Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Postscript (2) Haiti deals another blow

Almost immediately I found him on a tribute site on Facebook.  I traced it back to the start of the thread.  Before I read forwards I knew what had happened.  Greg worked for the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States as an inspector of planes.  Considering the job he did I was surprised he hated travel.  He was far more at home with his circle of friends in Antigua.  But he had been forced to go to Haiti for a workshop and he stayed at the Hotel Montana.  The earthquake occurred while he was there.  As I read the posts on the Facebook page the story with all its emotion unfurled.  First there were the post trying to find him, and ask for any help.  Then as the days go by there was the support to the search and rescue teams who were battling to dig into the rubble of the hotel.  Then the desperation as nothing was found well beyond the time you would expect anyone to realistically survive, and finally the moment when a body with identifiable markings was brought out.

And then the posts became about the tributes to a wonderful man, a great colleague, a fine friend.  The details of the memorial service, links to the newspapers in Antigua and Trinidad.  And more comments came.

To find this over two and a half years after the event was a devastating blow.  To know such a warm, friendly human being, and realised how much I’d taken his presence for granted.  To know his life was taken away in a moment, or maybe in such a painful, horrific way I cannot imagine.  Another friend I wanted to grow old with.

My time in Haiti was punctuated with the loss of two great comrades, and for that I shall always be saddened.  My time in Haiti was also a tense time with having to be constantly on guard, often confined and with the pressure of a quick contract to deliver.  Still through that I saw a resilient people, a fiery creativity growing from the heartland of this crazy capital city, and still the elements of all good Caribbean living in its rural areas.  Its future will be difficult, may not go exactly to plan, but it inevitably has to have a future, and an independent character that will see it on for many hundreds of years to come.

And personally, well ,  I still have the glorious memories of my good friends.


Sunset over Port Au Prince


Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Recce of the Montana

These little events stay in the mind, but they were horrible punctuations in a rich tapestry of life.  Towards the end of the trip, I had completed the work I needed to do and had my inputs  ready for the workshop.  Jean Luc needed some help at the hotel where the workshop was to be held, so I accompanied him on a short visit there.  The Montana had been one of the flagship hotels in Haiti before the quake.  Like many high status buildings on the south side of the valley, it had a prominent position on the end of a ridge.  As we headed up the entrance driveway,  the vista revealed itself – the Caribbean Sea to the west, the port and downtown area next by the coast, and the suburbs, airport and salt lake all laid out below us.  But the hotel was  a shadow of itself.  It did not reveal itself to me immediately.  Jean Luc and I walked across a small garden with a formal ornamental pond into a small neatly painted office; the reception.  We waited a while for the staff to become free and then walked with the events manager to the conference room.  We passed a pool surrounded by half collapsed masonry, and into a large room facing out over the city.

We sorted out the affairs and I took a little look outside on the terrace.  There seemed to be few guests and few rooms for them to stay in, but the room we were looking  at was in good repair.  Another sign of the disproportionate damage done and the disproportionate manner in which the reconstruction had taken place.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – A symbol of the ruin

This ceremonial area of the city surrounded the presidential or “National Palace”.  This had become a symbol of Haiti in the aftermath of the quake but to drive past it in context just across the way from all the displaced people, demonstrated how indiscriminate these disasters are.  Once a proud colonial edifice; a startling white wedding cake of a building with three dome capped towers at the centre and either end, now it is a forlorn sight; the upper storey three quarters demolished, the largest  of the domes having crashed right down into the entrance hall,  a second had buckled and was now removed; the third still titled at a 30 degree angle.  This is the heart of the nation, and yet it was unable to keep beating.  And again, like our friend the waiter in Petionville, a very uncertain future with little hope of rebuilding. We headed back up to Ibo Lele.  Few times have I been in a country that has been so closely brought to its knees as this.  I’d been surprised to see how quickly some places rebounded but in Haiti that process would not be as elastic.  We just hoped our small contribution in encouraging the establishment of freshwater fishery would generate much needed protein in country and a whole market chain that would provide valuable income from the producers to the market stall holders.


