Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Leogane looks like

I'm finishing writing my thoughts on what 30 days in Leogane have been like. While I'm waiting to get that published here are some pictures of what you might see if you were to walk around the city.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Day 23: Water Survey Complete!

Today was a milestone. For the past two weeks I've been working on GPS mapping the municipal water system in the Leogane region and I finished the last leg of it this afternoon. The significance of this is that prior to HODR's involvement, no formal map, blueprint, sketch, etc existed for the water system.

I can leave Haiti knowing that I played a very small role in turning the water back on in a region inhabited by tens of thousands of people. My work was only a first step; last week HODR had a very promising meeting with a government water official about securing funds for the rehabilitation of the system, and in the coming weeks our volunteers will be providing some of the labor for digging up the damaged parts of the system and beginning the flushing and testing processes.

We have another meeting later this week on how and where we are going to start and I will update accordingly.

For the rest of the week I plan on getting my hands dirty clearing rubble from collapsed houses.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Day 20: Jacmel

Yesterday some volunteers including myself organized a day trip to the port town of Jacmel on Haiti's southern coast. If Haiti has any conventional tourism destinations, Jacmel comes fairly close with its original 19th Century architecture, thriving art community, and beautiful beaches. We hired a tap-tap for $10 USD per person to take us on the 2 hour long journey over the mountains.

Junior, our tap-tap driver drove us right up to the main beach in Jacmel, also landing us in the center of an art exhibition that was set up for the previous day's First of May festival, both a Haitian holiday and the day Jacmel was founded. I was told by a few locals that this festival is second only to the February Carnivale, but since Carnivale was cancelled this year
in lieu of the disaster this was Jacmel's first "grand fete" since the quake.

The exhibition was filled with painters, sculptors and the occasional author selling their creations, matched by a slew of vendors selling typical souvenirs such as bracelets, necklaces, t-shirts and sunglasses. Most of the paintings, while done by different artists were painted in a similar fashion; Jacmel seems to have its own "school" of art. Also for sale were paintings with symbols used by the original Taino people who inhabited this island before Europeans and Africans arrived.

A local who asked us to call him "Michael," offered to guide us to a white sand beach down the road. On the way we passed a cemetery that was large enough to occupy my entire field of vision. With its vast expanse of mausoleums it sort of reminded me of the Haitian version of Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery. If I get the chance to go to Jacmel again I'd like a chance to get a better look at these beautifully constructed mausoleums.

As we arrived at the little cove filled with white sand, I nearly forgot that just a few hundred yards away were homes reduced to piles of rubble by the earthquake. Being farther away from the epicenter, Jacmel didn't appear to have as much devastation as Leogane but this city has still obviously suffered greatly like all areas affected. That being said, having a few hours to plant myself down on a beach towel and lose myself in the landscape was a welcome repose.

After spending a few hours on the beach our appetites began to kick in. The Lonely Planet Guide mentioned a few sit down restaurants in the area. I was pretty disappointed to find out that the one supposedly serving pizza, Eritaje, was closed, but we managed to find another place down the road where we could sit and enjoy a traditional Haitian meal. The menu here had been abridged; we were told that the only choices available were chicken, beef or fish and definitely not the burger that first caught my eye. There had been some sort of political uprising earlier in the week over a lack of food in the area, which might explain the shortened menu and closed restaurants.

The Nineteeth Century architecture was a beautiful thing to behold. According to Lonely Planet, the town of Jacmel was at one time a prosperous coffee trading port, the first to have potable water, telephones, and electricity. European style buildings are scattered throughout the town, although some have fallen into disrepair; its difficult to tell whether from the earthquake or the passage of time.

We planned on meeting near the central beach for a 5:00pm departure in order to get back to Leogane before dark (especially since there are no street lights in Haiti). Long distance tap-tap rides are always an adrenaline rush, but I think our driver was in more of a hurry to get back before dark than we were, taking some fast turns that pushed his small Toyota truck to its limits. I apparently had the best seat in the house, sitting closest to the back (and the quick-moving asphalt). About a half-hour out from Leogane we got to experience the kick-off of Haiti's wet season. The wind and rain was blowing with force, with the fronds of palm trees all to one side in typical Weather Channel stock hurricane footage fashion.

We all made it back safe with a new appreciation for American seatbelt laws. For anyone doing relief work in Southwestern Haiti, Jacmel is an appropriate way to take a day off and experience some of the country's rich cultural heritage.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Day 17: Water System Update

This is an update to an earlier post about the work I'm doing for the region's water systems

It's been a long, hot week, half spent walking the far reaches of Leogane's water system and the other half making sense of the findings on the HODR office computers. After many hours spent plotting data in Google Maps and co-writing the proposal to get the pipes flowing again we had our meeting earlier this evening with Albun, an employee of the Government of Haiti water department DINEPA.

The town plumber Homer joined us for our 5:00pm meeting and we presented our 13 page report on what can be done to fix the system. Our original plan called for the installation of ten potable water tanks placed around the city that would be filled from float valves on the repaired water system. This seemed to make the most sense to us since a lot of people aren't living in houses connected to the system but they still require water. Albun ended up asking us for a simpler solution since repairing the whole system is a long term goal. What he wants is for us to investigate how get water flowing to the first few working valves in the system as a starting point.

As a result, I will be spending this Saturday gathering data on the two other village reservoirs serviced by the same pump as the Leogane reservoir. The goal of this weekend will be to figure out what short-term equipment can be purchased to get water flowing to the starting points of all three towns. Albun said his organization is able to immediately provide the funding for this equipment. Homer should be able to identify for us what needs to be purchased and from where. Most likely HODR volunteers with their various expertises will be involved in the actual digging and installation of these components.

