Monday, March 22, 2010

Setting up a Shelter Systems Dome for Andre's Relatives

Delmas 57, the narrow street where Andre's family lives, has turned into a tent city for about 70 families. Many of the neighborhood houses, like Andre's family's house, survived the earthquake with just cracks, but everyone's too spooked to sleep inside. Only three houses have been destroyed completely on their street, the dead still trapped inside the rubble. By the time Andre arrived on March 9, the smell of death had already left the area.

Here's Andre's cousin Joanne and her fiance in the makeshift shelter that 14 of Andre's aunts, uncles and cousins were sharing, made from a very large tarp that they got from their minister. When it rained, the ground got wet, so they asked Andre for one of our Shelter Systems domes. We had hoped to set it up on the land in the mountain village, but they're still negotiating.

Here's a little cutie in the camp who I couldn't resist photographing.

We set it up on the rooftop of his uncle's house so they could see what it looks like and so they'd believe that it's really 14' in diameter.

I had hoped they would keep the other structure and move one family into the dome. But they're too afraid to sleep on the rooftop for fear that a bigger earthquake will come and topple the walls from the neighboring houses. So Andre took it down and helped them set it up in the camp.

They tried to leave up most of their original shelter, forgetting about the 7' height. As Andre was setting it up, his uncle was still taking down some of the supports of the tarp. I was afraid they'd puncture the dome with the nails, but luckily only one small rip had to be patched with duct tape. By evening, they were ready to lay out all their bedding. All 14 fit cozily into the dome which is designed for 8-10 people.

Andre and I and his brother-in-law are the only ones in the whole neighborhood who are sleeping inside a house. I've been trying to set an example that it's safe. I told them about Santa Cruz's 6.9 earthquake in 1989 and how we were told it might be 50-100 more years before the pressure builds up on the Loma Prieta fault line again. Port-au-Prince hasn't had any aftershocks for 3 weeks, but most residents are afraid to sleep inside even if their house is intact.

The city is going around and inspecting the houses. Some, like the one above with the SUV trapped inside, got red tagged, meaning they have to be demolished. This house is next to the camp. Other houses got yellow tags meaning they must be repaired before they can be inhabited. Andre's house got green, which means it is inhabitable now. Andre's stepfather is a builder, so he will hire some people to help him repair. Materials alone are $4,000-$5,000, but the labor will be cheap, just the opposite in the U.S. where materials are cheaper than labor.

The rains are beginning. I wonder how long it will take for many Haitians to venture back inside their houses. But for hundreds of thousands, they no longer have a house to go back into and they will be living in tents....maybe for years.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I arrive in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

It didn't take long to start seeing the enormous destruction caused by the earthquake. Even the international airport had big cracks in the exterior walls. As we drove up Route de Delmas to Andre's family neighborhood, probably every third building had collapsed.

Before arriving in Port-au-Prince, I had braced myself for the reality to be beyond description. But I was surprised how much it looked just like I'd expected, just like all the photos and video reports I'd been watching for weeks. I guess I also was more prepared after witnessing rubble all down Pacific Avenue here in

Santa Cruz in 1989 after the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake, it didn't seem that different...just much much bigger. Santa Cruz, a town of 55,000 had six fatalities in our earthquake. Port-au-Prince, with its 3 million population, poor construction, and so close to the epicenter lost at least 300,000 people. I don't know how they could even begin to count them since so many are still buried under rubble.

I'd also been to Port-au-Prince three times in the past three years. For many foreign relief workers, this was their first sight of Haiti's capitol. They were shocked that there was only electricity available a few hours a day, but that's the way it was before the earthquake. They were shocked to see people relieving themselves in the street instead of in a bathroom, but that happened all the time before the quake too. Foreigners were surprised to see so many street vendors; they assumed that was because the stores were crushed. But there were always street vendors in PAP.

But like Dr. Tony Hoffman from UCSC who worked 5 weeks in Delmas with the American Relief Committee told us: you're seeing the city all cleaned up. The dead bodies under the rubble no longer smelled. He'd arrived on Feb. 15, before commercial flights were allowed into Port-au-Prince, so everyone had to go through Dominican Republic. He'd experienced more of the shock and chaos. But by the time I arrived on March 17, the aftershocks were over, the streets were cleared for traffic, the smell of death was gone, and people were going about their normal lives, almost oblivious to the rubble.

