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.