I've heard horror stories about meetings with government officials from any country, but I have nothing but great news to report from today!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Day 14: Two Weeks

Today marks me being here at the HODR base in Leogane, Haiti for a total of two weeks. It's been interesting to look back on this blog and reflect upon how things were when I first got here and how things are now.

It's almost strange how comfortable I've become living in a developing country, let alone one that just experienced a huge disaster. Things like houses which have been reduced to piles of rubble, burning heaps of trash, wild dogs, and people bathing in the street would normally have drawn my attention but now they are everyday occurences. Just as someone living in an American city becomes accustomed to sleeping through the nightly hustle and bustle , the chorus of animals (especially roosters!) that sound off here are barely background noise to my snoring.

Going to the market, while always an interesting experience is no longer a sensational one...basically just a way to buy some eggs or fruit (Although passing through I still draw quite a bit of interest from the locals). An evening walk down the street with some friends to buy a drink from a local with a cooler is hardly an intimadating experience, but when I first arrived I had no idea what the night held.

The HODR base has become a home for me. I eat 3 meals a day, mostly consisting of rice and beans but the people I share these meals with are some of the most interesting I've ever had the fortune of coming across. At the end of each day I come back to base after a hard days work to a cold-bucket shower and a tent with an air mattress but after a hard day's work in the heat it feels like a Ritz-Carlton.

Paul Clammer, who wrote the Lonely Planet Guide to Haiti said that HODR is "an organization where good ideas naturally float to the top" and I could not find a better phrase to describe this place. Almost everyone here involves themselves in the major project of clearing rubble to move Haitians back into their homes, however we have a great deal of flexibility to get involved with other projects that can benefit from our individual skills and insight. For example, one day I found that I might be useful to the Water Survey Project since I could both operate the survey computer and make use of my French language skills. I am now going to be able to see this project through its beginning stages.

One thing that remains consistent is my amazement at the Haitian people. After all the hardship they have experienced, so many of them remain incredibly positive, upbeat and authentically gracious for the work we are doing here. We hear about the occasional unfortunate incidents from UN security updates, but nearly every Haitian I've encountered has been nothing but hospitable to me as a guest in their country.

Its been an amazing two weeks and I can't wait to see what the next two have in store.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Day 12: Mapping the Water System

One of the projects I have been working on here besides moving rubble is getting a complete map of the Leogane water system. Leogane and its surrounding towns have not had water for two and a half years. On Thursday, myself and a couple other volunteers will be presenting to DINEPA (Direction Nationale de L'Eau Potable et de L'Assainissement), the Haitian government agency in charge of potable water distribution.

We came into this particular project knowing very little about the water system here. While many cities in the USA would probably have some sort of blueprint detailing all of the features of the water system, the only map of Leogane's water systems exists in one guy's head. Homer (pron. O-mare), the "City Plumber" is the guy, and we've been relying on him for all of the information we've been collecting. Homer, who has been working for the city of Leogane for 25 years knows the exact location of all the underground intracies of the system

In order to build a complete map of Leogane's water systems we have been making full use of the survey GPS equipment donated by the Trimble corporation on which I wrote about training. Walking the streets with Homer, GPS in hand we can locate within centimeters the exact coordinates for each of the system's valves, bends, and joints.

Our efforts have allowed for the very first time this system to be documented outside of Homer's head. Early next week we should be able to finish with the mapping and have enough data to draft our proposal for DINEPA.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 9: Anatomy of a Rubble Site

Alot of my friends and family have been asking what exactly it is that I'm doing down here. A lot of it involves moving rubble off of a concrete slab so a Haitian family can move back onto it and begin rebuilding their home. Some houses that remain standing but are unsafe to enter require a demolition team (lots of sledgehammers) before we can even begin moving the rubble away. I'll explain how this all works...

Yesterday we managed to demolish and clear a small home in the heart of Leogane for a man named Winston and his family. It was an easier job since Winston had a metal roof instead of the typical concrete roof that adds a few more days worth of work and need for a more technical demolition. Basically we had four badly damaged concrete walls to bring down before we could really start clearing the place. By working a sledgehammer along a line just above the foundation we were then able to pull these walls down quite easily...pretty satisfying.

Big rubble sites like the one I worked on today required some of our volunteers with technical demolition training to go in first and knock stuff down that could make the site hazardous. Arriving at the site after the demo team is done with it, we are left with rubble, walls, and slabs of concrete/rebar to move away.

The first job on the line is breaking up walls and slabs of concrete. More often than not the concrete was reinforced with rebar making it harder to break it up. We usually bring rebar cutters to clip away the excess hanging out so nobody gets impaled. Once the concrete has been broken up into rubble the second line shovels it away into wheelbarrows. The wheelbarrow runners pile the stuff up high out by the road, sometimes layering it up several feet. We generally rotate between these jobs as needed, stopping for water once every hour. Often we have someone maintaining the rubble piles so we can keep adding to them, or another person working a pickaxe to make it easier on the shovelers.

It sounds like a lot of hard work, and it is...but its an incredibly fulfilling feeling to look on with your fellow volunteers at the cleared space and massive piles of rubble. The camaraderie this stuff builds between volunteers makes the day worth every ounce of sweat. We have the oppurtunity to choose between a number of daily jobs at our evening meetings, but most people seem to stick through a job with their team to the end.

When we came back to work after lunch today , the homeowner Cesar and some of his friends joined in on the operation, not at all an expectation. We all worked hard together for the rest of the afternoon and afterwards Cesar emerged with a cooler containing cola and beer to share with us. While we sat with our beverages waiting for our Tap-Tap truck to pick us up there was an interesting mix of Creole, French and English being spoken as we looked proudly upon the days work.