Sunday, March 21

Last update

Well this will be my last update.  Got lots still to do before I leave as after receipt of some emails I need to take some video and photos.  I was due to go to the Upland areas of the DMT programme site yesterday, but it rained all through the night and into the day, so the visit was called off 6.30 yesterday morning.  It means I have to leave some things unfinished and in the hands of others.  It isn’t that they aren’t capable, but I am now more susceptible to the vagaries of communications to get what I need.  The rains meant that there was an impact on the programme work, in the morning they were unable to even get the car out of the parking area.  The road up the hillside is treacherous at the best of times but the rains will make it inaccessible at times.

The rains were heavy and although only for less than 24 hours have an immediate impact on the camps and the roads around Port au Prince.  Yesterday I received the following email via the shelter cluster asking for assistance with tents and flooring.  ‘The compound is situated at the Petionville Club, and there is an IDP camp of approx 45,000 people living there. Last night the hospital tent was damaged and has no flooring so it is taking on water and is a muddy disaster, but they are still using it to treat urgent care and emergency patients. Equipment, including an x-ray machine was moved under shelter but there is more equipment in danger from the rain and mud/flooding. The school tents (over 300 kids enrolled) were ruined and unusable, all of the school supplies and tables/chairs have been moved to high ground, but are not under shelter.
 We need to replace the clinic and school tents, and provide flooring, today if possible. The location for the school has been moved to more stable ground to avoid this happening again if we have the necessary flooring/tents. The clinic would be stabalized if there was flooring and a more stable tent structure.’

The government is still struggling to secure land and agreements for new camps to the north of Port au Prince.  Landowners have not proved willing to give land that will in all probability be a permanent gift, the government has said it does not have the funds to purchase the land (money coming in from appeals has not gone to the government), the church has very little land in Haiti, and so the debates and negotiations carry on.  Plans that seemed firm two weeks ago are now not so concrete, but time marches inexorably onwards.

I was reminded today that news is a matter of perspective.  I happened to see an article from the Guardian about 2 weeks ago reporting the usage of Google earth and map for plotting aid coming into Haiti.  Strange that this is news, since it has been happening since the beginning of the crisis.  Many of the towns and communities have different names in French and Creole, or even just the way they are reported.  Agencies need to be clear where distributions or work is going on and so GPS coordinates have consistently been encouraged and mapped through the coordinating bodies and onto Google.  Technological tools which are deemed almost a necessity suddenly become news.  As Tearfund we have a lovely map of all our programme sites and I’m trying to get them plotted on a map showing contours, mountain tops, main towns etc.  It all helps to give a clear picture of where each agency is working.

I’m off to a church tomorrow that needs rebuilding after the earthquake.  I’m being collected at 6am but am told it will be over by 8am!

I’ve been thinking about things I’m looking forward to or will miss as I return, and a couple of the team have asked about 1st meals!

I’ll miss the sun and the warmth, but not the mud.  Tents and mud aren’t great but then it is warm and so it soon washes off
I’ll miss seeing the programme develop, seeing things I’ve worked on come to fruition
I’ll miss the people who have put so much passion, energy and their dreams into creating the programme and will be able to see lives change
I’ll miss being a part of something bigger than just Tearfund, being a cog in the coordination machinery
I’ll miss the local staff who have got used to our funny ways and shared their lives
I’ll even miss my little tent, my sanctuary from the world!

And what am I looking forward to?  Seeing my children – what else is there?!


Tuesday, March 16

Drama and dilemmas

It was with great anticipation that I set off for a weekend of comparative comfort, however, as often happens the anticipation is greater than reality!  The building started off looking like a slightly rundown one storey motel, but it was by the sea.  We tried to dump bags, but the rooms weren’t ready so we went off for lunch with a possible donor.  On our return at about 5pm, after a number of visits en route, the rooms still weren’t ready.  We were able to sit with a cool drink near to the water, then had a quick paddle in the water before being shown our room.  Unfortunately, the apartment that the person booking the rooms had been shown, did not quite match the one that we were in.  In ours the door handles didn’t quite work, the bathroom door didn’t fit the frame, or have a handle or latch.  There were no curtains in the rooms which looked straight out into the restaurant area.  The apartment had been wired but there were no plug sockets just bare wires, the light switches were a switch in a hole surrounded by wires.  The beds also had plastic over them which in a hot climate is not great. The hotel manager was surprised that we didn’t appreciate how hard he’d worked to get to that point,  we thought we were getting the finished product – it was all in all rather like an episode from Fawlty Towers.

