Designing and Building in Central and East Africa

Surveying the Wreckage in Haiti

While this blog is primarily about Central and East African design and construction projects, I have also spent considerable time in Haiti – which suffers from many of the same problems as Sub-Saharan Africa.  My first experience in Haiti occurred a few weeks after the January earthquake of 2010.  After spending 2 weeks working throughout the town of Petit Goave surveying schools and civic structures, I published a few articles and completed a 100+ page document detailing each damaged (or undamaged) building.

You can read the complete Architectural Record article here.   You can view the complete assessment report PDF document  here… it will take some time to load.

What those links will not tell you, is how terribly complicated it was to get to work under such hectic conditions.  I feel compelled to write about this experience – as I imagine most volunteers have encountered similar challenges, and they are still plaguing their efforts today:

In the week or two that followed the earthquake, I saw the many commercials saying “Text xxxx to donate $10 to the relief effort.”  I also spoke with many of my friends who donated their $10 and who stated it with pride.  I however, was a bit skeptical of sending money to anyone without knowing exactly where it would go and how it would help.  After seeing how much money had been misused after Hurricane Katrina, I realized that the only way I would be able to help Haiti would be to go down there myself.

By mid February the search and rescue efforts had begun to subside, and immediate temporary housing became a primary focus.  Surveying the damage to existing structures was also a very much needed – and would assist the Haitian government and the numerous NGOs in allocating my friends’ $10 to where it was most needed.  I attended a weekend workshop on Earthquake damage assessment (which was quite sobering) and kept my ears open for any organizations that would be headed down there.  That very next day I received word that a group was headed down to Haiti.  There was an open call for nurses, firemen, architects and engineers.  They were leaving Wednesday.  I did not hesitate.  “Where do I sign?”  Not only could I speak French, and I was a certified damage inspector, and had design and construction experience in the developing world.  Within 24 hours, my friends had emptied their medicine cabinets, architect friends gave me hardhats, I purchased hazard tape, and I got 4 shots – 2 in each arm.  I purchased my ticket to Miami where I was to meet my team, and spent Tuesday night reviewing my French vocabulary.

Upon meeting my team of strangers in Miami, I learned that I would be headed to Haiti with three engineers, one medical student, one firefighter, and our “team leader”.   I was the only architect, the only French speaker, the only person who had any training in damage assessment, and the youngest of us all.  We landed in Port-Au-Prince, and the devastation was worse than I had imagined.  The complete mess that was a fractured capital was evident in so many ways.  In our first meeting with a partnering NGO, we began to realize just how complex of a disaster had developed.  Slums had sprouted up everywhere, sanitation was a huge problem, and zones of extreme damage had been identified across the city.  Unfortunately, no one knew exactly where to start or which organizations were working in which areas.  After the meeting, still exhausted from our arrival, we drove through Port-Au-Prince on our way to a hotel where we pitched our tents for the night.  The next day, we returned to our partner’s offices where we were given a strict security briefing.  I was not permitted to go anywhere without a driver and security.  I had to keep my door locked at all times, and was fed numerous horror stories of aid workers getting abducted and killed.  After the meeting, I was informed that that was enough for today.  It was Sunday – a half day was plenty.  My frustration began to grow.  I was spending hours in traffic going back and forth between the hotel and offices full of white people; and I kept seeing numerous damaged buildings – many still occupied.  That night, I informed my team that the meetings weren’t good enough.  I needed to get out there.  I hadn’t even gotten a chance to speak to someone in need let alone survey any buildings as I had been trained to do.   The next day, we arrived at the same, now repetitive offices for more informational meetings.  The same man who looked like he hadn’t slept in a month, proceed to “explain” the situation.  He said the same, same things.  He drew the same diagrams, and mentioned that they still needed people for the sanitation issues here, to survey buildings there – but we’re still working on assessing the situation though…

By this point my frustration began to boil over.  “What the HELL am I doing here??!!  Why is everyone so content with talking about these terrible problems and not finding solutions???”  I split off from my group and started asking around.  I finally cornered Pierre, a man who seemed more connected than others, and explained to him that I had skills that were desperately needed “out there”.  I told him that I was not going to spend any more of my time sitting in another meeting unless it would conclude with my deployment.  I would arrive tomorrow with my packed sleeping bag and tent – and if I didn’t end the day with an assignment, I was going to walk “out there” and find a way to help those in need.  Some of the other team members initially thought that I was trigger happy kid.  “Calm down dude.  It’s important that we learn as much about the situation as possible before getting to work.”  Perhaps there was some truth to that, but enough was enough.  These meetings with white people were repetitive and not getting me any closer to “understanding”.  I returned the next day with my enormous backpack and cold determination in my eyes.  It took me a few hours to corner Pierre again – but he had taken what I said seriously and had found a community that was in great need of assessments.

“The mayor of Petit Goave has asked that you help in assessing the damage to their town center.  Unfortunately, it is a few hours away and we won’t be able to make it there today.  We can leave first thing tomorrow morning.”

Finally calmed and satisfied that I was going to get to work, I began to recruit the structural engineer in our group, Tom.  Not only did he have experience in designing structures as an engineer, but he was much older than me.  I knew Tom would be a perfect teammate with his grey hair and calm, calculative personality.

I spent the next 10 days in Petit Goave with Tom, Jean-Pierre (the local government’s engineer), and two young translator/fixers whom we paid $5/day.  Together we conducted damage assessments of over 50 buildings throughout Petit Goave, including all civic structures and schools within the urban environment.  Those ten days were among the most difficult of my life – seeing the broken structures, the living conditions of those who were too scared to return to living in their homes, and confronting my own fears as we entered building after building – it was exhausting.  Amongst this landscape of destruction however, there was an air of rebirth and opportunity.  “We will build it back better” and “This is our chance to fix our city” were common phrases in discussions.  It was this positive attitude that powered us through the stark reality of the situation in front of us.

Unfortunately, many of the colleagues on my “team” were unable to contribute to the same degree.  Many found themselves going from meeting to meeting trying to figure out exactly where they would be able to be the most effective.  As we returned to the Port-Au-Prince airport, only Tom and I felt that we had accomplished something.

The situation in Haiti is extremely complex, with numerous NGO’s tripping over one another in order to decide which is the best way to proceed.  It is frustrating and heartbreaking.  I know of a few solid individuals there though that are making some progress.  Happily, their stories manage to trickle out among the agonizing press stories of Haiti’s sluggish turn around.  It is going to be a long road to recovery for the small island nation, and those who ready for change will simple have to make it happen.

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