Posts Tagged ‘Tent City’


A child peeks around a support beam in a tent camp in Leogane, which was the epicenter of the earthquake.  90% of houses there were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake.


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On Friday afternoon I was drinking a coke while lounging around the UN Logistics Base restaurant, discussing an interview with the UN’s spokeswoman I was going to shoot for the International Federation of the Red Cross.  In the background was CNN reporting on how terrible the republicans are for not voting for some bill, and above us were oscillating fans spraying cool water mist down on the patrons drinking espressos and eating the daily lunch specials (on Friday it was grilled lobster).

The sky above us was clear and blue when we arrived, but 15 minutes later the clouds rolled in, the winds picked up, and the rain started flying horizontally through the open air restaurant.  I looked at the UN spokeswoman, and she said to me, “This is not good…we had been so lucky until this point.”  And she was right, until now the rainy season had failed to bring a strong enough storm to cause any widespread damage, and every tropical storm that had evolved into a hurricane has turned away from the island of Hispaniola, almost as if they had sympathy for what Haiti has been through and decided to go pummel Bermuda instead.


But while the strong winds and heavy rain lasted only 30 minutes, the damage was already done, and the team from the Red Cross and I ran through the rain and jumped into the car.  We drove out of the UN Log Base and past the airport, avoiding huge billboards that had toppled into the streets.  That morning I had debated whether to bring my rain gear for my camera, and decided against it, so I asked the driver to stop while I ran over to some street vendors who had hunkered down to protect their cooking supplies from the storm.  I bargained down the cost of a plastic bag from 100 goudes to free, wrapped my camera in it, and we started taking video of the aftermath.

But rather than writing out what happen over the next 24 hours, I’ll just show you this video that I put together for the Red Cross about their response:

For those of you wondering what it is that I actually do here in Haiti (other than take pictures of Olie and write in this blog), that video above sums it up pretty well.  I shot the video, wrote the script (with Red Cross staff), and then voiced it over and edited it together.

The other thing I did that night was a phone interview with The Weather Channel.  They asked two questions. The first was a status update about the damage, and the second was one that I wasn’t expecting (but probably should have been…): “So what did the clouds look like during the storm?” the anchor asked curiously, “Did they come in from the North?  The West?”  OMG…I personally could not care less what the clouds looked like, or from what direction they came from, so this question totally threw me off.  “Ummm, the clouds came from the South (this turned out to be an incredibly lucky guess), and they came suddenly,” I responded, with my authoritative broadcast voice, “The storm came in quickly and left quickly as well. At one moment the skies were clear, and minutes later the winds picked up violently and dark clouds had rolled in.”


But the next day while the Red Cross assessed the tent camps that they oversee, you started to realize that most of the damage to the tents and tarps was not because of the storm at all, but simply from the wear and tear of months of sitting out in the hot Haitian sun.  The camp managers would explain that more than half of the tents and tarps needed to be replaced, which was completely true, but because it was not a result of the storm practically none of them would actually be replaced after the assessments.  The storm just acted as a way to remind us that life in the tent camps is miserable, hot, and borderline unbearable, but now you were just adding ‘soaking wet’ into the list of adjectives to describe these places.


The night of the storm we went out with a team and quickly were surrounded by a group of several hundred people chanting, “We don’t need you, we need a house!”  They were angry, and I totally understand their frustration.  The camp grounds are now almost completely covered in mud, and a musty mildew smell waifs throughout the tents and tarps that will now take days (if not weeks) to dry. We went back to the same tent camp the next day to shoot video of what was going to be a distribution, but things went badly and we were forced to leave.

Because the Red Cross was choosing to provide aid to those who had lost everything, the people who hadn’t lost everything, but who had structures that still suck, started to get upset because they weren’t getting help too.  While walking back to the distribution point a group of men approached us with angry eyes and asked, in Kreyol, why they hadn’t gotten bracelets (you didn’t get aid if you didn’t have one).  I explained I didn’t have bracelets, so he jabbed me in the arm with his elbow, got up close, and yelled something in Kreyol that I didn’t understand.  I yelled back, “WOAH!” and then we started to move a little faster towards the cars.  They stopped and threw daggers at us with their angry gazes, while one of them yelled “I kill you! I kill you!”  So we left.  The next day the Red Cross spoke with the local camp managers and negotiated security so that the distribution could be carried out.


In the end the storm had killed 6 people and destroyed nearly 15,000 family’s tents and tarps, and considering it only lasted 30 minutes it’s scary to think what a hurricane could do to this place.  They still have 1.3 million people living in tent cities, and if a storm produces sustained heavy winds, like what we experienced during this storm, for a day or more, this place is going to fall apart.  And while the storm has reminded the NGOs and others that the camps are still miserable, it’s just one more nudge to push the people actually living there closer to the edge.  Nothing has changed for so many of them, and a storm like this reminds everyone just how vulnerable they are.