After a long programme meeting on Saturday from 9am to 6pm at night one of our lucky number jumped into the sea but got out again a couple of minutes later saying that something had bitten her.  It was in fact a box jelly fish.  After many phone calls and raiding of the medical kit we were fortunate to be able to help.  I think about 6 jelly fish had been swept over the coral reef, it wasn’t a usual occurrence, just unfortunate I think.

Today I have finished off an application for tarpaulins for 3,600 households for Tearfund partners here in Port au Prince.  I’ll take it I when I go to the Logs base tomorrow morning and hopefully there will be tarps still in the pipeline that we can access.  I’m also trying to compile a spreadsheet before I leave which shows all the Tearfund partners and programme, in all the different areas, with the activities that will be undertaken so that all the information is in a central place.  Tomorrow I think we’re working on an application to UNICEF to be able to access resources for schools and early learning.  There is an item called ‘school in a box’ which is literally what it is!

The large mounds of rubble everywhere on the streets continue to grow.  The groups of people in red, yellow, blue, purple T shirts on cash for work programmes are a talking point in many meetings, but they are doing valuable work clearing ditches, rubble and rubbish from the streets.  An item which is taking up time currently in most of the cluster meetings is discussions about camp relocations.  5 new camps have been designated by the government and it anticipated that 200,000 people will be moved from camps in the city into the new camps, where transitional shelters will be built.  There are various discussions going on in clusters regarding human rights and ensuring people are not moved forcibly.  There are also issues with regard to children needing to be registered to ensure their safety in the move, which will probably happen very quickly and with little warning.  Many of the camps from which people will be moved are overcrowded and with poor sanitation and facilities and will flood during the rainy season.  It is a problem not easily solved.  Talking to local Haitians they all know people who just sleep at the camps, but during the day return to their homes to cook and try and carry on their lives.  For some their homes have actually been passed as safe by engineers but the majority of these have not been reoccupied, people would rather sleep out in the open away from concrete.  So these people will not want to move to live in different camps, the majority of which are 10 km north of Port au Prince.  For the government their predicament is difficult, if you forcibly move people their will be outcry from the NGO community regarding human rights, if you leave people who do not want to move there will be outcry that people who have suffered from the earthquake are now living in flooded areas.  One of the myriad of issues that people are struggling to solve.


Saturday, March 13

Mapping out the work

The hot and sticky is back, it is so comforting to have got rid of the rain and cool and back to the heat.  The focus this week for me has definitely been house hunting.  Trying to find a house, in a suitable location, with enough rooms, can fit in a large generator, has water supply, wired for electricity, is secure, with parking for a number of vehicles and all for the right price has been a challenge.  But hopefully the search is now over.  We met with the engineer and gave our list of modifications today, now we just have to agree the lease.  It seems a really nice house, shame I’ll never live in it!  I have truly seen a complete range, the ‘fixer’ said that I would now have a good understanding of Haitian housing.

I’ve also been working with the information from the needs assessment with partners to try and get clarity on the number of tarpaulins needed.  I think that is agreed now but I need to submit the request and see if we can get any.  I’m really not sure that there is complete understanding about what this will entail from their end, but I can only set it up and hope it works out OK.  I’m also trying to get a large spreadsheet together of all the project sites, both DMT and partners, the number of beneficiaries and households, what activities are being undertaken and then the location with GPS coordinates.

We’ve got a media team here and it is very interesting seeing Port au Prince from their perspective and new eyes.  I took them up a hill to an area that has been very badly affected.  The photographer was taking photos of some buildings when some local people came up to him to point out where a body was still trapped in the rubble.  Apparently some of the areas they have been don’t smell too great.  But mostly as you travel around the city people are actively trying to clear away the rubble, even if it is one person trying to chip away at an enormous pile of concrete that was their house.  I was parked in traffic the other day looking at the rubble by the side of the road.  It was truly representative of lives torn apart.  In this mound there were a couple of concertinaed cars, clothes, bedspreads, plant pots, artificial flowers, a teddy bear, kitchen ware.  All parts of lives now changed and mixed with concrete, debris and dust.

Tomorrow is quite exciting as I am off to Leogane again.  I should get to see a couple of the programme sites in the afternoon and then an all day programme meeting on Saturday.  But the excitement is that we’re staying in accommodation with beds and running water!  I’ll have to see if I can actually sleep any better than on a thermarest on the ground.  Maybe there will even be hot or warm water.   


Monday, March 8

House Hunting

After the highlight of my helicopter flight the week came back to reality, with 4 of my original group going home on Wednesday morning.  It seemed very quiet and bereft without them.  Only 5 in camp on Wednesday night.  Others arrived back from the field on Thursday and a media team arrived on Friday. 

