Two Fridays ago I returned from Haiti, where ShelterBox, the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for, is helping the nation to recover from Hurricane Matthew.
As always, there are many different things I saw and people I met that left me feeling richer and better rounded, but I want to take some time and space today to reflect on something that sometimes gets overlooked in our normal understanding of relief efforts.
So let’s picture what people think of when they think of disaster relief: Food. Medicine. Shelter. Yes. All good, necessary things. But what happens in the immediate days after a disaster? Depending on where you live, you’ve probably encountered a sign like this somewhere in your neighborhood:
Where do you usually see them? Civic buildings, generally: Stadiums, churches, sometimes–and schools. Schools are well-built; it’s the place to which parents will naturally turn if a natural disaster strikes during school hours, since they’ll want to see if their kids are okay.
But quite often, places of education get turned into shelters that may serve a population for weeks on end if families have no place to turn.
When we arrived in Haiti, a few days after Hurricane Matthew came through, schools had already been pressed into service. One chalkboard I saw had its last lesson on it, from September 28. When we left Les Cayes, there was no news as to when schools could go back into service.
The problem is, when schools are housing families, serving as places to stay safe and out of the elements, they can’t be used for their original purposes. In the Haitian earthquake of 2010, schools only started to reopen after a few months. And in Malawi, where I was last year, even after schools opened to regular classes, classrooms were still serving as shelters, so families had no place to go during the day, while school was in session; and school staff and communities had to work every morning and every afternoon to effect the change from classroom to shelter and back again.
The effect of natural disaster on a society goes far beyond the more acute needs of food, medicine, and shelter. It’s one of the reasons aid agencies like ours work so hard to get families back onto their home sites, so life can go on.
For more of our work in Haiti and worldwide, visit ShelterBoxUSA.org. And for more detailed information on what effects disaster can have on education, see this paper from the Brookings Institute.
Ricardo Pierre isn’t someone I’m likely to ever encounter again. I’ve only ever spent a couple of weeks in his company. I only have a few decent photos of him, and I had to poach one of those from someone else.
And yet, I’d trust him with my life. I know this because I did have to trust him with my life.
Ricardo has been one of our most consistent drivers and bodyguards in ShelterBox‘s nine months so far in Port-au-Prince. We hired him from the French Red Cross and just never gave him back. He is former detail for President Aristide, a father, a recreational boxer, a husband and the father to two boys. He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met. He is one year into law school and a damned fine electrician. Ricardo is also responsible for the caretaking of his elderly father and his younger sister.
On my last day in Haiti as team lead, I sat in the front seat of our car with Ricardo at U.N. logistics base, counting cash to pass on to the next team lead. Ricardo would have to keep the cash on him until the next lead could fly in, two days later.
I pulled my stash from various places in my pack and on my body, and counted out several thousand dollars. I handed each hundred to Ricardo to double-check the math, counted it all one last time, and stuffed two envelopes with it, so that Ricardo could carry it around better, more safely.
It wasn’t until Ricardo had both envelopes stuffed into his front pockets that I felt as if my tour was finally done, and then I thought about the curiosity of trusting someone you barely know with thousands of someone else’s dollars.
And then I reflected, briefly, on how absurd a world I was operating in at the moment: money was the smallest, least valuable thing I had trusted Ricardo with over the weeks I’d known him. When Ricardo said, “It’s not safe to go there today,” we trusted him. When Ricardo said he’d be back at the Deck (the bar and grill) to pick up me and my teammate no matter how late we stayed out celebrating a logistics partner’s birthday, we trusted him.
When he told us we were safe, I believed him. When he told us we needed to make a quick exit, we did it. When he stood by my shoulder and told me quietly to keep a sharp eye on the woman to my right, I did it, but I did it knowing that he was keeping an equally sharp eye on her–and the sketchy-looking blokes to my left. And when we needed him to run interference, I didn’t even need to think about it. He just did it.
Each day he told us he’d be by to pick us up, I trusted him. Each day we needed someone to back us up doing tent demonstrations, I trusted him to pass along the information accurately, and I could trust that after nine months in the field with our boxes, he knew the kit as well as anyone.
Finally, the day we took him and his family to an all-inclusive beach for a rare day off, when he looked at me and my teammate and told us how much it meant to them that he felt truly a part of the ShelterBox family, I believed it. Later that day, we all sang a noisy “Happy Birthday” in French to my brother over the phone, thousands of miles away in Los Angeles.