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Ben and I took a trip out to Corail last week, which is that miserable “model” tent city out in the middle of nowhere.  It had exponentially grown, but the miserableness of it has changed only slightly, with little shops popping up here and there.  Near the entrance to the camp an organization had begun growing plants in old tires, a great idea to teach those with nothing else to do how to grow their own food.  The problem?  They were securely guarded by razor wire to keep people from stealing them.  It’s practically the only green in what is usually fields of white tents, and the people can’t access them.  Just perfect.

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Yes, White Men Can Jump

My job in DC gave me the opportunity to meet a bunch of interesting people, and in Haiti, it’s no different.  Samuel Dalembert is a Haitian-American NBA basketball player who has been doing work in Haiti since before the earthquake.  He took some time out of his busy schedule of being taller than most of the people in the United States to show NBC around some of the child-friendly programs that he supports in Haiti.


I’ve never met an NBA player before, so for me this was a first.  Samuel was incredibly polite, friendly, and talkative, but the first thing that you notice is clearly his size.  It’s no surprise that NBA players are big, but when you walk up to shake his hand and he envelops your entire arm with his pinky finger, you notice they are just huge.  Like, “how is it possible for a human to grow that large” huge.  I caught myself thinking more than once, “Where does he get his shoes?”, as they are clearly larger than my torso.


So when Samuel walked up to the basketball court where he first learned how to dunk, he started to shoot some hoops with some of the locals who had been bold enough to challenge him.  The match ended with Samuel winning, due largely to the fact that he could swat down almost every shot his opponents decided to toss towards the basket.  And as he’s walking off the court, drenched in sweat after his dominating win, I yell to him, “How ’bout a dunk!”, thinking to myself, ‘there is NO way he is leaving this court without showing us what we all came here to see!’

He looks at me with tired eyes, his faces dripping with sweat, and responds, “You wanna see a dunk?”  “Uhh, yea!” I shout back.  Someone throws him a ball and he turns back to the court.  “Alright, then…” he says, and then lunges towards the basket.  He takes a few steps (as he can cross the entire court with only 5 enormous steps anyways), crouches down, jumps towards the hoop, and then….*BOING*…the ball nails the rim and flies in the opposite direction.  He had missed!


There was an audible gasp before everyone realized that we should be polite towards this NBA player that is opening up his world to us to show where he grew up.  We all composed ourselves and then the ball was thrown back to Samuel.  Not one to quit after his first try, he takes the ball, rears back and approaches the basket again….*BOING*….another miss!  I was shocked.  I thought this was one of the prerequisites to being an NBA player, kinda like a NASCAR driver has to know how to start his car.

He looked around gingerly, clearly understanding the expectations that had been cast upon him, and then took the ball again.  He goes up, smashes the ball through the hoop, and we all cheer widely.  He had done it, he had dunked the ball! (finally…) He grabbed a water and then sat down for a quick interview before we headed out.


And as we were loading up the cars I approached Samuel to thank him for everything.  I stuck out my hand to shake his and he took his hand and stuck it up as high as he possibly could.  Without missing a beat, I crouched down, lunged up, and gave him the highest high-five I had ever given.  He looked down at me and laughed, “Well I guess white men can jump…”, he said.  “I guess so!” I responded, as I hopped into the car.


The next day I was tasked to shoot video of Samuel in the Petionville Golf Course Tent City as he assessed the sports programs they have there for children.  When he arrived he was mobbed with kids, some knowing who he was and others just interested in meeting a humongous man.  I was asked to do a short interview with him, and just as we’re about to start he looks to a man selling ice cream and says, “Ice cream for everyone!!!”

Well, there were about 100 kids in the general vicinity, and in a tent city nothing spreads faster than word of free food, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what happened next.  The man selling the ice cream smiled nervously at Samuel and then the look in his eyes quickly turned from fear to anger as he became surrounded by dozens of hungry children.  They start pushing and pulling at each other, each jockeying for the best position to grab their delicious free ice cream, and Samuel was forced to intervene, asking the children to line up single-file for the man.  By this time the crowd of children had double, if not tripled, and the line stretched on for about 35 yards.

We did the interview and after finishing he walked up to the man handing out the ice cream and apologized.  I looked at Samuel and gave him the “eesh” face, and he responded in kind, realizing that he may, or may not have just started a small child riot in the largest tent city in PAP.  We moved along and parted ways, my time with an NBA player had ended.

And while this story taught me that NBA players are not perfect, it was nice to know that he’s just a regular guy with the best of intentions.  Haiti is his home, and even if he spends his days running back and forth on NBA basketball courts in the States, his heart is always here.  That says a lot for someone who made it out, and could have just decided to never look back.  Instead he’s helping to get kids out of their homes (or tents) and playing sports.  It’s a great idea, if you ask me, which I know you didn’t.

