First appearance in the press (New York Times); home, and shelter

Have been a little quiet recently, but that will soon change.

I have been adapting to and learning a new world – how to provide effective shelter in such an extraordinarily challenging emergency. Making friends, getting my head round things – a dusty frenetic whirl of action in a parallel universe, a little like life in Mash.

Was quoted in a New York Times article, which was an interesting experience.

I managed to get home for the first time in a while yesterday. It was an eerie experience. The house was mostly fine, although a fair amount of broken lamps and plates on the floor, but we were very lucky. I grabbed my essentials and headed back to UN base camp. On the way retrieved our car (purchased a week before the quake) from the parking lot in the Hotel Christophe, where the UN was based, where we lost many friends.

Raced through Port-au-Prince in the dark with no registration plates and only one working headlamp (felt like a video game), through side streets with barricades and homeless people in shelters, back to base at last and found the car a new temporary home. Phew.

Tomorrow I will go on a distribution, and hope to film that and tell the story.

It’s tough work here, hard living conditions, but we are all invigorated at being part of a community really working hard at a single purpose. It is a rare experience in life, a pleasure after working in the backbiting snickering world of high level political bullshit. The people here are getting hold of life saving goods, putting them in lorries, and handing them out in a race against time – so concrete, so clear that this is a good thing, even though the challenges are overwhelming, there are many problems in making it all work smoothly, and the future of Haiti remains deeply uncertain.

Sometimes people forget: Haiti has been hit by a uniquely devastating catastrophe, a major earthquake that lasted 35 seconds – 35! most are only 10 – government buildings all collapsed and the international community lost dozens of people, as well as all means to communicate. I cannot stress how overwhelming a disaster this has been, and remains. And now we are waiting for the possibility of a new earthquake, a rainy season, and then hurricane season in June. Wow.

Below is the NYT piece. Strange to see what parts of what you say get printed, what aren’t. Personally, I found it an unusually nuanced report of a situation when many reporters just want a simple dramatic story in order to level blame on aid workers, or Haitians, or their government, or something.

Blame? Come on. This was a catastrophe. This is not about blame, it’s about doing as much as you can under extraordinary constraints.

Rebuilding Effort in Haiti Turns Away From Tents

Published: February 3, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Shifting tactics in the race to shelter an estimated one million Haitians displaced by the earthquake, aid groups on Wednesday began to de-emphasize tents in favor of do-it-yourself housing with tarpaulins at first, followed by lumber.

Mark Turner, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said that a move toward “transitional shelters” — built eventually with lumber and some steel — would give people sturdier structures and more flexibility.

“Tents really have a shelf life of not much more than six months,” Mr. Turner said. In contrast, he added: “You can stand up in a shelter that you build. You can start a business there.”

Officials from the migration agency said they were hoping to give people the means to create temporary housing, and the power to build where they wanted. They acknowledged that it could be five years before most people moved back into houses, which means that under the current best-case situation, Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, will soon be blanketed with hundreds of thousands of simple structures that designers describe as “garden sheds” and others see as shanties.

It reflects what emergency shelter experts here describe as an emerging consensus, born in part from the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2004. There, aid groups that built concrete homes in large tracts found that few people were interested in moving from where they had lived before the disaster. Transitional shelters were quicker to set up and allowed people to stay put while continually improving their own homes over time.

The model, cited by a senior shelter adviser, is Sri Lanka, where residents using building materials and design guidelines from aid groups built 56,000 transitional shelters in seven months, housing 92 percent of the displaced families in about a 550-mile area.

But in Haiti, the challenge will be even greater. There is a hard deadline: hurricane season starts on June 1. And compared with Sri Lanka, there are far more Haitians without homes, and in a densely packed urban area with rubble crowding nearly every street.

Mr. Turner, along with Haitian government officials, said that the shelter plan would work only if demolition and debris removal moved quickly.

“We need to put in place a process that is fast and dynamic for clearing the rubble and creating spaces that are small,” said Charles Clermont, a prominent businessman and adviser to President René Préval. He added that people living in camps on public land — outside the National Palace, for example — would be given incentives to guide them to other places, or moved by legal means if they refused.

The goal would be to minimize relocation, to help people move back to where they lived before the earthquake and to make clear that their living situations would not be permanent. “If it’s where a building was, you know it’s temporary,” Mr. Clermont said.

Large camps of tents outside the city — the idea originally promoted by the Haitian government, and the International Organization for Migration — will continue to be part of the plan at a few locations. But to avoid creating huge refugee camps permanently dependent on foreign aid, officials said the camps would become the exception, not the rule.

The same goes for tents.

So far, aid groups have given out more than 10,000 family tents, and there are 55,000 more in stock or being sent to Haiti, according to the migration organization. There are already more tarpaulins in the pipeline: 100,000 are in stock or have been handed out, and 176,000 are on the way.

Lumber, according to the organization, has been making its way by ship and over land, to be distributed as quickly as possible.

Officials are also trying to recruit Haitian comedians to promote the plans. And in meetings, they have discussed whether to create demonstration shelters, built to designs laid out by aid groups like Shelter Center, which could be set up at the 16 sites now being used to distribute aid.

Haitians, though, may be hard to convince. Most of the tarpaulins being distributed are enormous, big enough for four 10-foot-square shelters. And people do want them. Near a handful of makeshift camps in the neighborhood of Canapé-Vert, hundreds of people lined up on Wednesday to take one.

But nearly everyone in line said he would rather have a tent.

“With a tent, you can close it and stay inside, so you’re safe,” said Joseph Jimmy, 29, who said he needed to find shelter for his family of 11. “With a tarp you’ll still get wet.”

When told about the plan to give Haitians lumber and corrugated steel, Mr. Jimmy became more interested. He nodded, thought about it and, like many Haitians, said he was most concerned about when or if the promise would be fulfilled.

“If they come step by step and they really do come, O.K.,” he said. “But I don’t know. If not, I want a tent.”


17 responses to “First appearance in the press (New York Times); home, and shelter

  1. hmmmm I remember one FT journalist being very ready to get on the blame the UN wagon back in the days…..

  2. complex issues,
    no one to blame,
    great post, 😉

  3. Having gone to college and seen who becomes Journalists I don’t doubt that half the time it’s bullshit! Keep up the good work and don’t listen to the critics, history will prove you right.

  4. Thank you for sharing Mark.
    All the best in all you do and to your family and blessings to everyone in Haiti.

  5. Wow what issues it was just a terrible tragedy.

  6. Great experience and challenge…hope relevant authority will take note……great materials…

  7. Yes building those homes will seem to be harder to finish by June but you know the heart always make what seems difficult become easier. What they should start doing is clearing out the debris then have two sets of workers. One set doing the daytime part of the setting up while the other set doing what can be done at nights.

    Nothing in life is easy and what as happened to Haiti show that with unity and strength anything is possible. Haiti will bounced back within 3yrs. What we should not do is look at the work to be done but how Haiti can become a better and stronger nation after this.

  8. Lindsay Downham

    You mentioned the possibility of a new earthquake. What details have you heard about this? Something in the near future?
    …great blog.

  9. Bless them all. With food. With life. With safety. And bless every hand that reaches out to them.

  10. Another quake? Yikes…

  11. good post and useful information!
    I love your way telling an information like that!!

  12. As much as I can understand right now, I think you’re right!

  13. great info, excellent blog … love your style of writing. Keep the details coming!!

  14. Great experience and challenge…hope relevant authority will take note……great materials…[url=”dofollow”]goolge

  15. great article, lets hope for the best.

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