Build it, and they will come…

14 Mar

The rainy season is almost here. You can feel it. The air is heavier, the evenings are sultry, and the sky is red in the morning.

For all of the improvement in the number of waterproof tents and tarps now out in the camps throughout Port-au-Prince, there is still a long way to go. Far too many people still have noting but thin cloth or cardboard between themselves and the weather.

But distributing emergency shelter materials, as needed as they are, is of limited use. Many of the camps, even where there are tents and tarps, will be flooded, muddy, nasty swamps once the rains start. The people living in many of these places will have to be relocated. And soon.

It’s becoming clear that relocating earthquake survivors back to the sites of their original homes is not an option now. Nor will it be for some time. A very few can move back and rebuild now, but for most that is simply not an option. Removing the rubble of even a small collapsed house requires heavy equipment.

UNOPS and the US Military currently lead the conversation about rubble-clearing. They estimate the number of front-loaders it will take to fill X number of 10-ton dump trucks, and how long that will take and where all the rubble will be dumped… and they reckon that it’ll be something like five years to clear out the collapsed buildings. Moreover, government and public buildings take precedence, and those zones will be cleared and prepared for rebuilding first. No one can say with any real conviction when large swaths of residential Port-au-Prince will be ready for rebuilding and re-habitation.

So, survivors will have to be relocated to tertiary sites. At least on a “temporary” basis.

The ideal option will be to have people close enough to Port-au-Prince that they can at least sort of continue whatever livelihood they had pre-earthquake. But the land around the outskirts of Port-au-Prince is not exactly prime. The choices mainly include: a) near the coast (floods easily); b) swampy; c) mountainous (very dangerous in the event of another earthquake – likely); d) privately-owned.

At the moment there are five large-ish relocation sites identified. Of the five, three are privately-owned and negotiations are ongoing now between the Government of Haiti and the owners. Two are on public land. One, the smaller of the two, is very low. It will need to be built up… a lot, in order to keep it from turning into a total swamp once the rains start. The US Military guy at the site selection meeting estimates 4-5 weeks, running 20 dump-trucks around the clock to have the site ready for habitation.

The larger of the two is about 50 hectares – more than triple the size of the first. Despite numerous assessment visits, no one seems to know for certain whether or not this site has to be built up as well. We’re hoping to have some straight information on that by this week.

Assuming a four or five-week timeline from right now to have these two sites ready for habitation, pushes us into mid- to late-April. By then the rains will have formally started. Which means that relocation will have to happen quickly.

It also means that people will have to be relocated onto empty sites.

Ideally we’d want to build the transitional shelters on the site before people are relocated there. When the three agencies who have committed to providing the transitional shelter on these sites sit together and do the math, it come out to about four months. That’s how long it will take to have shelters ready to be moved into on the two sites. It seems very clear that having the shelters built before people move there is just not an option.

The agencies involved will spend the next five weeks putting everything possible in place during site preparation. WASH facilities, child-friendly spaces, etc.

* * *

A particularly fraught conversation right now is around whether to consider this all “long-term” or “temporary.” If we can think of it all as temporary and really run with that, then the objective to get as many people as possible onto the prepared land, under transitional shelters as soon as possible. On the other hand, if we think of this as a long-term solution and can really run with that, then we’re doing urban planning. If it’s to be long term, then we need to include parks, community centers…

And here again, there is no straight answer to be had. The official position of the government is that this is “temporary.” The reality of what it will take to prepare residential Port-au-Prince for rebuilding is around five years. And the experience of everyone in the conversation is that the relocated earthquake survivors will very likely stay there permanently. And so we find ourselves embroiled in debate over whether we layout the individual shelter sites in a straight grid (more shelters) or not (more aesthetic), whether to include a football pitch (good for communities) or include 300 more shelters.

Relocate more people now? Because they surely need it. The rain is coming any day now. Or put together a community that is livable long-term and actually has the chance to be, you know, a community? Because the likelihood is that they will be there for some time.

If we go with straight grids and no football field, we end up building a slum. A crowded slum. If we go with nice community spaces, then the rain will start and people will be living in stinky, nasty mud in the camps they’re in now, while the UN and the NGOs drag on, building nicer spaces.

It seems to me that there is no right answer here.

* * *

MINUSTAH has agreed to provide the logistics of relocating earthquake survivors from their current camps to the two new sites.

There is certainly plenty of discussion about whether the people want to go or not, and whether they’ve been consulted in the selection and layout of the new sites or not. But one thing seems clear: they want out of where they are now. And who can blame them? The current camps are terrible.