Each day we needed him to be a member of our team, he came through. It’s why he’ll always be a guardian in my book–and why, when I go to look for someone like Ricardo on my next deployment, I’ll be looking for these same qualities.
I should say that they were qualities that are present in the three drivers that we counted on the most there. They were all men who, when shown that they were expected to become a part of our team, took to that role as naturally as could be expected.
I should also say that working with these men hammered home a critical point for me: You get the most out of trust when you give it as freely as you’re capable of giving it. In this area more than others, the rewards are boundless. I’m not saying that you need to trust everyone around you with your life. I’m saying that there are a few who are worthy, and that you should return the favor when you can, whether someone trusts you with a secret, some insight, or something as small as a couple bucks. These things are weightier than we know.
Here’s a list of the things that comprise everyday life in Haiti:
1. Phone calls from one Thermador Viragot: “Hello, Thermador. How are you? No, I still don’t have mattresses. We do tents. TENTS, Thermador. What? Okay, fine. Talk to you tomorrow, but I still won’t have mattresses.”
2. Misting fans at The Deck on the MINUSTAH base.
3. Helicopters as the daily backdrop to breakfast and lunch if we’re eating at The Deck.
4. Wild goose chases: One day we were sent to Customs HQ, DHL, our warehouse, and Petionville, only to be told at all four places that we didn’t need to be there anymore. This is normal.
5. Seeing lovely ShelterBox tents wherever we go and feeling proud that they are still standing after 7 months when everything else has gone to poo.
6. Communiques with press.
7. Trying to manage social media for a business in Philadelphia first thing in the morning, when my head and heart are 900 miles away.
8. Electricity outages.
9. Beer and rum each night.
10. Debrief and review of day (see #9, above)
It’s time for me to go home. I’m tired and cranky and I need to be around people I love, who can smooth down the ragged edges that have become a part of my makeup here.
No, not really. There were some beautiful things going on in Haiti, though, and I think I’ll just post them here. There’s a lot going on here in our little household, not the least of which is the fact that, while I was gone in Haiti, my registration form for the MFA program I got accepted into was due. Oops. I think they’ll let me slip by; they’ve also generously given me a scholarship, so I’m hoping that they’ll excuse the fact that I was gone for a good reason.
I have some other thoughts about Haiti. I will post them tomorrow, if I haven’t ripped out unseemly clumps of my hair in one or two stressful movements.
Almost every wall in Haiti is painted in some way, shape, or form. Much of it is made for advertisements sake (more on that later) but this was on the side of a voudou church in Leogane. I thought it was beautiful, and although I don’t quite understand the connection between voudou and Christianity, I found this a beautiful example of native artwork.
I also found this eagle in Leogane, not far from a bar we went to called Masaye. I don’t know what it was for, but I liked the fierceness of the eagle and the aggressive way the wing and tail feathers are spread. I especially like the remnants of the lettering around the eagle.
One of the most beautiful things about Haiti is its coastline. Aside from the gorgeous beaches both sandy and rocky, the water is this deep, deep blue. From the sky you could see a boat that had been sunk. Its ribs were clearly visible and its mast stuck out of the water. I missed that photo. So you’ll have to settle for this one.
I was lucky enough to catch this girl on her mobile phone in front of a partly demolished National Palace. Aside from the fact that the palace itself is beautiful, I found everything about this particular composition to be interesting.
This is the Marron Inconnu, the tomb of the Unknown Slave. It was commissioned to commemorate the years that Haiti’s past as a slave nation, and future as the first black republic. Do you see the stuff behind it around it? Le Marron Inconnu sits in the midst of a shantytown, and an old woman lives underneath him now, having lost her home in an earthquake. Yes, my knees went wobbly when I realized, when she popped out to ask for help while I was pointing with my idiotic camera.
Oh. This is the National Palace without the bars and bits in front. With crane and big U.N. truck in front.
Open suitcase. Child’s toy. Rubble. ‘Nuff said.
I said before that everything is art here. It’s true, but I don’t think, based on these paintings, that I’d want to get my hair done here. Or my dentistry. Or any plastic surgery.
All of the public buses here are painted by hand. They are beautiful. This one happens to have an airplane hanging off the side of it.
Finally, there were a number of wooden buildings that were still standing. I thought this ornate Victorian-like building to be absolutely gorgeous.
