a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle
Tue, 16 Feb 2010
Our flat in Port-au-Prince -- Pétionville, actually -- two flats, actually -- well, our two flats in Pétionville are right next to the (former?) Romanian consulate, right across from the Brazilian consulate, and just down the street from Place Boyer, a very nice green bit of park; or it was, at least, right up until last month, when it became an IDP camp.
An Internally Displaced Persons camp is identical to a refugee camp, except that the accepted international definition of "refugee" involves someone who has fled across an international border to wind up at their camp. Since the Pótoprinsiens who are living in the park down the street are actually from this neighborhood, the nomenclature by which they are regarded is the rather verbose phrase "Internally Displaced Persons"; hence, "IDP camp."
Now, slums outside of the developed West are always an assault on the senses, and the main difference between an IDP camp and a slum, as far as I can make out, is only one of relative age. Slums are crowded, chaotic, noisy, and, above all, they stink. An IDP camp smells just like a slum, and, from what I have seen, slums smell pretty much the same, all round the world: They reek of garbage, rotting garbage, burning garbage, human bodily waste, and, occasionally, strong cooking smells. This particular melange, born of people living in close quarters with little-to-no running water or adequate sanitation, is basically impossible to forget, once experienced. That is what our neighborhood smells like.
To be fair, this is Pétionville, up in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince, and so the IDP campers here are fairly well-to-do. They camp in Coleman tents, and have big Christian revival concerts pretty much every night with a drum kit and a PA system and amplified instruments. The camp seems well organized as such things go -- the residents have, for example, kept clear the original walking paths of the park. I have even seen kids in the camp checking their email on laptops.
A month ago, a third of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were severely damaged or destroyed. The problem is, no one knows which of the two-thirds still standing are actually safe, and which are only waiting to cave in or fall over. The Haitian people regard themselves, justly, I think, as being both resilient and resourceful to the extreme, having been put to it by adversity. So these people are all living in the neighborhood park.
Further down the hill, in Delmas, by contrast, the camps run more to tarps and the like. We have even seen camps made basically of nothing beyond corrugated cardboard, tree branches, and string. Since we brought tents, but didn't need them -- quite the contrary -- I gave mine to Erdem within a day of arriving, so that he could relay it to a shelterless family he knew personally.
But the rainy season is going to start soon, and, when it does, everyone will be living in mud, possibly inches deep. There will be flash floods and possibly landslides. There will be mosquitos bearing malaria, and, heaven forfend, one or more of these camps might see a cholera outbreak. Then, in a few more months, to add insult to injury, hurricane season will start.
So I am almost uncomfortable at how comfortable these flats are, two of them, one for me and one for Tom, as a result of the fact that pretty much the entire World Bank's Haiti mission was mired in meetings in snowy DC when we showed up, leaving Erdem, one driver, and two semi-clueless consultants to hold down the fort. In fact, these two flats, in the same building, are the World Bank headquarters in Haiti, because their former office building isn't fit to set foot into any longer. Both apartments are airy, with high ceilings, and glass-paned doors that open on to multiple balconies. The flat downstairs has a broadband Wi-Max connection. The flat upstairs has a breathtaking view, or, would have, if the smog wasn't so bad. And why not? Haiti is the western half of a Caribbean island, with all the scenic magnificence such an appellation implies, from the rugged green mountains, to the rolling, deep-blue sea.
Meanwhile, down below the smog somewhere, lies the capital of a country that was only the second in the New World to throw off its colonial yoke; a country which has been repeatedly invaded by France, Spain, Britain, and the United States; a country that has been crippled by decades of corruption and the failure of the rule of law; a country not more than about 200 miles from the richest in the world, in which our driver earns $18 a day and most of the food in the supermarket is imported; a country that lies both in the path of hurricanes and on a major seismic fault. Few nation-states have been so royally shafted by both history and geography at once.
It is incredible to me how sharp the contrast here is; how Haiti is possessed, simultaneously, incredible natural beauty and of unutterable human misery. I find it very easy to think of this place as "God's Own Forsaken Country".