In fact, I found the city to be cleaner than usual. There were way more dumpsters, and newly-employed workers in various-colored vests were sweeping up rubble and trash. No longer did you see 5 foot high piles of garbage right in the middle of the street. I was amazed how clean it was.
The traffic on Route de Delmas was a little bit lighter than before, despite all the SUVs of the relief workers. I'd heard that gasoline was even higher priced than before the quake and in short supply, but overall the main route that links downtown Port-au-Prince with upscale Petion Ville was nearly as bumper to bumper as usual.

The other differences, besides all the collapsed buildings and rubble, were the tent cities and the food lines. I'd never seen that in Port-au-Prince before. I expected to see more food lines with all the millions of dollars that Americans and other countries had donated. But it seems very little aid is getting to the people. They were lining up every day, but that was to BUY water. On the rare occasion that they gave out free rice, we heard the people had to line up around 3:00 a.m., and by early afternoon they still hadn't received their bag of rice, valued at about $12 US. Only women were getting the rice coupons because they would wait patiently all day long and not get aggressive or hostile like some of the men did.

We also visited the Villa Imperial Hotel where we used to pay $5 a day to use wi-fi and the pool. I asked the armed guard to take me around to the back side to see the pool. I was happy to see that it was still okay, despite the algae in the water. But the office and the restaurant were just a pile of rubble. I'm not sure how many people died there, but the owner of the hotel was one of them. I'd seen her in June 2009, directing her workers to set up new umbrellas for the patio tables. She seemed like a nice person. I remembered the painting of Obama in the lobby which I'd admired and photographed. It's under that pile of rubble somewhere. The owner's son is thinking of repairing the hotel, as evidenced by all the metal bracing they had all around the main building.

I'd featured this hotel on YouTube in June 2009. A few viewers had asked me about room rates and contact information. One of those people is an EMT from New Jersey who happened to be on vacation in Haiti in January. He was able to contact me via email just days after the quake. Fortunately, he'd made reservations somewhere else after all.
I saw "WE NEED HELP" painted on buildings all over the city. I wondered how they all knew to paint the same message. I never saw "Help Us" or "Please Help" or any other message. Sometimes I saw it in French or Creole.

This vehicle is called a tap-tap. It's basically a small pick-up truck that has been modified to carry many passengers in back. They lift up a camper shell and put benches on each side. Two seats extend out the back and sometimes a few people stand up on the back bumper. This is the main way to get around town, besides the motorcycle taxis, which can hold 3 or 4 people easily. Andre and I did that in the villages more and used the tap-taps or got rides with his brother Johnny in his car.

This smashed building used to house a cement and iron shop. I wonder what quality of cement and iron they sold because their own building was pancaked by the quake. This is just a block from Andre's family's house, which survived with just some cracks.

Here you see Andre and his friend Coach walking towards the Villa Imperial Hotel. Power poles had fallen in the earthquake and two months afterwards no one had done anything with the stray electrical wires.

But you'll notice how clean the street is. That's a new thing for Port-au-Prince. And no tents on this street, but just around the corner there were many. Even nice houses that hadn't had any damage would have tents out front where the people were sleeping, and probably are still.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Traveling to Haiti

I had a week to get ready for my trip after Andre left on March 8, which was barely enough time.

Getting the baggage together was the most important job. The big green duffel weighs 52 pounds and has our third dome tent, a tarp and an extra fly cloth for a tent that disappeared years ago. The medium-sized bag next to it also weighs 52 pounds. They're supposed to be 50 max, but I found out when I took Andre that they'll let a couple extra pounds slide and every pound is important to us. The small one next to the piano is my 40-pound carry-on which holds two air mattresses, nuts, tools, cans of tuna, and a jar of Nutella. The big black bag weighs 73 pounds which cost me $100 for extra and $50 for 20 pounds over. It contains four more tents, an extra tarp, more food, medical supplies, mosquito netting, shampoos, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, etc. etc., much of it donated by friends. My second carry-on has my laptop, cameras, rechargeable AA batteries and charger, an assortment of flashlights, a solar-powered backpack for recharging cell phones and AA batteries, and fresh-baked chocolate cookies at Andre's request for his family to sample. Oh, and a few clothes for me.

At 3:00 a.m. on March 16, after just an hour-and-a-half of sleep I was picked up by my friend Moy. I wanted to arrive at San Francisco airport extra early because of all the baggage. Everything made it on except some screwdrivers and Nutella in my carry-on. I should have known about the screwdrivers, but Nutella? They explained that liquids and creamy stuff like toothpaste

is verboten. The saddest part is they throw it in the garbage.

