Nuns on a hill; outreach; a tale of two cities

It’s been an exhausting few days, doing many jobs at the same time. Emergencies are both horrifying and exhilarating – so much to do, structures in flux, time-frames so tight, that you can often determine what you want to be involved in, and get stuck in. No waiting on ceremony here.

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I am doing three main jobs right now: liaising with the international press, taking photos and making videos (in itself actually a 3-person job), and helping design a comprehensive strategy to reach local populations with crucial information – using all sorts of tools, from radio, to sms, posters, mobile cinema units. So much going on, so much going on. Information structures are in crisis here, and we need to help support the reconstruction of the entire media world.

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I made a quick film of a distribution we did by helicopter in the far hills beyond Port-au-Prince. Tough conditions, but a real community there. In the capital things can get chaotic fast, many people trying to get political and financial advantage from the situation, but here it was a delight to work with people who knew each other. We were working closely with a religious order, doing great work. I am not religious myself, but these sisters and brothers are really on the front line, in tough, tough conditions.

Meanwhile Port-au-Prince is reverting to its former two worlds status. Petionville, the more wealthy area, is returning to form. Most buildings there are fine, the restaurants are up and running, shops open, systems are back in place. The main noticeable difference is a vast number of displaced camping out in the town squares, but you can feel some kind of normality creeping back.

But other parts of the city, and in the regions, remain utterly brutalised. Great deprivation. Everyone wants to know why we haven’t fixed it yet. But please realise – this is the country’s major city, and it has fallen to pieces. Not only buildings, but community structures, society’s glue. And us also. Many of us died too. It is amazing that Haitians continue to bear their load with such patience. This is a long long job.

So, a return to what we already knew in Haiti: the wealthy and the deprived, side by side, but magnified, exacerbated, many times.

Every so often, driving around, I get hit with an overwhelming sense of the momentous times I am living through. This is unprecedented stuff, it will be in the history books. I hope we get it right.

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Helping Haiti, in photos; a simple way we can all keep the issue alive

I plan to start posting many more photos of what is going on here – the sights we encounter when we distribute items, help organize temporary settlements, create shelter and so on. They can all be found at my flickr photoset called Working for Haiti.

I’ll pick a few every couple of days and post them. I will also be regularly posting videos on my youtube channel markyturner. My first video, of a distribution in all its complexity, is here.

If you like any of this media, I would strongly encourage you to repost, share on facebook and other social media – whatever you can. (All photos are taken by me, except where explicitly stated otherwise; I have permission to disseminate them all).

The international press is going home, day by day. That leaves people like us to keep the message alive. With the decline of journalism, we all assume a responsibility.

Everyone with a computer is a media person these days. Let’s do what we can to keep Haiti present in the world’s conscience.

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(this photo take by Jean-Philippe Chauzy)

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Video – a day spent distributing lifesaving goods in Haiti; before and after.

I put this video together on a day distributing goods in Haiti. It’s complex, with the positive and the more complex. People always get scared towards the end of a distribution, and trouble often breaks out. It’s a very complex situation – but overall Haitians are, amazingly, holding it together.

Tomorrow I am heading out on a helicopter delivery of items to a remote hillside location which cannot be reached by road. (By an aid convoy, at least). Will report on that.

Meanwhile base life continues – there is a high turnover, but more long termers are beginning to arrive, which will help. I spent the evening chatting with a number of UN survivors; there is a big range of reactions, from people who have found focus in their work, to people who are clearly totally frazzled, and in need of a break. This exhaustion manifests itself in many different ways, from a certain blankness to a tendency to blame others for the situation, an inability to accept that those who did not live through the quake can play a valid part in the response.

It’s sad. This was a deeply traumatic event for a community, and that community is struggling to adapt. Every question regarding Haiti is now “was that before, or after”. There is a strong sense of two worlds. I straddle them uncomfortably – we were settling in here, but relative newcomers when it all happened, and in Miami of course.

That makes us, to a degree, outsiders, yet there is recognition our lives are totally disrupted also. Putting in place contingency plans to move our household out, but not quite willing to come to terms with the fact that it’s all over quite yet.

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

By DAMIEN CAVE
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.”

Back to Haiti

A quick update, from the United Nations logistics base by the Port-au-Prince airport.

I will be working for a few months with the International Organization for Migration, which is coordinating the provision of shelter for Haitians, and issue increasingly in the public spotlight.

It is going to be a rapid learning process. The situation is evolving quickly, and there is currently a shift in focus away from the provision of tents – which are a short-term solution, and in short supply – to more durable constructions, sufficient to withstand the oncoming rains. Haiti’s hurricane season begins in June, but lighter rains begin in late February onwards and adequate shelter will be a priority.

