a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle

Sat, 13 Feb 2010

[22:25] Byenvenu nan Pòtoprens!

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.

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Previously

Before That
[2010] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2009] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2006] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2005] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
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[2004] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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[2003] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2002] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec

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