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.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Day 6: Barbecue in the Hills

After a hard weeks work we get Sunday off. I spent mine hiking through the beautiful Haitian countryside in Guillaume, a 40 minute drive from Leogane. The experiences I had with the Haitian people today were probably some of the most illuminating that I've had to date. I think I have a better understanding of how despite of the destruction all around them Haitian attitudes remain resolute and hopeful.
We were invited to this barbecue by a man named Jean, a Haitian-American business owner from Orlando. Jean saves a small portion of each paycheck to support various projects to help his native country, which currently means building out a hospital clinic in this small, dispersed hill community. The building he plans on using could not have been larger than 1000 square feet but remains mostly intact from the earthquake. Jean's property has a stream running through it that is supposedly potable (We didn't test the water but farther upstream is the source for this region's now defunct public water system).
Jean's work here has made him a well respected member of the community. From what I could see there were at least two large families and 5 other individuals that Jean was allowing to use the facilities of his property. There were people bathing and swimming in his stream, children playing inside the clinic building (Jean had brought them toys from the USA), and a few elderly men were chewing the fat on his patio.
Jean had a full Haitian meal prepared for us: white rice with bean sauce, legumes (sort of like vegetable stew), and chicken legs. This isn't actually that different from what we eat at the base, however a dish prepared for eight people naturally tastes better than a dish prepared for 100. Jean ate with us as some of the locals hung around to watch us eat, initially giving off an air of unfairness until Jean assured us that they had already eaten and were just curious about the visitors.
After our meal Jean guided us on a walk up the hill to see the rest of his community. We were followed by a group of about 15 children. Two little girls insisted upon holding my hands the entire time even when the narrow path made it inconvenient. We encountered more makeshift shelters in this community than wrecked houses, which led me to believe that some of the people in the community lived in these shanty-type structures even before the earthquake; Jean confirmed this observation. To one elderly gentleman we encountered along the path we posed the question "If you could ask for one thing, what would it be?" to which he responded "privacy." His open air shelter barely keeps out the sounds of livestock and numerous people swimming and bathing in the nearby stream. As we left him and thanked him for his time, he insisted on shaking each of our hands, adding a "Mesi an pil" (thank you very much).
Walking a bit further we discovered the natural spring that feeds the stream, and with it concrete structures that were meant to be the primary water intakes for the regional water system built during the "Baby Doc" Duvalier era. The water here doesn't get much farther; the transfer pipe runs through a flood channel and the rush of water breaks it during flood season, one of many reasons why the system cannot remain functional. More local children were entertaining themselves on these structures, jumping off into the water below and having a great time doing it.

One rather large family was living in a series of shelters outside of their former home, now unsafe to enter because of the damage. The house was rather large by Haitian standards but still suffered the same shortcomings as most of the fallen structures: too much or improperly used concrete, and too little rebar to hold it all together. They were built to do a good job surviving the torrent of hurricanes that summer brings, but anticipating an earthquake was never in the design. Standing in stark contrast to the devastated Haitian house was a large French villa next door with no discernible damage whatsoever. The French villa was built up to structural standards that never existed in Haiti, which is why so many people died in this disaster.
The family living in this house still had to live their lives, and this is the human aspect you don't hear about from the usual media outlets. On top of the devastating human loss of 2 women here, at least 3 generations poured their meager livings into building and expanding this house, all of which was wiped in out 37 seconds on January 12. Despite these losses the family seemed resigned to an unfathomable level of happiness. A baby was being bounced on the lap of her older sister, children were kicking a soccer ball around, and two of the older teenagers could not have been more enthusiastic about showing me the bench press they had built out of scrap metal recovered from fallen structures.

Having the oppurtunity to witness how these people go on living made me think about how I would go on if everything I knew was suddenly taken away from me. It says a tremendous deal about the Haitian people that in the face of the worst they are still able to put forth their best. The media spins stories of looting, kidnapping, and corruption, and of course these things can be found here, however from what I have seen the majority of Haitians just want to get on with their lives towards a better future.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Day 5

Clearing the rubble left over from the Earthquake is hard work. Tiring, exhausting work. Which is why I'm glad to have been able to take a break the past couple of days to train with a representative from a company that donated survey-grade GPS equipment. It might not seem on the surface that this would take precedence over clearing the damage, but this equipment will allow us to do things for Haiti like mapping (now defunct) utility systems. It will also better enable the HODR organization to keep track of all potential, in progress, and completed job sites. Aside from the hard work of all of the volunteers, the main thing keeping this organization going is fundraising; being able to present to potential donors the impact of our efforts on a large scale via Google earth would be a great tool for that.