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You all have seen about a million pictures of the tent cities that blanket any swatch of open land available in PAP, but not often do you see (at least on this blog) the insides of these tents.  Below is a small panoramic picture of the inside of a tent located on Champs de Mars, the tent city just across the street from the Presidential Palace.

It’s pretty no frills, a small 9′-by-9′ (which is actually pretty big) room covered with a combination of tarps, blankets and rugs.  Interestingly enough, one thing that you will notice with almost every tent-like structure that you find here is that they are almost always impeccably clean.  Haitians have an intense sense of personal hygiene: their houses are swept and clean, and they can get their whites brighter than any “Super Wash” cycle on your washing machine in the States.  It’s something that is theirs, something to be proud of, and even if everything around them is in chaos, that part of their life is kept in order.  What’s also interesting is how this doesn’t translate to outside their dwelling, where trash piles up at almost every street-corner.

But it doesn’t matter how clean they keep it, because nothing will stop this from being a miserable way to live.  I mentioned on the previous post that these tents are like ovens, and it’s no joke.  During the middle of the day the temperature inside these tents reaches higher than 140 degrees, it’s stifling hot.  I’ve been doing interviews with different news organizations in tents for the past couple months and every time they finish they run out like their shoes are on fire.  “Damn, it’s hot in there,” they say.  “Yeah, and they do this everyday,” I respond.  “No thank you…” they quickly say before moving to the next interview.  Unfortunately, I’m sure that’s exactly what each and every one of these people is thinking as well: “No thank you.”


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The 6-month anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti has come and gone, and after heavy media coverage and a slew of government events, the Haitian people have been reminded, yet again, that their situation sucks and nothing has really improved.  I’ve been trying to think about how to sum up the events of the past 6 months for a while now, considering we all knew it was coming weeks before the day arrived, and it’s still hard to comprehend.  Just over 6 months ago the earthquake in Haiti destroyed over 180,000 homes, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and left millions homeless.  Unfortunately none of those things have changed.


When Jillian and I returned to the States after the earthquake tons of people asked how long it would take to recover.  “Months? Years?” they would ask.  The answer was always a disappointing one, “More, probably decades,” we would say.  Haiti was already a place that seemed without hope, and now it appears to be almost irreparably damaged.  The infrastructure that was already sorely lacking has been torn to shreds, and the poor have just become poorer (and homeless).

With the help of tons of international money, work has begun trying to pick up the shattered pieces of an already broken country, but there are so many compounding issues that stand in the way.  Both the Haitian people and the NGOs have desperately waited for some sense of leadership from the government here, but let’s be honest, there is not a single person in this entire world who could single-handedly grasp the enormity of the issues that now face this country.  Elections are scheduled for November, but who would want to be the President of a country that has hit absolute rock bottom.


So like I said before, there are a bunch of issues to deal with, none have just one quick-fix, and they all depend on each other in one way or another.  Let’s start with the tent cities:  1.5 million people are still living in spontaneous camps throughout the country, left homeless after their houses were damaged or destroyed.  Just after the earthquake the heat was on to get them into shelters before the rainy season, and while NGOs earnestly worked to achieve this goal it was quickly realized that moving that many people, and building that many homes, was impossible in just a matter of months.  The rainy season has been upon us for months, hurricane season starts in earnest soon, and both the Haitian people and the NGOs have now admitted that the tent cities will be here for years.


But part of the hang up is there is just no place to build the homes.  Land-rights issues have slowed an already sluggish process, and with no one knowing who owns what, the building of transitional homes has been slow in coming.  Of the 125,000 transitional shelters planned, just under 4,000 have been built.  These shelters are produced to only last between 2-5 years, leaving the looming question of what happens next?  Supplies to build these houses is tough to come by, and shipping containers filled with the necessary tools to do the job sit stuck at customs, waiting for a simple signature that may take months to obtain.


But even if you have the supplies, and you know who owns the land, it might be impossible to build simply because the rubble of the house that stood there before has not been removed.  As you already know, Cash for Work programs (like the one Jillian is managing) are working everyday to clear the rubble that fills the streets and neighborhoods throughout the country.  The problem?  There is too much rubble, and not enough resources to move it.


One estimate says it could take 1,000 trucks 1,000 days to move all the rubble out of PAP.  That’s over 3 years, just to move the rubble.  But yet another problem jumps out, as there are just over 300 dump trucks operating in the capital doing this work.  You can do the math, but I went ahead and did it for you: at this pace it will take over a decade to move all the rubble out of the city.  If the rubble is still there, there are no transitional homes, and if there are no homes then people aren’t moving out of the tent cities.