My entire trip lasted 24 hours with very little sleep or turbulence. Five hours to Miami, a two-hour layover, 2-1/2 hours to San Juan, Puerto Rico where I had a 12-hour layover. I was greeted by a huge Red Cross exhibit asking people to Help Haiti. I would like to think that Red Cross actually is helping Haiti and not just collecting donations for themselves. But I keep asking friends who have been to Haiti and they don't see much Red Cross presence of activity. I'll be looking myself. It seems they're too busy counting their millions. Like Alison Thompson in the documentary film "The Third Wave" says, the smaller the organization, the more likely that your money will actually get to the people in need.

At least I got some sleep at night, thanks to the security guard who showed me how to flip the chairs on their backs to use the cushions.

American Airline has added flights to Haiti, including the one from Puerto Rico that I was on. It's so weird because I used to be the only white person other than a few missionaries. Now flights are packed with Americans and other foreigners. There even was an Israeli on our flight with her own cameraman.

I had a nice conversation with a Lutheran missionary across the aisle in our propeller plane, originally from Canada but now living in Minnesota. He's been all over the world. It sounds like his organization works hard and does a lot of good. Talking to him, it's clear he's a

Christian, but he wasn't pushy about it. He impressed me with his fluency in Spanish and Quechua, the language of the Inca Indians in South America. He demonstrated the clicks in their language and how easy it is to be misunderstood. It reminded me of Thai, which is tonal and hard for English speakers to pronounce well.

Next to the Lutheran was an older Haitian man who has lived in the US for 27 years and still sports a thick accent. I'm not sure how ancient his Bible is, but it's definitely well-read...through most of the flight.

The first view of Haiti from the air is impressive, with its tall mountains peeking through clouds. The name "Haiti" means "Tall Mountains" in Arawak, the language of the indigenous people who once inhabited the island before European conquistadores killed them off.

As we approached Port-au-Prince it was easy to see the military and refugee camps. I didn't have a window
seat so I had to reach over my seatmate. Unfortunately all those shots are out of focus. At 8:25 a.m. the lighting was perfect. I hope Andre and I have a second chance on our return flight on April 7 in the late afternoon.

I braced myself for lost luggage and strict customs officers, but luckily neither happened. My luggage was handed off the plane quickly and the customs officer only asked me about the big duffel. When I said tent she waved me through.

Dependable Andre was there waiting, with his brother Johnny and car. We had to fight off all the helpers, looking for American dollar tips. Johnny's car was surrounded by a crew of window washers. Andre fought with them to get away, then ended up handing them some coins. The man in charge of the boys reminded me of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

The airport terminal itself had some big cracks, and right outside were some collapsed buildings. A long line of people waited for rice rations. U.N. soldiers making sure everything went smoothly.

You don't have to look for evidence of the earthquake. It's everywhere. I think what impressed me more was how much was left standing. You don't see those buildings in the news. Overall, Port-au-Prince looked like business as usual. For the western foreigner who are flocking in these days, it might look like poverty and chaos. But to me, it looked like the same city, with lots of rubble added.

I guess from seeing so much news coverage and photos, I wasn't shocked by what I saw. Two months after the quake, a lot of the rubble had been cleaned off the streets and people are starting to go back to work. Schools will open next week.

It brought back memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Santa Cruz which I missed while traveling in Italy. But I got back a few months later to see rubble and destroyed buildings also.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Two months after the quake: Plans change

Today marks two months after the Jan. 12 earthquake. Hundreds of thousands are still homeless and camping out on the streets of the capitol. Andre is spending his fourth night in a tent in Port-au-Prince and is growing weary already. He's been great about staying in touch via iPhone, emailing lots of photos: of the land we wanted to buy, the cracks in his family's house in Port-au-Prince, and family members with their tents. I'm joining him next Wednesday morning after 26-hours of travel and two stopovers. We have reservations to return April 7, but Andre doesn't know how we can stay that long. When he went downtown he saw a man bleeding to death in the street from a bullet wound. I don't know if I'm ready for this.

Today was a productive day for me. I bought a solar backpack off craigslist, which will supposedly recharge cell phones and iPods. Because of lack of electricity it's been challenging for Andre to keep the iPhone charged; he even had to pay one time for recharging service. The city sometimes turns on the electricity in the houses, but you never know when or for how long, which is how it always was, even before the quake.

A friend who went to the same high school with me in Chula Vista, back in the 1970s, surprised with a generous cash donation, plus two suitcases, one filled with toiletries, first aid kit, tiny sleeping bags, and mosquito netting.