But four or five or six weeks from now, when it’s time to relocate, whether they want to go or not (and they probably do want to go), visually it is going to be men in military uniforms loading earthquake survivors onto to army trucks with their little bundles of stuff, driving them out of town, and dumping them off on flat, barren, dirt.

* * *

We’re doing the best we can with what we have. Honestly. No one in the INGO community is living large. No one is missing the point or refusing to take seriously the plight of the thousands made homeless by an earthquake, now two months ago.

Forgive my cynicism, but I totally do not trust CNN or the other major global media outlets to get this one right.

No matter what we do, it will be wrong. No matter what we do, some people will suffer as a result. We don’t want it to be this way, but that is how it will happen.

* * *

There are moments, like this, when the weight of it all weighs very heavily, when I cannot imagine an outcome that really is “good.” There are moments like this when it is tempting to throw up one’s hands and look for work in the for-profit sector.

At moments like this I have to remind myself of the humanitarian imperative.

We cannot do nothing.

I will go to the site selection coordination meeting tomorrow and along with everyone else in the room do my best to discuss and argue and negotiate the very best deal possible… for tens of thousands living in the mud right now.

God help them.

15 Responses to “Build it, and they will come…”

  1. Texas in Africa 14 March, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Amazing, J. Thanks.

  2. Canadian Idiot 14 March, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    Thanks for a depressing but really helpful description of the situation. To say there are no right answers seems like an understatement. Glad you are there to help find the best of the bad choices, my friend.

  3. Andrew 15 March, 2010 at 12:56 am #

    You Guys a really doing a great Job out there Bravo Nad may God bless you all. Amen

  4. transitionland 15 March, 2010 at 3:17 am #

    HUGS, dude.

    That was great, and the last two sections also sum up my thinking about a lot of things in Afghanistan.

    Sometimes, there is no right answer, and there won’t be a “good” outcome –no matter what, no matter WHAT. Sometimes, the best you can hope for is some kind of harm reduction. And sometimes, all you can do is hope. Period.

    Very difficult for the media and armchair critics like Bill Easterly to get that.

  5. manydrums 15 March, 2010 at 5:30 am #

    Please get in touch with Raymark Clement of American Continential 2000. Roofs for Rainbows has partnered with him. We have plans to build shelter on a massive scale in Haiti. Obstacle? Money. Raymark is working to try to ‘loosen up’ some of the publicly donated money in the big agencies. He will speak at the Summit in Santo Domingo next month. Please read his Letter to Bill Clinton:

  6. chriswaterguy 15 March, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    Really tough job – I hope the on-the-ground work you do will be appreciated.

    Re “layout the individual shelter sites in a straight grid (more shelters) or not (more aesthetic)” – it’s not necessarily that simple. Some elements of the New Urbanism philosophy could apply here. By making narrower streets in a grid pattern you can create a clearer sense of space as well as easy navigation. The narrowness slows down motorized traffic and improves safety (so they claim – somewhat counter-intuitive, but it actually makes sense if you think it through).

    Encouraging a leafy environment will also help the aesthetics, as well as the shade, ambient temperature and freshness of the air. Ideally they could plant certain fruit trees and other food crops which will yield in < 5 years. Doesn't need a lot of space, but can make a very big difference to how the environment feels, and possibly the sense of ownership. The plants are not something for you to take responsibility for, but worth raising with community leaders?

    • manydrums 15 March, 2010 at 10:32 am #

      chriswaterguy: can you get in touch with us about your village layout please? On twitter @manydrums

  7. Rachel 15 March, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    Thank you for always writing in your blog. I do learn so much from your observations. It’s like grad-school part 2. I appreciate it very much.

  8. J. 15 March, 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    – TexasinAfrica, Canadian Idiot, Andrew: Thanks so much for reading and, if I read you correctly, for “getting it.” Good to know that you’re out there…

    – Transitionland: Hugs back, of course🙂 It is truly a sad day when we have to re-articulate “Do No Harm” as “Do Less Harm” or “Do As Little Harm As Possible.”

    – ManyDrums, Chriswaterguy: Sounds like the two of you need to talk…

    – Rachel: Always good to see you here. You have my email address – drop me a line any time.

  9. Anne 15 March, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    Thanks for, once again, a great post! Currently in Haiti as well, so really recognize what you’re saying, good that these messages are coming out as well!
    Cheers, Anne

  10. Marshall 16 March, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    I’ve enjoyed (well, not enjoyed, but been educated by) reading your blog posts for some time now. As I follow all the news I can find about Haiti, I find I agree more and more with your last line; may God help them. The rest of us can only do so much.

    To be clear, I have enjoyed your posts as far as content and writing, just not topic.


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