Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rubble in the Morning

The morning routine is important to all organizations. With Hands On Disaster Response (HODR), it is breakfast served from six to seven and everyone out to the door to their work transport by 7:30. Our transport is usually a pick-up truck with welded on benches, called a ‘tap-tap’ because that’s how you communicate with the driver – pound twice on the side panel, “I want to stop here.” Pound twice more, “Ok, we’re ready to go again.”

The place awakens pretty gradually – there’s no reveille. It’s not easy to sleep after the sun starts peaking over the base’s walls, so most people are up by six or six-thirty. Nothing beats a natural wake up to the sun.

Breakfast consists of some oatmeal, bread, peanut butter and jelly. Pretty much the same as I ate for everyday for two years in the Peace Corps. Carbs for the big work day ahead. And, of course, there’s some good rail-road style coffee: always a “brew of the day,” which happened to be Towo – Haitian Revenge Coffee, this morning. It really is the same black sludge brew every day, but for sanity’s sake it’s nice to pretend it’s not. But it doesn’t really matter in the end when coffee is coffee and food is just food.

Come 7:15 or so, people start to get ready for their work day. The dirty shirts and shorts for removing rubble come back on (if they ever came off in the first place), the tools – sledgehammers, picks, shovels, wire snips, bolt cutters, wheelbarrows ,etc.— come out of the tool-shed to be loaded on the tap-taps. The Bobcats come alive with a slight growl and like some sci-fi cyborgs crawl out the back door with their drivers nestled in the caged-in seat. Not everyone leaves, some stay at base, but it gets quiet when 100 of 120 volunteers are gone.


HODR has moved into a partially finished nightclub/community center/radio station/internet cafĂ©/bakery of a local guy named Joe. It’s a real sturdy building which is nice to have in an Earthquake zone. Our area is a large rectangular courtyard in the partially completed community center. At the end of each head is a small stage and large, 15 foot tall over-hangs, held up with big sturdy-looking pillars lines each long side. Under one side bunks are set up for volunteers. Under the other are work areas for fabrication, storage of cement and some work equipment (like the Bobcats) and a seating area with a couch made out of undistributed emergency tents in their sacks – lumpy cushions but nice to have none-the-less.

Since there are so many volunteers and staff, the bunks are augmented by tents set up all over the place, mostly on the stages and roof. An office occupies a room behind one stage and the bathrooms occupy the area behind the other stage. Showers are set to the side of the office, tarps set up over a framework of wood for division and privacy. Bucket baths and flush toilets are the way – water is drawn from a well via a diesel feed pump. No A.C. Nothing much in the way of fans. Simple and basic living. Nice to be back to that.

In our ‘backyard’ is a large supply base. Dubbed the Joint Logistics Base, it is shared by other NGOs: USAID, CHF, Canadian Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and others. Rows of containers take-up one area while construction of steel frames, long term habitation tents takes place in a large tent in another area. Many more large tents an supply dumps area arranged in the area. A large walled in compound, HODR shares security and logistics responsibilities with the other groups, providing them with an area to work and plan, and HODR with access to partners with financing and projects to implement. The steel frame tents are a USAID financed, CHF administered project producing sturdy, weather (and Hurricane) proof housing for Haitians.

There’s been a lot of cooperation in Haiti, even if there hasn’t been a lot of organization from the top. Maybe it’s just HODR being open to cooperation, but in the couple days I’ve been here there have been meetings with NGOs, UN Missions, and Haitian locals to coordinate planning and project implementation.

Rubble removal is the mainstay of HODR’s activities, but they also work in many other areas. There are people working in house demolition, as hospital runners and orderlies for the field hospital next door, developing sand-based water filters that can be produced locally, composting toilets and sanitation education, redevelopment of public spaces, building schools, interacting with orphans, and training teachers on disaster response education and how to help kids recover emotionally from the tragedy. The projects are many and people are encouraged to try out different ones. Each evening there is an ‘All Hands’ (get the pun?) meeting where the day’s work is discussed and the next day’s is presented. Afterward people sign up for the jobs that they are interested in for the following day.

So far, I’ve done Rubble Removal which is the mainstay of HODR’s work in Haiti.

Rubble Removal:

Someone in the news said recently that at the current rate of clearing rubble, Haiti will be free of it in twenty years. Twenty years! One of the projects HODR works on is removing rubble for Haitians so they can have a clear place to start anew. Whether the new start is a tent or a new house is up to them, but we can at least help them move on to that point.

This is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. I’m used to being physical active, even in the heat (Drum Corps, anything in Niger), but I’ve never before put in a four hour shift of swing a sledge, dragging out rebar and concrete and carting rubble off in a wheelbarrow. For me, the heat here isn’t too bad, but working in it… that’s a whole other story. You sweat and sweat and sweat, till your shirt drips and your shorts and work gloves are soaked.

When I arrived at my first rubble sight, where two houses had collapsed against each other, a twisted pile of concrete, exposed steel rebar and buried belongings, I thought, as everyone does “Where do I even start?!”

It’s a process of sledging up the large chunks, to free the rebar which, if in good shape, will be used again, and to make the debris small enough to cart away in the wheelbarrows. Nothing is ever straight forward in clearing a rubble pile. Multistory houses create level upon level of solid roofs or walls that have to be completely smashed to move downward. Rebar becomes so twisted that it needs to be cut with heavy and awkward bolt cutters. For some reason Haitian roofs were much stronger than the walls so that a wall can be demolished in a couple minutes, but a roof will take thirty or more – maybe one of the reasons so many houses collapsed.

It’s offer the small victories over a stubborn piece of rebar or a particularly stout ceiling that keep you going through the heat and exhaustion and aches and pains. It almost seems to take longer to tear down a house than to build one in the first place. It’s amazing how many volunteers have been here with HODR for three, four, or five months, clearing away the rubble and helping Haitians find a place to start over.

-  On my first day there was a cute little girl named Jessica who was trying to help me out. After trying on my gloves herself, she put them on my hands for me, she brought me my water and tried to carry some rubble, though she tired of that quickly.
- Her brother(?), on the other hand, spent the afternoon clearing out one little piece of rebar by hand on the back side of our sight. Worked away at it for a good long while.
- Just like in Niger, kids run rampant. Not as bad as there, but they’re still all over the place. Sometimes they’re annoying, sometimes helpful, but most always cute little buggers.
- I am on picture taking crew on monday so will try to get some pictures up then.


FONT LOVER said...


Carl said...

Jeremey, Reading your notes with great interest. I've kept up a bit with what's happening there, but it's great to hear from someone "on the ground." We used to be able to depend on journalists for that, and it still happens now and again. Generally, though, the news coverage gets wrapped in a cocoon of ratings hunger that leaves the results far short of reality. Your comment about ceilings was interesting--same thing happened in Kobe in 1995 with their tile roofs. Breaking concrete? Oddly enough, I did that one summer too, only with a jackhammer when I was a college student in Missouri--hot and humid, dust, I have an idea what the experience is like--at least that part of it. Keep up the posts when you can.

caracolina said...

Hi Jeremy, I just found your blog yesterday because I was interested in Niger after attending a concert of the band Etran Finatawa. I'm starting at the beginning of your blog and hope when I reach the present you'll still be writing about your current adventures. Love the photos, too! Wishing you best of luck in Haiti,


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