have to be moved and tent-dwellers housed before things can get better leaves us feeling overwhelmed.

    Tonight, I hope to sit down, write down my thoughts and observations about what has happened so far and post those.  Stay tuned.

    Time to hit "enter" and hope for the best.  :-)

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