Sat, 13 Feb 2010
On the morning of Thursday 13 February, Tom Buckley and I skipped breakfast again, and left the Hotel Embajador in Santo Domingo, with enough time for the taxi to take us back to the World Bank office and retrieve the Hepatitis A vaccine we'd accidentally left in the the fridge the previous evening, before heading to El Higuero airport for the morning UN Humanitarian Air Service flight to Port-au-Prince. In a move born of either genius, desperation, or some combination, Tom seized on the first medical-looking person he found at the airport -- she turned out to be a WHO doctor from somewhere in Latin America -- and had her administer his last immunization, thus relieving me of the responsibility, to everyone's considerable relief.
Check-in for the flight itself was weirdly informal, and the ticket and boarding pass even more so. The plane itself was a vintage de Haviland Dash 8-100, and the other passengers on the flight were an assorted dozen of exactly the kind of people you'd expect to be on a UN charter flight: There was a middle-aged Swiss aid worker, a young Spanish news photographer, our friend the aforementioned Latina doctor and a couple of her colleagues, two or three guys who could have been Canadian firefighters or Belgian civil engineers or something, a few ruddy-faced Northern European UN apparatchiks, and me and Tom. We were the only ones who spoke a single word on the the flight.
The flight itself took an hour, and was very scenic. Entertainingly, we left JBQ at 10am, and arrived at PAP at 10am, due to the time zone difference. Our final approach to PAP took us over a dirt racetrack that I had been using as a visual reference a month previous, while working with the satellite imagery of Port-au-Prince, because it was so visually distinctive from above. Not for a split second in the week or two that I spent marshalling overhead imagery of Haiti for use by the OpenStreetMap community -- most of it later to be folded into Christopher Schmidt's Haiti Crisis Map -- did I imagine that in another couple more weeks I'd be flying right over that racetrack.
The oddest thing about the entire process was that the flight attendant's patter was exactly she would have said in the cabin of an ordinary 747, verbatim, from the safety demonstration, right down to the post-landing taxiway reminder not to open our seatbelts until the plane had taxied to a complete stop and the captain had turned off the "fasten seat belts" light. In fact, just about the only thing she did not say was "Please enjoy your stay in Port-au-Prince," a small favor for which I, at least, was very grateful.
Somehow, it had to be at least 5°C hotter in Port-au-Prince than it had been in Santo Domingo, and about thirty times as humid. We were quickly escorted across the tarmac at PAP, past some repurposed Soviet helicopters, to a baggage claim out of the back of a pickup truck that was, if possible, even more informal than anything that had happened up to that point. Amazingly, the UN Humanitarian Air Service nevertheless still managed to maintain the illusion of being an actual airline, by losing (for a second time) a piece of Tom's luggage, specifically, the bag containing his air mattress.
So there we were, freshly arrived on a special charter flight to an airfield in a disaster zone thousands of miles from home, with only the vaguest idea of our objective there, waiting to meet our contact, who would brief us on our actual mission. The whole thing was getting a bit Mission Impossible, if you know what I mean. While we were waiting, I watched soldiers wander past the terminal, from Japan, Chile, Mexico, Jordan, Malta(!), Uruguay, and the United States, all in the space of about ten minutes.
Our contact finally showed up, in the form of one Erdem Ergin, the World Bank's disaster risk management specialist in Port-au-Prince, of Turkish-Swiss origin, and an absolute whirlwind of energy. He and Tom went off to make one last stab at locating Tom's tent, while I waited with the rest of the luggage, and, in the process, had my first meeting with a native-born resident of Haiti, a man named Jean-Louis, who, within a minute of exchanging of pleasantries, noted that he was looking for work, handed me his CV, and solemnly told me to call his mobile if I needed help with anything at all. I took his CV and, with regret, promised nothing. Byenvenu nan Pòtoprens!