Tomorrow, some more coherent thoughts, I hope. For tonight, I hope that these photos convey, somewhat, just how beautiful Haiti is. I thought it was, anyway.
ShelterBox deployments are funny. You might talk to your team lead once or twice before you arrive at your destination, but really, you don’t have any idea who the rest of your teammates are or what they’re like unless you’ve deployed with them before. Fortunately, you know a little bit about who they are already. You know that they went through the same training you did, so you have at least that in common.
I was very lucky. On this deployment, I had quite a few friends. John and Bill and I had done our 3-day courses together, and I’d done my 9-day with John. I’d deployed once before with Phil. When Bill rotated out, my friend Nicola, with whom I’d done the 9-day, rotated in from her post as logistics coordinator in Santo Domingo. With her came our team lead, Jens, who had such a mop of hair that he went quickly from being “Fearless” (my moniker) to “Phyllis” (Nic’s apt modification). I arrived as a fifth wheel, between rotations, and quickly became Mutty, the stray dog, following folks around and filling in where needed (and, obviously, yammering and yapping). When Steven rotated in mid-way through my trip to Leogane, he discovered my newly acquired taste for Malta H, and I became Malta Mutty. Steven himself will always be The Cabana Boy, mostly because he kindly undertook the task of washing Nic’s skivvies.
But all of that is the nice part of camp life.
I arrived at noon on a muggy and lazy Easter Sunday, and, after a small miscommunique, got picked up by John, Bill, and Phil (“Billip!”) at the airport. I got there expecting to be accosted on all sides by folks wanting something from me, but I didn’t expect the random guy who pointed at the logo on my shirt and said, “ShelterBox. Does good things for Haiti. Gives a lot.” It was a nice way to start the trip.
We went to a very long lunch and I got marginally briefed on the situation, and then the team drove me around town to get my bearings. Camp was due east of the main airport.
Fearless was on a much-needed break in SD with his girlfriend. Dinner that night and almost every night was at The Deck, on the Ministry of the UN in Haiti’s logistics base. Predictable and good, and I spotted this on the wall.
The following days were pretty good, and busy. I was John’s partner for awhile, and it was great to have someone who takes such meticulous notes fill me in on the situation. We were so busy taking a good hard look at sites and ensuring they were ready for tent occupation (a population truly in need of shelter; good community leadership; adequate planning for decent water and sanitation; clear sites for tents) that the days flew by. Often, John and I didn’t have time for lunch. We ate ration packs between sites and visits to our angel of a warehouse, the awesome space called Cluster 1 by everyone else and called Mathilda’s house by me. Mathilda works for an organization called Handicap International, and she is the queen of organization. She keeps meticulous track of all of our stuff and helps all that she can to distribute and ensure that our stuff makes it safely from airport warehouse to Cluster 1 warehouse and out again to our partners in a truly expeditious fashion. She and her staff are amazing.
I spent part of day 3 with Fearless, mucking around trying to figure out customs and get our stuff delivered and loaded, and I think, before I realized it, I was feeling a little bit like an old hand and slipping back quite easily into my French. We saw a lot of destruction, and a lot of good stuff, too, by the end of my first week:
Among my favorites, though, was this little place:
We were alerted to Eden Village early in the week, and John had fielded the call to go out and take a look at the place. When we got there, it was covered in temporary shelters and not nearly ready for tents, but we were able to get the message across in the next few days, and, with new teammate Mark Butcher, we were able to set them up with four tents on Sunday, the one-week mark of my deployment. By the time I returned after a week-long sojourn to Leogane, Eden’s residents and their charismatic leader, Pierre, who really did bloom as a leader right in front of our eyes, had swelled to house most of the 150 families living there in tents donated by ShelterBox. It was a really good thing to watch them grow. I got to go back to see them either Monday or Tuesday (I can’t remember now), and it was great to see Pierre–he’d changed so much, even in the short week I’d been gone. Funny what leadership does to a body.
I was shipped off to Leogane with Phil 2 on Monday morning, and we met a lot of great people and cemented some good partnerships. One of my absolute favorites is with a group called Hands On Disaster Response. This group invites volunteers tow work in disasters all around the world. While I was there I met people from all over. Two of my favorites are Ashley and Simon.