I spent half of her donation on assorted flashlights: mini-Mag lights, wind-up flashlights, key chain mini-lights, and rechargeable batteries and charger. The Haitians always need flashlights in Port-au-Prince, even before the quake, because they rarely have electricity. Whenever we visited, they let us use the kerosene lamp. I could read for a while, but not too long because the light is so dim. Soon I'd just give up and go to sleep. You can't do anything in the dark and you can't leave the house because the whole neighborhood is pitch black. Only some hotels and businesses used to be powered by noisy gasoline generators. This was before the quake. I don't think there are any hotels and only few businesses left.

I spent a lot of time today on the internet, connecting with a carpenter/EMT who has enough frequent flyer miles for a round-trip ticket. He said he'd love to go work with Andre's stepfather, depending on what happens with his business. I also hooked up with John Calvert, an expert on perma-culture. He suggested a variety of ways to get water to the land...assuming we could buy the land. It seems all that's changed.

Andre and his stepfather had a meeting with the owner of the land in Athis that they wanted to buy. Now he's changed his mind and doesn't want to sell. I don't understand why he would string Andre's stepfather along for a month if he didn't want to sell. Mathieu must have gone back and forth between the capitol and the mountains at least a dozen or 20 times while investigating this deal. I could hear the frustration and discouragement in Andre's voice when he told me the news.

But there's good news too: damage to the Port-au-Prince house doesn't look that bad, at least not from the photos Andre sent me. I'm not an engineer and I'm not seeing it in person, but as a Californian, I'm used to cracked buildings. Often it's just cosmetic damage. Even after the 6.9 earthquake in Santa Cruz many buildings were saved by retrofit seismic repairs.

In a way, it makes more sense to repair the house in Port-au-Prince first. The land and building project can't finished before the rains, and tent living will get old fast. I love camping, but when it starts raining hard, I'm ready to pack it in and look for a hotel. Andre's family's house is about 1000 square feet on the main floor, has two smaller apartments in the basement, and a new two-room apartment for his sister, her husband and their kids on the third floor. So there's plenty of space for extended family members to squeeze in.

I'm also a little relieved that the land deal is on hold because I've worried that Andre's siblings wouldn't be happy in such a remote, rural location. His parents, aunts and uncles, and grandma all grew up in the mountains, but not the siblings and cousins. Andre is the only one of his generation who did because he spent his childhood with his grandparents. He knows the country life and enjoys it. As an American, I like the mountain village also because it's cooler, cleaner, healthier and has a nice view. But it seems the initial panic to get out of the capitol is fading now that the aftershocks are dying down and the rains are coming soon.

It happened here in Santa Cruz as well in 1989. They evacuated our neighborhood because the Victorian house next door to my grandma's house fell on her gas line. I was in Italy at the time, but my housemates and my grandma were instructed to camp out on the Santa Cruz High School football field, as aftershocks rattled their nerves. On the third night it started to rain, so everyone went back into their houses. I'm guessing the Haitians will do the same.

One of the 14' dome tents that Andre brought was for a friend's family. They are extremely grateful for their new home. But in the camping area that Andre's family shares with about 70 families, there's nowhere to set up such a big dome tent, and I'm bringing another one soon. Andre's family is sleeping in a borrowed tent, which may be reclaimed if Andre's sister and her in-laws return to the capitol. Even though many of his relatives are sleeping under tarps, Andre is afraid to let anyone borrow the dome because they might not want to give it back when we need it. I was hoping we could use them on the land while we're building, but since that might not be happening, and since his family might be able to repair and move back into their house, I'm not sure what we'll do with the dome tents. They cost $350 for the tent, $50 shipping from Georgia, $50 for the floor tarps, and $100 for excess baggage charge -- that's $550 times three -- so I don't want to just give them away. Everyone wants one, but who can afford to buy them?

Well, it's always good to be flexible and open minded. There's definitely no script for a disaster like the Haitian earthquake. We're two months into this thing and the end is nowhere in sight.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Andre sent me photos with an iPhone

Andre arrived in Haiti on Tuesday, March 9 at noon. His brothers Reginald and Johnny were there to pick him up, along with his five 50-pound bags, 40-pound carry-on and day pack. We were really lucky to get all that on the flight because American Airlines tightened their baggage restrictions on all flights to Haiti. Normally, on international flights they allow two 50-pound bags for free, plus up to three more for $100 each. At the last minute we found out we could only take one extra for $100. We already had them all packed, so we decided to get to the airport three hours early and act like we didn't know about the change. Our plan worked.

Upon arrival in Port-au-Prince, Andre was upset to see that his bags had been opened, especially the two relief tents which we had wrapped so carefully and sealed with packing tape, mummy-style. He had to pay off the customs officers with shampoos, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. But the rest got through: two 14-foot dome tents, two smaller tents, three air mattresses and foot pump, three 16' x 20' tarps for the floors of the dome tents, flashlights, hand tools, soccer balls and cleats, some clothes, jump ropes, nuts, canned tuna, packaged foods, more toiletries, medications, even more stuff I can't remember now.