Erdem and Tom returned without Tom's bag, and, by the time the remaining luggage was loaded into the car, Erdem was already simultaneously K-turning his car into oncoming traffic to whisk us off to a meeting, and launching into an endlessly branching braindump on every subject conceivably related to the activities in Haiti in which the World Bank was immediately involved, and what our role in it all would be. Between the various Haitian government agencies and their UN counterparts, it became evident that we were in immediate risk of drowning in alphabet soup: CNIGS, CIAT, MTPTC, UNOPS, UNOSAT, PDNA, EC/JRC, OCHA, MINUSTAH, IDB, USAID. Eventually, Tom and I would have to meet with people from literally each one of these organizations, figure out what the hell they were up to, vis a vis creating and using geographic information, and then try to figure out how they could all work together. That was our mission, in a nutshell.
The key point in all this was that, as consultants to the World Bank, we would be specifically concerned with recovery and reconstruction efforts, and not concerned with humanitarian relief, as such. The World Bank is, well, a bank, and, when the time comes, its role will be to ensure the availability of money and resources for the affected parts of Haiti to rebuild. The focus of our mission in the interim was going to be towards facilitating technical collaboration between the various domestic and international agencies that would be involved in the immediate damage assessment. Also, we were to try to provide technical facilitation for the upcoming inter-agency Post-Disaster Needs Assessment, which, stripped to essentials, would be a gigantic grant proposal to the international community for Haiti's eventual reconstruction. Finally, to the greatest extent possible, we would try to develop plans with domestic agencies for helping them build technical capacity, to allow them to take on as much of the work as possible themselves.
The particular meeting for which we were, at this point, horribly late was with a representative from CIAT, le Commission Inter-ministeriale por l'Amanagement du Territoire, or the Inter-ministerial Land Management Commission, a reasonably new government coordination body with a suddenly very difficult road ahead. I'll spare a detailed description of the scenery along the drive to the meeting, because others have done more justice elsewhere than I can possibly. Put simply, a third of Port-au-Prince was rubble; there were tent villages basically everywhere; and the mass of people, heavy construction vehicles, and military vehicles in the streets made for a nightmare of traffic. Meanwhile, Erdem absolutely talked our ears off about the World Bank's efforts to coordinate the development of recovery plans for Haiti.
"You're very enthusiastic about the recovery work," I observed.
"I lost about thirty or maybe forty people that I knew in the quake," Erdem said, "That night, I was at the CNIGS office, helping to dig out two friends of mine with my bare hands, in the dark, and we got them out, but I heard later that one of them died. Yes, I'm enthusiastic."
The situation with CNIGS, the Haitian national mapping agency, was worse than I had originally understood. The senior staff of the agency was having a management meeting, when suddenly the building fell on them. They just happened to have had a computer lab set up across three trailers outside the building, in anticipation of a move to a new building financed by the European Commission -- now on hold indefinitely, since the quake -- otherwise, they'd have had absolutely nothing left for the remaining staff of 38 people to work with at all. One of our main objectives was going to be to solicit a detailed needs assessment from the members of CNIGS, and try to get the World Bank to find donors to get them them back on their feet and integrated with the recovery effort.
We finally arrived at our meeting with CIAT, and, after meeting a bewildering array of individuals, we sat down to talk with one of the commission's directors. I regret to confess that I remember almost nothing about our very first meeting in Port-au-Prince for the following two reasons: First off, Tom and I had by this point been on the move for about eight hours, having skipped breakfast, and having had nothing for lunch, beyond a couple Clif bars and a handful of dried fruit. Second, and more importantly, the entire meeting was conducted in French.
Oh, sure, I studied French in high school, and then took three semesters in college. I could get around Paris and Brussels and Lausanne and generally make myself understood, but it hadn't seriously occurred to me until then that this would be nothing compared to following, much less actively participating in, a technically detailed and very cautiously diplomatic discussion about the ways and means of land use planning in post-disaster economic recovery. I think between that, and a serious desire for a five-course lunch, I picked up about every sixth word. I felt like such an American.