We teamed up with Hands On to distribute and build 79 tents that were being given on a provisional basis to the congregation of a small parish (Pastor Septimus!) in Gressier, a small town between Leogane and Port-au-Prince. (Provisional just means that if all of the tents were up and erected in a short period after they were distributed, the pastor would get enough to help the rest of his congregation, the people who had been designated as not among the most needy, but still in need of help.) The volunteers were incredible. Hands On collated all of the information taken down by the Pastor (how many in his congregation needed help; what priority they were based on how vulnerable; the numbers of people in their families, so on), and then they provided the volunteers to go out into the parish and help to distribute the tents.
Simon and I had a particularly bad start to the day: After setting up a few tents (23 of the 79 were going to be set u on church grounds), he, Phil, Ashley and I went out to go get snacks for the volunteers. Eventually left to ourselves, Simon and I got fleeced by some vendors and stalked back to the church grounds, feeling cranky, Simon giving apt voice to my foul mood by muttering eff-bombs and worse in his strong Scottish brogue. Later in the day, though, as we got near the end of our day and put up and distributed the last of the tents, Simon found me and flung an arm over my shoulders. “I tell you what, mate, this is the best thing I’ve experienced so far,” he said, grinning big. He noted that he’d been thanked profusely by so many people. Providing a tangible good has so much to do with how much good a volunteer can feel like he’s doing. For this I’ll always be grateful.
The ride back to Hands On’s compound, with over 20 of us hanging off the back of a tap tap (one of Haiti’s home-made public buses), was hairy, but Ashley took both hands off the railing and lit a cigarette. Leave it to a girl from Halifax to look glam even at her grubbiest.
The Hands On compound, by the way, neighbored some open land. On the open land live a deranged bunch of 20 or roosters. How do I know they are deranged? I know this because they somehow found fit to start crowing, all together, at around 2:30 in the morning. They continued until around 4:30, when a late-comer to the party realized that he was missing out and decided to go bigger and louder than all the others. This sickness went on every night. I don’t know how the Hands On guys did it, but our first night there may account for the reason that Chris (with us for one night) looks like he’s about to shoot something here, and not with his camera.
Anyway, here’s a nice photo of the sun rising over Hands On. We think the building was meant to be a nightclub before the quake hit. The bar next door survived, though.
Phil and I stayed on in Leogane for the week, meeting with ACTED and staying on for four nights. If I thought life in the ACTED compound would be an any easier (“We have roosters,” they said, “but they don’t go off until 5:30 in the morning.”), I was sadly mistaken. There were five roosters for four hens. They are in the yard. Imagine having a rooster crowing in your ear at 5AM, because they are right outside your tent. Mmmhmmm. Lovely.
Here are the roosters. They are the reason I will never again pass up the chance to eat capon.
We also visited the lovely Camp Laska, which is the tent city that I hope all tent cities become. It’s sponsored by Bridge 2 Haiti with help from us. People here have made their camps into real homes here.
In some cases, a tent will do as a garage for some valuable equipment.
If you’re wondering why there are so many different types of ShelterBox tents in this camp, it’s because we are really clearing out our stock on this deployment. We’re doing everything we can to get people housed.
We also met with some kind folks who had emptied their bank accounts to come to Haiti to help. They’ve done a remarkable amount in a very short period of time. Melanie and Josh took us on a tour of some of the areas that they’ve marked.
In our time in Leogane we also worked with Terre des Hommes, a group looking primarily after the needs and risks of children. We also went into the mountains to ensure that the work we’d done distributing to Pastor Septimus’ group was being followed up on. It was on this day that we got a glimpse of the real Haiti outside of cities and Port-au-Prince.
I remember driving by a particularly good stretch of ocean on our first day with Hands On, and remarking ont he beauty of the scenery. Berlin, one of Hands On’s Creole translators, said, grinning to beat the sun, “Of course it’s beautiful! This is Haiti!”
On that note, I’ll end by saying that my last few days in Haiti were taken up with customs, customs, and lots of loading of tents. My last day was remarkably busy and very very annoying. But it looks like I’m still smiling here.
Also, here’s what we got to see every night from our tent office. Not bad, as far as offices go:
And now it’s almost the end of the January. It’s been a remarkably busy few weeks. While I’ve been gone from these pages, I’ve been very busy taking care of a little project I’m so proud of. Most of you have already heard me speak about this, but I’ll say it again: I think ShelterBox is the best thing that ever happened to me. Well, aside from Jim and Sprocket, anyway. And my friends. And, um, being born and stuff.