A curious sensation coming back; I came via land from Santa Domingo… as I moved in from the border a flood of memories of the life we were building up. There is little time to dwell on such thoughts, however. The UN is still in full emergency mode, and the log base is a hive of activity – a dusty world of tents and makeshift offices, urgent meetings, coordination groups – as well as the arrival of many new people to support the teams who have been working non-stop since the quake. It reminds me a little of my time in Bagram airbase, in Afghanistan in 2002.

Will update soon with pics, more impressions.

Time in Miami exile

I picked up a copy of Einstein’s Dreams, a whimsical book which offers glimpses into worlds with different forms of time – each as real as the next.

We have encountered multiple versions of time here in Miami also: the thrilled rush of a new holiday, the lazy time of full days with long breakfasts, the constricting time that accompanies a holiday’s end and imminent return…

… and then the thunder of the earthquake, profoundly personal yet from afar, time flying by at an extraordinary pace, all rush and noise, phone-calls and fast conversations, yet concurrently suspended, our lives in limbo, uncertain.

That time has lasted a while, but is ceding to another form of nervous time, where minutes tick by slowly, yet driving us closer to an uncomfortable new reality. Miami’s weather has been unusually unsettled. Now cold, now hot; now dry, wet, or windy. These fluctuations have contributed to our sense of time at any one moment.

Our time now is spent learning the full extent of what has happened to our community, asking questions inappropriate in those first days, picking up our pieces, re-establishing our children, choosing where to live. All over again.

It looks possible I will head to Haiti for a while, and Anna to New York. Nothing final yet. I would like to do this; it gives me purpose. Anna will try to find her way forward at headquarters.

But our life remains shrouded in uncertainty. What are we going to do with our family in the long-term? Is there any way of recovering our house, our life in Haiti?

In this version of time, events are happening out of our control; we consider their merits in hindsight, not advance. I am sad to be apart from the children; I am glad to catch a wave heading somewhere out of nowhere.

I have been in a suspension for a little while. Most of my life, career, was a charge towards something – becoming a journalist, traveling the world, telling stories; then a switch of style, an exploration of new disciplines, choosing sides, kids, fatherhood.

But the past year has been one of contemplation, transition. A new direction resolving slowly. We were finally settling into a new place, re-establishing a household in a community.

Now I can feel time speeding up again, the clacking of the track gathering pace and intensity; Miami blurring around the edges. A new journey. I have little idea where it leads.

On re-building Haiti from scratch… what are you talking about?

There has been an explosion of Haiti experts of late, the inevitable procession of talking heads and celebrities, pundits and media heroes that follows any disaster. So be it; there is nothing wrong with people educating themselves on an issue and sharing that education – even though we all know that this new found passion is, for the most part, likely to last little more than a couple of weeks.

But there is a potentially dangerous byproduct from all this: that an uninformed groupthink emerges, driving policy in an equally uninformed legislature in Washington.

Over recent days, there has been a fad to describe Haiti’s earthquake as a “man-made disaster” (Anne Applebaum), which has its roots in Haitian culture (David Brooks), which requires drastic solutions – a complete rethink and restart for Haiti, absorption into the US Commonwealth etc.

To which many others are beginning to fire back – what are you on about?

First of all, a man-made disaster. Seriously? I thought it was an earthquake.

Come on people… of course there are issues with building codes, and we know that earthquakes in different parts of the world cause different numbers of deaths. But earthquakes are NOT man-made. They are natural phenomena, caused by the shifting of tectonic plates. In the rush to be clever, such comments are horrifyingly callous. When the next quake hits Tokyo or California, will we dismiss that as a man-made disaster too? By that logic, is there ever such a thing as a natural disaster?

Look, sometimes bad things happen; we are mortal mammals living on an active planet, we do not yet have total mastery over our environment (although clearly the things we do have consequences for it). Of course such events are an interaction between man and environment. But an earthquake, in my book, remains a natural disaster.

Even more worrying, however, is the proposal that somehow Haiti should now be remade. That old structures of governance can be swept aside removing past patterns of corruption and wrong-headed thinking. Again – seriously – what is wrong with you people? Didn’t we just go through this in Iraq?

There are people in Haiti! They have history and culture and networks and relationships. You can’t just cover the island with asphalt and move its inhabitants to ‘New Haiti’ in Wisconsin. (At least, you might be able to but it would be an enormous crime.)

So, a plea. When proposing solutions for Haiti’s people, can we please dispense for a while with the vapid celebrity know-it-all columnists that the great newspapers of our time turn to in such moments. Let’s also have a few more Haitian voices, huh?

Take your Anne Applebaums and David Brooks’, and set them to work on an epic describing the lint they found in their naval this morning. I am sure it would attract thousands of avid readers, hanging on their every word identifying with their struggles. But for pity’s sake, take these blowhards off an issue which might have consequences for a nation on its knees.

I am obviously not alone in these thoughts. Amy Wilentz tackles these issues in the Nation, as does Matt Taibbi, and the author Mark Danner.

Now we need more Haitian voices.