a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle

Wed, 10 Feb 2010

[08:43] On walking into a disaster zone

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:

  • notebook
  • 2 pens
  • passport
  • cash and a credit card
  • prescription meds
  • clip-on sunglasses
  • iodine tablets (for water purification)
  • insect repellant (carry-on size)
  • hand sanitizer (ditto)
  • sunblock (ditto)
  • toothpaste (ditto)
  • toothbrush
  • dental floss
  • earplugs
  • eyeshade
  • 2 USB flash drives
  • USB Bluetooth adapter
  • mini-to-USB cable
  • Acer Aspire One netbook
  • power adapter for same
  • earbud headphones
  • mobile phone and/or GPS
  • the most recent issue of the Economist

Attached to the outside of the shoulder bag:

  • Canon PowerShot digital camera (in pouch)
  • 1 liter steel water bottle
  • LED headlamp
  • travel pillow

A large duffle bag, containing:

  • 4 light button-down shirts
  • 4 pair trousers
  • 4 pair undergarments, top and bottom
  • 4 pair lightweight hiking socks
  • sun hat
  • camp towel
  • wash cloth
  • additional pillow case (to stuff with clothing, basically)
  • Garmin Geko 301 GPS receiver
  • Canon PowerShot battery charger
  • backup LED flashlight
  • 4 MREs
  • 24 Clif bars (for managing hypoglycemia)
  • 4 packs of Orbit chewing gum
  • "2 person" tent
  • air mattress
  • battery powered pump (I wanted a foot pump, but they weigh basically the same)

The duffle bag also contains a toiletry bag which contains:

  • plastic case containing bandages and disinfectant wipes
  • three tubes of generic Airborne. Emergen-C would work too.
  • backup prescription meds
  • backup toothpaste
  • backup sunscreen
  • neosporin
  • ibuprofen
  • claritin
  • immodium
  • bar of Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap in plastic case
  • 1/2 oz. tube of deodorant stick

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.

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