I was telling my brother, in somewhat of a dazed state after a ton of activity, that I finally understood what it meant to him that he was a Peace Corps volunteer. No matter what happens, no one can take that away from him. He walks taller because of it. When I am wearing the ShelterBox shirt or pin, I walk taller. I know that.
These past few days have been incredibly taxing. We’re literally in the middle of a huge earthquake that I think did even more damage than the 7.6-magnitude earthquake that leveled Taiwan. Haiti, which had no real infrastructure to begin with, is buried in rubble. ShelterBox is there helping, and we’ve got a ton of attention now because of it. Because our goods are so tangible and so easily trackable—do you see a big green box here? Yes? Well, that’s your money, at work—CNN is following a big shipment from Newquay until they get to their destination in Haiti. It’s my hope that they’ll follow the shipment until it gets delivered into the hands of the Haitians. Our tents are now being used as medical tents in a makeshift hospital, so that amputations and treatment can be carried out in more sanitary conditions than they have been previously.
It’s incredible, how fast we mobilized. As a result, I am completely knackered. Here’s the schedule since the earthquake happened:
Tuesday evening. Earthquake happens while I’m at a meeting with Adam Stone, publisher for the Examiner newspapers, for whom I’m doing some copy-editing.
Wednesday. I spend all morning and the early afternoon organizing efforts to get ShelterBox top of mind with Rotarians and tweeting about our efforts, just in case anyone else is watching. My girls at Rotaract of the UN spend some time organizing a fast happy hour, to take place on Monday. I send a quick note to a buddy at Pepsi who knows some folks who live in the city who might go to the fundraiser. I go out Wednesday night and drink too much, feeling a lot of pressure and not believing that such a horrible thing could happen to such a defenseless country. I get a note back from my buddy saying that his Haitian friends at Pepsi have taken an interest. The thing begins to take form.
Thursday. Our teams arrive at Port-au-Prince. I wake up hungover to an e-mail from Pepsi asking if I’m available for the next week to demonstrate the box at Pepsi headquarters. Jim calls to tell me that it’s actually going to be a whole week-long promotion, with bake sales, raffles, and presentations. I go to do a taping for the middle-school kids across the street. I get home to urgent requests for a conference, a phone conference at least, the next day, to arrange all the details for this promotion.
Friday. Conference at Pepsi. Interview for the Examiner’s Business of the Week feature. I get notice that the Westchester Tweetup Group is planning on making the following Thursday’s Tweetup a benefit for ShelterBox. I get a lot misty at the thought of so many people rallying around. I finish up my personal statement for an MFA application and send it in. One step closer to being done. I also file my story.
Saturday. I wake up to a tweet from a local green enthusiast who does cooking demonstrations with local ingredients at the Katonah Farmer’s Market. She wants to make one of her demonstrations a benefit for ShelterBox. We agree on the following week. I spend the rest of the day editing The Examiner. Jim and I head to a friend’s house in New Jersey for the evening—some good conversation and much-needed decompression occurs, although, as we’re walking the dogs on the beach, I’m taking phone calls, trying to arrange coverage for the Farmer’s Market.
Sunday. I can’t remember Sunday. At all. I only remember that Jim and I went to Aileen’s for BACON EXPLOSION. Have you ever had bacon explosion? It is a veghead’s nightmare. For me, pudgy little post-Ironman me, it’s not so good, but it was OH SO GOOD. Anyway. Oh, right, I also did a lot of editing on Sunday.
Monday. More editing. And a happy hour. Some long-lost friends came out. I was all verklempt to see such support. And really happy to hear that we’d raised enough money for a whole box. Awesome. All that from a $10 open bar and passing the bucket. Fricken awesome. We go to a sushi dinner with friends to celebrate.
Tuesday. Big, big day at Pepsi. People were in awe. I was in awe, as I am every time I unpack the tent. Probably the crowning achievement was hearing the cafeteria manager say that she and her crew were taking up collections to help Haiti and that we were going to be it for them. The chef came out. I almost cried.
Wednesday. Big day at Pepsi R&D headquarters. Full presentation this time. Awesome to hear all the questions; great to see peoples’ faces again as they saw the tent. They did a raffle. The company matched. We had donations from $10 to $750 that day. I almost cried, again. I went home and struggled to pack and work on my critical essay. But I’ve been very disjointed lately.
Thursday. I’m away from my desk, of course, but still tied up in ShelterBox stuff. I have a feeling I’ll be tied up in it for quite some time, don’t you?