God bless Tom, because, American or no, he had just then proved worth his weight in gold: On top of all of his other skills, Tom was not only following this interminably long and probably utterly necessary meeting, but he was also actively participating. Where, in Santo Domingo, my weakly superior Spanish had got us around town and negotiated successfully with taxi drivers and so on, Tom's facility with the French language was going to save our mission in Port-au-Prince.
I leaned back and rested my aching head on the wall behind me. I could tell it was going to be a long couple of weeks.
Fri, 12 Feb 2010
Wednesday was a comedy of errors. Not a tragedy, a comedy; but one of errors, all the same.
The night before, just as I was arriving at the lovely Hotel Barceló Lina in Santo Domingo, I got an email from my mission partner, Tom Buckley, who was supposed to be leaving around then from DC. The email said, simply, "I'm waiting on a flight from Pittsburgh to Miami." Wait, Pittsburgh?
I fell asleep and woke up to an email from Tom, sent at around 10pm, saying "I don't think I'm going to make it tonight...." and, then, finally, one last email, sent at 1am, saying "I'm here at the hotel, see you in the morning." *blink*
I let Tom sleep until about 9:30am, and then called his room to rouse him, so that we could head down to the World Bank office and find out how the heck we were supposed to get to Haiti, exactly. We met in the lobby. Tom had evidently packed very carefully, because he only had a single, smallish backpack. I was impressed.
"The airlines lost my luggage," he said simply. What had happened was this: As yet another massive snowstorm was bearing down on Washington on Tuesday night, and DCA was on point of closing, Tom had plead with the American Airlines staff to put him on any damn flight where they could find him a seat, anything, just to give him the proverbial snowball's chance to making it to Santo Domingo by dawn. Pittsburgh was evidently the best they could manage, so Tom flew from Washington to Pittsburgh, changed airlines for a flight to Miami, and arrived 15 minutes too late to make his connection to the DR -- except that, for whatever reason, the Miami-Santo Domingo flight was delayed by exactly that much. Tom ran for the flight, and made it to the DR by the skin of his teeth. His luggage, however, was another story.
One bright spot was that Tom had fetched us from Washington two shiny new Blackberry Storm 9700s, complete with SIMs and tethered data plans, courtesy of the World Bank. When Tom handed me the Blackberry, it felt like Arthur and the Lady of the Lake, or maybe more like Super Mario and the mushroom. By the power of Greyskull! (sound of trumpets)
We skipped breakfast and went straight to the World Bank office, where we arrived basically unannounced. We had neglected to get a specific contact there, so when we turned up, there was a bit of confusion on the part of the staff over who exactly were these hippie backpackers cluttering up their office entrance. Fortunately, we finally thought to recite the magic words "We're here on a mission" -- not wholly unlike the Blues Brothers' mantra -- and the receptionist, who was unfailingly sweet and helpful, directed us to Cairo Arevalo Arias, a
"We have you booked on the UN flight to Port-au-Prince at 10am tomorrow morning," Cairo said, which was a mixed blessing. Up until that point, we'd had no idea if we'd have to take an eight hour bus, or walk, or what. I was impatient to get there and get to work -- but Tom wasn't going to fare very well without his equally meticulously packed luggage, and, what's more, he still hadn't gotten any immunization shots, because of the weather in DC.
"We don't provide immunizations in Santo Domingo," Cairo said, and then added, "But we can call some clinics and see if they can help you today."
"If we're leaving tomorrow, where can we stay tonight?" I asked.
"Don't you have a hotel room?" he replied.
"Uh, no. We were only booked into the Barceló Lina for one night. We were told we'd be leaving for Port-au-Prince today."
"And all the hotels in Santo Domingo are booked," Cairo said. I could just imagine him reciting special
Around mid-day, Cairo informed us that he was headed out to lunch. I asked if he minded if we might join him, partly for the company, and partly to pump him for information about the situation on the ground in Haiti, because Tom and I still knew basically nothing. Cairo replied that he was having lunch with a friend. Oh? We didn't want to impose. No, no, he didn't mind.