I’ve spent a number of afternoons looking at houses for the team.  I’ve managed to find a ‘fixer’ who is taking me round a series of houses, I’ve now managed to drop all the palatial houses ‘not really Tearfund’, the ones in the middle of nowhere ‘we don’t want to feel too isolated’ and the luxury ones ‘we aren’t an embassy and we have to look after our money’.  I actually saw two today that had the right number of rooms and feel, but one had too many cracks for my liking and ideally I’d like them nearer to the office we’ve located.  Tomorrow afternoon I’m off to see the office to make suggestions for layout and then ……… more houses.  We’ve had quite a bit of rain this week and, although this afternoon was warm and sunny again, it has been a good reminder that when the rains come it will quickly get muddy, and camping is quite difficult when you can’t keep things out of the rain and the washing doesn’t dry.

I’ve got a copy of the needs assessment done with our partner organisations in Port au Prince now, so am just working out the tarpaulin requirements for their compounds.  Many of them have people camping around their buildings, some of which are churches and another a bible college.  For everyone the recent rains are bringing into sharp focus the need to get adequate emergency shelter out to everyone.  I’d really like to get it sorted before I come home.  I’m also trying to source resources from UNICEF and Save for schools, child protection and hygiene promotion.  Resources are slowly becoming available so hopefully I can get some information on them this week.

Not so many coordination meetings now.  They are mostly now going to one a week.  They are still very useful to get information on what is happening, new initiatives and guidelines.  Did various reports last week as well so at least those are now done and out of the way.

Lindsey Reece-Smith
Project Support Officer
Tearfund Haiti
Port au Prince

Wednesday, March 3

Adventures on a helicopter

Up at 5.30am this morning to get ready for the lorry arriving.  The last lorry for the tarpaulins had arrived – unfortunately the waxed boxes had not survived so well with the recent rains as we have still been unable to find warehousing locally in Port Au Prince.  It was a bit of a heavy, soggy job to get everything in the truck.  However, this was done and I and two others set off for the logs base and the helipad. 

There was of course the usual waiting around, first for the wfp truck with additional sheeting, then for the UN heli (a Russian Mil 17 from about 30 years ago).  Since the payload was under 2 tonnes we were all 3 able to go on the trip.  The wait in the sun dragged on and as the wind got up I was increasingly nervous that we wouldn’t be able to make our two drops.  Finally we made it to the heli, loaded on the first set of boxes and set off.  It was great to be able to see so much of Port Au Prince as we flew out along the coast line, the closely clustered tent cities, the blue tarps sticking out above the grey of the cement and breeze blocks and the density of the city really unfolded beneath us. 

Once we moved in from the coast the hills rose up and the buildings and cement fell away.  Looking out over Haiti it is really a beautiful country, but deforestation has really taken its toll.  I do hope that as the programme progresses Tearfund is able to really help with the agriculture in the rural areas and it will look more green.  We were doing the drops by heli because there just are no roads that a vehicle can take up into the hills.  They are very isolated and the facilities of the UN are a major advantage.  It just means some forms and negotiations and some patience!  The pilot called me up to talk to him as we circled near to the given coordinates – had I been here before – sadly no!  But after a minute I did see a puff of smoke and pointed it out – as we approached the bonfire there were a group of Haitians gesticulating to the next ridge where an H was marked.  The ridge was very narrow and unfortunately the buffeting wind meant we could land along the length of the ridge but had to balance across the ridge.  It was a very tight fit and the selected community unloaders had to climb up to us to get the boxes!  It was so tight that the rise of the land meant we couldn’t fully open the doors at the back so some had to come out the side door.  There was a very funny moment for me when the pilot saw me lifting boxes out the side door.  ‘Don’t lift them Lindsey let the local people do it – you need to save the world!’

After the first successful drop we went back to the logs base and loaded up again (WFP driver had disappeared so he was dragged out from his rest!) Off again with my Russian pilot and his other two staff – one whose job was to hang out the side of the heli and see if we could land.  I was called to talk to the pilot again.  I recognised the hillside as we went up this time (there was a white cliff over to the left where the side of the mountain had fallen in the earthquake) and knew we had to climb another 250m.  We saw the smoke, but the site marked was only about 16m in length before some make shift shelter – there was no way we could land, the material would have been blown into the blades.  We circled several times and finally landed at the site the heli had landed on Saturday on the next ridge.  After negotiating with the local committee they helped us unload.  The people waiting on the ridge for us had to run down and up again to meet us.  We saw them arriving just as we were lifting off!