Before Andre left, I called our cell phone companies. Verizon has no service in Haiti. My iPhone with AT&T service would work, plus they have a special plan because of the relief workers. For $20 per month pro-rated, we have an international plan for Haiti and the Dominican Republic: phone calls anywhere in the world for 25 cents a minute (instead of $1.99), data (internet and email) for 50 cents a MB instead of $20, and text messages for 10 cents each. They couldn't tell me exactly how many emails you get for one MB of data, but it's roughly 300. About half that many if there are attachments. So he took my iPhone and I have his Verizon phone.

Andre's been busy since he arrived. He handed out the stuff he brought. The finger flashlights that someone from Minorsan donated were a big hit. He also went up to the village of Athis with his stepfather and brother. They're ready to buy the land, but the escrow office is destroyed. So he got a meeting with the seller on Friday to talk about making a deposit on the land through a lawyer, to guarantee the price, and hopefully to allow them to start building.

Andre also sent me photos of his friend "Coach", his Aunt Miche and sister Beatrice in front of the tent that a friend donated. This friend's sister works for Eureka Tents, so she was able to get a returned tent for $20, regularly $150 new. Miche is sharing it with four others. Andre's family hasn't been able to put up the dome tent because there's no space for it. They're staying in a campsite with about 70 families not too far from their house. They can't go anywhere else because they wouldn't be able to keep an eye on their house and their possessions. Another dome tent went to a friend's family and they've been able to set it up. Andre didn't send me any pictures of that yet.

He did send me pictures of the Hotel Villa Imperial where we used to pay $5 a day to go swimming, use their wi-fi, and recharge cell phones and my laptop. The owner of the hotel died in the earthquake. I was glad to hear that the manager survived. Fortunately, he was out in the parking lot when the earthquake hit. Andre sent another picture of a destroyed building just a few blocks from his folks' house.

Andre thinks his family's house might be repairable. That would be the best short term solution to get them safe from the rainy season that's coming up soon. I asked him to see if he can find a seismic engineer to inspect it -- preferably from California or another place that gets earthquakes frequently.

I'm leaving on Tuesday, changing planes in Miami and Santo Domingo. I have an overnight layover in Santo Domingo. I was joking that I should set up the dome tent and air mattress for myself in the airport. My own little refugee camp. Andre and I are booked on the same return flight on April 7, overnighting in Miami with some Haitian friends.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Our new dome tents from Shelter Systems

We ordered three 14-foot dome relief tents from Shelter Systems, a Santa Cruz company. Soon after the earthquake rocked Haiti, the U.N. ordered 3000 tents from Shelter Systems, their biggest order ever. Several mission groups have ordered 100 or 200 to go to Haiti also. Up until now, these dome tents were most popular at Burning Man gatherings.

Jeff, who works at their westside warehouse, was super nice and showed Andre how to assemble one in just 25 minutes. You don't need any tools, and they go together like tinker toys. The finished product is strong, light, durable, comfy, private, well ventilated, etc. etc. They don't have any seams or zippers to rip.

Eleanor Hamner, the company's business manager, spent 13 years of her childhood living in a dome tent in Aptos, CA. Needless to say, her parents who started Shelter Systems, were hippies. Her dad still sports long gray hair and beard. "But we all live in houses now," says Eleanor, even though she says she loved living in the dome tent.

The bad news is we just found out on American Airlines website that they have new restrictions for flights to Haiti. Originally, when we bought Andre's ticket for March 8, we were told he could take two 50-pound bags, one 40-pound carry-on and a day pack for free, plus a maximum of three more 50-pound bags for $100 each. We were preparing to take the max. Now we find out he can only take one 50-pound extra bag. We're also concerned about the bulk of the relief tents, even though they only weigh 43 pounds each.

Our plan is to get to the airport three hours early on March 8 and bring three extra bags. I will use all my chutzpah to try to get them on the plane. If not, I bring two back home until I fly over to Haiti in a week or 10 days. I decided to wait until Andre gets in touch with me from Haiti about the situation over there before I make my reservation. A friend who has lots of frequent flyer miles has offered to let me have them, but I'm going to pay her half the price of a ticket. That's really generous of her.

Andre's family has been trying to discourage us from coming. His brother asked him if he's really ready to see his country in ruins. It sounds like such a desperate situation. Maybe we won't stay a month after all. We'll see once we get there.