It turned out that his lunch date destination was that bastion of traditional Dominican cuisine, Taco Bell. This was actually fine by us, because it represented some notional last shred of predictability, before we flung ourselves into the slavering jaws of an unknown fate. It also turned out that the lunch date itself was with a very soft-spoken young woman who smiled a lot and spoke absolutely no English, and she was very very nice about us hijacking her lunch date to talk about the situation in Port-au-Prince.
God bless him, Cairo did manage to find us rooms at the Hotel Embajador, and even escorted us to the clinic, where the brash New York Dominican doctor refused to give either of us more than two shots that day, for reasons of safety, which was funny to me, because the doctor I saw in New York didn't seem nearly as conscientious. The doctor's assistant gave Tom vaccinations for Hepatitis B and for seasonal influenza. She made me watch, because, given that there'd be no time to return the following morning, I was going to have to be the one to administer his Hep A shot. Worse yet, the vaccine had to be kept refrigerated somehow. The doctor also promised us antibiotics for traveller's diarrhea, which we almost left the clinic without, and malaria meds for Tom, which we did leave the clinic without.
Blessedly, Tom's luggage turned up, and was delivered to the office just before we left for the hotel. Of course, when we did leave the office for the hotel, we also left the Hep A vaccine in the fridge.
Mind you, I've left out about half of the petty dramas we encountered over the course of the day, and I mostly relate this inane narrative to give the flavor of what we were experiencing. Please don't get me wrong, if I could fill out a customer service card for the World Bank staff in Santo Domingo (and Cairo, in particular) I would rate them 5 stars in every category. Still, given all the chaos, I'd had the distinct and unerring feeling that no one had ever before tried to do what we were attempting, as if aid workers hadn't been streaming through Santo Domingo all month.
I guess Tom had been sort of thinking along similar lines. Earlier, on the way back from the clinic, he'd asked Cairo very pointedly, "What were the logistics like here in Santo Domingo immediately after the earthquake in Haiti?"
"Very confusing," said Cairo, "Very confusing."
"I can well imagine," I said absentmindedly, and then immediately regretted it.
"No," Cairo said flatly, "You can't."
Wed, 10 Feb 2010
Since mid-January, we've seen a whole set of interlocking technical communities swung into gear to piece together geographic information to help relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti: OpenStreetMap, Ushahidi, CrisisMappers, and so on. The most amazing thing to me about this global response to the disaster is the degree to which volunteers have been able to make a significant impact on the relief situation while sitting at their own desks, thousands of miles away. OpenStreetMap, particularly, has been a model of distributed collaboration, with basically no one calling the shots, while a thousand people painstakingly build a map database of Haiti drawn from aerial and satellite imagery that's so detailed that the Ushahidi volunteers have to ask for a simpler version.
So, given how much so many have accomplished without even being there, I was a little surprised when Andrew Turner pinged me on Monday 1 February, to asked if I was willing to go to Haiti on Wednesday. The World Bank was looking for technical GIS professionals, ideally French-speaking, to go and advise the government, he said, and he'd recommended me for the mission. Really? Thanks. I can sort of speak French. Sure, why not?
Actually, my girlfriend and my family had quite a few pretty good reasons why not. You're walking into a disaster zone. Where are you staying? What will you do? How will you get food and water? Will you be safe? You might get hurt. You might go mad. You might regret going. Are you kidding? This is a chance to serve, on the ground, in a humanitarian relief mission. I can't not go. May God bless all my loved ones; when they saw I was determined to go, they became nothing but supportive.
The thing was, it wasn't clear at all that I would in fact be going to Haiti. Wednesday came and went with no particular answers to any of my questions. Poor Andrew must have fielded several emails, IMs, and calls from me over those couple days, pressing him urgently for the slightest detail. Finally, on Thursday, I got a call from Stuart Gill, Andrew's contact at the World Bank.
The Centre National de l'Information Géo-Spatiale, or CNIGS, Stuart explained, is Haiti's national mapping bureau. They have a staff of about 30-40 people, and an office that emerged relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, their senior management perished in the disaster, and, due to budget constraints, much of the geographic data they have to work with dates back six or eight years.