Even though I’ve painted a pretty dismal picture, there are some bright spots.  80% of the schools in PAP were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, but since then they have reopened 80% of those affected.  That’s a huge accomplishment in just six months.  While over 50% of the children in Haiti still don’t go to school, I think we can all agree that education is key to a proper recovery, so getting those kids back in the classroom helps immensely.  Also, because of a huge push to vaccinate Haitians, and particularly children, from infectious diseases right after the earthquake, there has yet to be an outbreak.  This is great news considering that if just one family catches something bad in a tent city, it wouldn’t take long for the rest of the tightly packed families around them to catch it too.


So we are left here, 6 months after the earthquake, with little progress.  I’ll be the first to admit, everything in Haiti takes about 5-times longer than anywhere else, so the slow pace of recovery isn’t shocking.  And you also have to give the NGOs slack simply because rebuilding an entire city, or country for that matter, takes an enormous amount of time.  The phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day” resonates well here, but that’s hard to explain to the people who live in tents that seem to hold heat better than our oven.  Life is miserable for them, and time is something they just don’t have.


For Jillian and I, this 6 months has proven to be an enormous test.  Jillian used to say “the earthquake was the easy part,” and it’s totally true.  In that situation, for her at least, it was life or death, black or white.  It was ‘get home and get help’, and knowing what was best was pretty clear.  But now we are posed with questions that always tend to have a slight tint of gray to them, whether it be Jillian managing her programs for WC, or just questions about us.  Nothing comes easy anymore, and whether that’s a reflection of living in Haiti or the residual emotional effects of what happened to us during the earthquake, it’s hard to tell.

We have made some major progressions.  We moved from a tent in Ben and Alexis’ yard to our beautiful Ti Kay.  Jillian went from newly unemployed to being a rockstar at her new job managing programs that are really helping Haitians in need.  I went from an unemployed freelance journalist to NBC’s man in Haiti.  Olie went from a tiny little fur ball into a teenage punk of a puppy.  These are all good things, things we can hang our hats on and say, “not bad, all things considered.”  But it’s funny how all the external things can align perfectly when the pieces inside just don’t seem to fit.


For a lot of people, when they heard that the 6 month anniversary was here they were shocked: “I can’t believe it’s already been 6 months!” they would say.  “I can,” I would think to myself, it’s been the longest 6 months of my life.  It’s hard not to resent the earthquake for doing what it did to us, as I’m sure is the case with almost every single person in Haiti.  Our life was so simple before, it was just Jillian and I, in love, newly married, and living a comfortable life in our tiny little apartment in DC.  Back then all we had to worry about was the cockroaches that pranced around the floors while we ate dinner.  Now our decisions have ramifications, like whether people will be living in miserable tents for the next couple years.

And while many things have moved on, some have stayed the same.  It’s been 6 months since the Mission House we lived in collapsed, and all of our possessions are still sitting (finely pressed, we’re assuming) under the rubble.  I’ve asked to go back and simply dig (without putting myself at risk), but have been turned down time and time again because of a not-so-simple reason.  You see, Haitian Ministries forgot to pay their earthquake insurance for more than a year before the quake, making the house a pile of worthless rubble instead of a fat insurance check to use on the next Mission House.  Because of that no one has been allowed to dig in the house at all (they made an exception when we dug Jillian and Chuck out, thank goodness), as the lawyers overseeing the case have asked to keep it just the way it is until the case is resolved.


Jillian is over this, and I can understand why, the house brings bad memories and she’s ready to move on.  But for me, this is something that I need for closure, just to know that all our stuff is gone (or not…), to know that that life is over.  It’s the watch that my Dad gave me when I graduated from college, it’s all the pictures that are stored on my computer, it’s the hard drive that I backed up all my pictures on and set next to my computer (woops!).  It’s not so much getting those items back, it’s knowing that I can just move on and get on with the future, and not live in the past.  It’s so incredibly frustrating to not be given that chance, to be held back when practically everyone else here has had that opportunity already.

But now we look ahead, at the next 6 months, after which we will look back at what has been done here and scoff at why more hasn’t changed.  By then Jillian and I will have decided if we will stay here for another year or make the move elsewhere, whether it be back to the States or to another country.  Olie will be HUGE, and probably injuring us constantly by thinking he is still a puppy that can jump on our laps like he does now.  Haitians will still be living in tents, and our stuff will probably still be sitting in the rubble of the Mission House.  6 months from now lot’s of things will have changed, but I fear that many will stay same, leaving Haitians with yet another round of media interviews and government events reminding them how bad life after the earthquake really is.

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In the tent camps, and everywhere around the country actually, dominoes is the game of choice.  Whether they are betting with Goudes, or just throwing down some rubber bands for fun, Haitians of all ages take time to play a game which I have no earthly idea how to play.  But no matter where you are you can always hear the distinct sound of a player smacking a particularly brilliant domino on the table, followed by growns on one end, and jubilation on the other.  I’ll take those rubber bands, thank you very much.


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