It was a great experience and help so desperately needed for really remote communities.


Tuesday, March 2

Lorries, helicopters, mules and 4x4s

Thursday morning found me at the logs base again talking to the nice people in the OCHA office about a map.  We had some of the GPS coordinates of our distribution sites and wanted them plotted on a map.  Over two hours later, I had a number of copies of a beautiful full colour map, showing our sites, the towns and also the hills and contours.  We had to call at the warehouse that stores the gift in kind items to sort out truck loading, then lead a truck back to our compound for loading of the cut tarpaulins.  I ended up travelling in the lorry, following another 2 from the team in the car, to Leogane so that we could keep in contact with VHF radios.

Travelling in the cab of a lorry does give a very good view of the city as we travelled out of Port au Prince.  I could see over the walls into the tent cities, see the destruction behind the house fronts and we also passed along the edge of the port.  One section of the port was completely taken over by row upon row of US army tents, at the start it seemed to stretch as far as you could see.  Once out of the city the houses were spread further apart and somehow this seemed to make the scale of destruction look worse.  There weren’t roads to go down that looked untouched, or one house standing next to one that wasn’t.  It just seemed to be houses that had all suffered to some extent.  Sections of the road had giant steps in them, other sections were like the waves in the sea and other parts just had enormous cracks.

We got to the warehouse just before it closed with our lorry, we’d borrowed a small section from another agency for a few days, unfortunately the 4 following on behind were not so fortunate so the drivers had to stay overnight to unload the following day.  It is a big task to do a distribution.  Not only do you have to get the right goods in the right place, but the lorries, the staff, the loaders and unloaders, the agreement between agencies of whom is distributing where.  Then you add in meeting with community leaders to ask them to identify the most vulnerable in their community to receive assistance and to compile a list.  We had local staff on what seemed like endless phone calls to make sure the tickets had been given out for the distribution, the list of names written and collected, the site for distribution identified, the security sorted out and the time of the distribution agreed.

Friday we got a late start because of the trucks needing to unload in Leogane and a late release from the airport of the jerry cans.  We were still trying to confirm helicopter drops for the communities inaccessible by road, and cutting the last few tarpaulins which had arrived late from the supply chain warehouse in Port au Prince.  4 small distributions were done in the afternoon.  When the needs assessment was done the other week, one community had a lady whose baby had been born the day of the earthquake.  The baby was well but she was concerned about the coming rains and how to keep the baby well, she had also hurt her leg.  When they went back to the community to do the distribution the lady was at the front of the queue for her tarpaulins!  Within an hour of some people being given the tarpaulins some of the shelters were seen going up.  On Saturday after more distributions during the day, the rains came down very heavily in the evening.  It was a good feeling to think that some people were dry that night because of the tarpaulins given out a few hours before.

Saturday was a busy day with more distributions, some going very smoothly without a hitch, one that the committee were working from 3 different lists which was a challenge (!), others were there was minor difficulties and another which became like a Whitehall farce where the lorry refused to go down the last half hour of the road, when the goods got there the committee which was mostly nuns hadn’t drawn up the list (one of the sisters had forgotten to give a message to another) and the only sheets given out at that location were to the people who came on mules or horses down the mountain as the heli couldn’t fit in the last 20 household sets!  Sometimes there are moments when you think I could write a book about this!  The heli drops went well, though late as there was a delay for an hour and a half at the beginning of the day.  The team who had to climb the mountain to meet them had to set off at 4.30am to ensure they were there on time and didn’t get down and back to camp until 7.30pm.  The community were very grateful though and appreciative that after the visit from the needs assessment team they hadn’t been forgotten but had returned bringing items for them.

Sunday half the team went back to Port au Prince first thing and the rest of us carried on until the evening.  I did one in the morning right on the top of the mountains, the road up was incredible, again with earthquake fractures, a challenge even in a 4 x 4 vehicle, but at the top you could see for miles out across the other mountain ridges.  The afternoon we set off with two lorry loads for 450 households at 3 sites.  I never thought the lorries would make it down into two river beds and up the other side but to my surprise they did!  The more urban communities felt very different from the rural, much more questioning about what they would get now and in the future.  The rural communities just seemed grateful that they had been remembered.  At my first distribution it was very touching to see an elderly lady right at the front of the line on a chair.  She was helped up the steps to where we were distributing (community along a tarmac road with a narrow concrete walkway with nothing to prevent you from falling off the edge to the road 3 metres below!), collected her sheets and then was helped away back to her home.  Helping the most vulnerable in society, has to be what it’s all about!