I would go to Port-au-Prince with Tom Buckley, a colleague of Andrew's, bringing with us a portable hard drive prepared by Andrew et al. containing a terabyte of up-to-date geographic data. Tom and I would visit the CNIGS in Port-au-Prince, and find out what they needed in order to best serve the other government ministries in the process of relief and reconstruction. Meanwhile, we would provide whatever technical services the World Bank staff in Port-au-Prince might happen to need. The Bank would provide us with mobile phones with tethering capability for network access. We would come to the Bank's office in DC on Monday 9 February for a briefing and immunization shots, and then we'd fly to the Dominican Republic first thing Tuesday.
"You should be aware of the situation you're walking into," Stuart said, "Another earthquake could happen, and we might not be able to get you out right away. After the first earthquake, our building was destroyed, and the staff wound up camping on the lawn for two days without food or water." Right, got it. Later that day, Stuart sent a cryptically brief email: Bring a tent, if you can. Oh, man.
Meanwhile, I somewhat optimistically went shopping. How do you pack to visit a disaster area? I figured, God help me, it had to be like packing for a camping trip. Shelter, bedding, clothes, food, water, first aid and meds. Everything has to be packed in a way that it can be carried a longish walking distance. My father talked me out of trying to bring enough MREs for two weeks; bring just enough food to get you home, he insisted, in case you have to leave in a hurry. Lauren talked me into bringing an air mattress. I balked at the weight, but she rightly pointed out that the pain of carrying it was going to be nothing compared to the pain of sleeping on or near the ground for two weeks. Meanwhile, I started to suffer pangs of guilt over buying, say, new hiking shoes, while people in Port-au-Prince were scrambling to find food, but what was I to do? If I didn't come properly outfitted, I wasn't going to be of any use to anyone.
My packing list wound up looking more or less like this:
A shoulder bag, never to leave said shoulder, per Lauren's suggestion, containing:
Attached to the outside of the shoulder bag:
A large duffle bag, containing:
The duffle bag also contains a toiletry bag which contains:
Surprisingly enough, the whole thing weighs maybe 40 pounds. The shoulder bag is small and convenient and I almost don't notice carrying it, even with the netbook in. Props go to Lauren, for talking me out of trying to pack everything, including the tent, into the duffle; and to my housemate, Cristina, for letting me borrow her large duffle bag, when it transpired that mine had a gigantic hole in the bottom.
While all this was happening, disaster nearly struck, not in Haiti, but in Washington, DC, which got hit by two plus feet of snow on Friday, shutting down the World Bank, just as Stuart and his colleagues were supposed to be making the final administrative arrangements to send us out. Suddenly, all was thrown into chaos. On Monday morning, the Bank's offices were still closed, and Stuart called to say that the earliest they could send us out was Thursday. Then, a couple of hours later, an email saying "Nevermind, we'll just fly you directly to Santo Domingo tomorrow morning, find a travel clinic and get your shots."
So I ran out and got jabs for typhoid, hepatitis A & B, and, just for good measure, H1N1, along with prescriptions for Cipro and for Malarone, a malaria preventative that apparently does not induce psychosis. Wonderful. Meanwhile, a travel agent called to say I'd be flying out of JFK the following morning. I almost couldn't sleep that night. I kept thinking about Alan Shepard in The Right Stuff, waiting in the capsule on top of the Atlas missile, saying to himself "Dear God, please don't let me fuck up..."
The flight to Santo Domingo itself was painless. The Bank put us up in the Barceló Lina, a very nice hotel in the middle of town; nice of them, I suppose, to offer a little bit of comfort before sending us into a disaster zone. A cab ride ride from the airport costs $40 and takes almost an hour. The cab driver asked me what I was doing in the Dominican Republic, and when I told him, he said (and I paraphrase), "Ay, la Republica Dominicana tiene la buena suerte; Haiti tiene la suerte muy muy mala." Indeed.
Items of Local Interest
Items of Recent Interest