While we were out practicing with the survey equipment the locals were pretty interested in what we were doing. Walking around with our faces buried in what looks like an over-sized cell phone probably looked strange to anyone who didn't know what we were doing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Day 3

Yesterday morning we finished removing the rubble from the Church site and finished day by joining another HODR team to remove rubble from "L'INSPYR Insitut de Pyramid," a Haitian elementary school. Most of the first floor of the structure remained intact but buried in rubble from the earthquake. By the end of the week our volunteers should have the place cleaned up enough to resume classes.

After two days of moving rubble I gave my body a break and worked most of the day indoors at a UNICEF facility packing boxes full of supplies for Haitian elementary schoolers. Although I found the rubble work less monotonous than sitting in a small room filling boxes, this is still important work; one of our other volunteer teams working near a school saw the supplies we packed delivered to the students.

The most interesting part of my day was walking through Leogane's market, where I was able to painlessly exchange money at a good rate from a man on a street corner who might otherwise look suspicious pulling a large wad of cash from his pocket if this were not Haiti. The market itself is rows of stands made mostly from very thin timber selling fruit, rice, and raw meat in the open air. Some vendors had other items such as faux designer clothing, watches, and cell phone sim cards. As we walked I noticed there was a large amount of animals mixed in with the stands--mostly dogs, goats, pigs, and chickens. I found myself unable to distinguish between those animals that were being offered for sale and those that were wild trying to forage for food.

A fellow volunteer and myself apparently made for quite the spectacle walking through the market; not a lot of foreigners frequent this part of town which was evident from the onlooking stares and hearing "blan" (foreigner) intermixed in kreyol conversation. The children often shout "Hey you!" at the funny foreigners, to which we respond "Bon swa" (Hello) which more often than not will elicit a smile or thumbs up. A couple of children were so interested in us that they nearly followed us all the way back to the base.

My visit to the market once again demonstrated to me the life-must-go-on attitude of the Haitians; in spite of the surrounding rubble Haitians continue to sell their wares at market, and children continue to be children.

Day 1

Today I had my first experiences as a relief worker in Haiti. HODR splits its volunteers into teams to perform different tasks. For my first day here I chose to get involved in what has become affectionately nicknamed a "slab-a-thon." We were essentially removing the concrete slabs and rubble from a church that had collapsed upon itself. Armed with sledgehammers, pickaxes, shovels, and wheelbarrows a group of 7 made a sizable dent in the pile of rubble. The goal is to remove all of the concrete and exposed rebar in order to reveal the building's foundation, making the site usable again for a temporary or eventual permanent structure.

The rapport this organization has with the people of Leogane is remarkable. Two brothers brought us some much appreciated coconuts and mangoes while we were working on their church, refusing to accept any sort of payment for the fruit. A number of neighborhood children hung around the jobsite, picking up whatever tools we weren't using at the moment to "help" us with our work. They were incredibly playful and quite ecstatic to be around us.

Something that struck me as interesting was how people are reusing the rubble left over from the devastating earthquake. Although there is no shortage of the stuff around, many Haitians were having the UN dump it in their front yards to help with flood-season drainage. On some job sites HODR has even reused rubble to repair potholes.

At the end of the day we returned to base in our "Tap-Tap," mid-size pickups with their beds modified to carry passengers which are one of Haiti's primary forms of transportation (expect a post on these in the near future). Dinner consisted of rice and chicken prepared in a local fashion. Although I had some trouble sleeping my first night here due to all of the noise made by roosters, goats, cows, and wild dogs I am sure I won't have any trouble tonight from swinging hammers all day.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I knew that I couldn't quite anticipate how I would feel upon first setting foot off the airplane. As mentally prepared as I thought I was from keeping up with media coverage, It was still shocking to see the state of disrepair this country is in. Looking out the window from the descending Boeing 767 most of what I could see were tents , presumably belonging to people displaced by the damage caused by the earthquake.

HODR had arranged for a driver to pick me up from the airport and take me to their base in Leogane. The man with a sign bearing my name motioned me through a large crowd outside the airport to a 1980s vintage Toyota Corolla that had seen more than its fair share of wear and tear. The traffic in Port Au Prince was overwhelming enough to make even the most seasoned NYC cab drivers take caution. Signals, lanes and speed limits seemed absent here. If there is a system to driving here I haven't figured it out yet.

The tents I saw while landing were a common theme all the way to Leogane, with rubble, flooded streets, and refuse also along the way. Despite the apparent state of affairs, the people I saw walking the streets seemed jovial and cheerful, going about their lives in spite of the tragedy surrounding them. This attitude is something I'm keen on observing more of while I'm here.
After about an hour and a half and numerous stops along the way I finally arrived at the HODR base. The French I took in college came in handy--my driver √Čvance spoke no English but kindly explained to me that he needed to get his wife to work on time before he could take me to my destination.