A Palace (and a country?) in ruin

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – A livelihood tumbled away

We passed through the centre of Port Au Prince on the way back; in amongst the still standing buildings much of the quake ruined ones had been cleared.  But the spaces had been taken up with tented villages.  Every piece of possible material had been used to make shelter, whether it be plywood or corrugated iron, or parts of tents donated by the UN agencies, USAID, DFID and others; the names of the donors still visible on the side.  As we crawled through the late afternoon traffic, we had time to see down narrow alleys where people jostled to get past each other, children sat with their feet out of their tents watching the world and the weather.  We passed from the hustle and bustle of the shopping district into the more ceremonial parts of the capital.  In most cities this is where you go from vibrancy to solemnity, from hustle and bustle to relative oases of calm.  But with so many displaced people in Haiti even two years after the earthquake, every patch of square or parkland not securely fenced in was taken up with not just tented villages, they were tented towns and cities, maybe housing up to 10,000 people in a block.  Beneath the fading blues of the tents donated by the humanitarian community, the multicoloured Creole culture shone through, from the patterns of the women’s dresses to the gaudy plastic hardware for cooking and cleaning.  In amongst the tented houses were tented shops, tented businesses and tented bars.  People may have had got over the fear of living in buildings, but there was the inevitability that they could not afford to go back to their old plots of land, however small, and reconstruct.

When I was back in Haiti on the second visit, one of the waiters in our new hotel was a kind, gentle guy, probably in his late 50s.  He had on thick lensed glasses to combat his severe short sightedness but they never seemed good enough as he had to peer at bills and menus held close to the end of his nose.  We spent so much time in the hotel he served us several times a day with meals or drinks, and we chatted to him.  Jean Luc discovered that he lost his house at the earthquake.  He had a wife and two daughters and they had been living in one of these tents ever since.  They had salvaged a few essentials from the building, but not much, and he had lost his business that was underneath the house.  He was forced to take whatever work he could , and he ended up waiting table at tis hotel in Petionville.  The government compensation scheme was woefully underfunded and bureaucratic, and he had no insurance.  He did not have enough savings to rebuild his home.  It seemed desperate that someone who had spent so many years building a respectable life had not only had it swept away almost instantly, but had been given little hope to even reclaim a small portion of that life.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – The Deadening Rain

We had a meeting with our guides in a local bar to discuss what it was we were supposed to have seen, the rain still pouring steadily outside and the occasional rumble of thunder reinforcing our good decision not to go into the middle of the lake in a metal boat.

We drove back to the crazy city  over the next couple of hours, discussing our field trip, planning the field work to be done over the next couple of months and my mapping and modelling  inputs to come.  We also chatted about life, learnt more of Jean Luc’s other career as a fish farmer in Quebec and listening to various dotty songs in French.

Rain is a deadener for human activity in developing countries.  As we drove along, all the hustle and bustle of the market had gone – a few souls desperate to buy food braved the mud and wet.  No-one worked in the fields, we would get a glimpse of people grouping together in leaky corrugated iron clad bars peering out at the weather, or from verandahs of houses,  or maybe as close up to a tree’s trunk as possible.  There was no one in the fields.  The roads; where normally people would be hanging around at junctions or by bus stops, were near empty.  Even the animals had retreated under houses and sheds.

As we drove the potholes filled with water, the ghuts and gullies splashed with brown rivers, the droplets plopped from plantain and paw paw trees.  In the countryside the rain looked life giving, once we entered the city again it just looked depressing – the already grey concrete landscape looked even drabber, the only saving was that the dust that normally hung in the air and was blown around on the trade winds or from traffic had been washed to the ground.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Past the Epicentre

Heading off again we passed through many kilometres of chaotic suburbs , gradually leaving Port Au Prince behind but then travelling through a succession of other towns and cities including Carrefour (the epicentre of the main earthquake) and Grand Saline.   It was two and a half years since the quake, and yet the evidence was all around – cracked walls, buildings still lying at peculiar angles (sometimes still being inhabited that way) .  Piles of rubble everywhere, or the material to rebuild stacked high but not yet utilised.

The waste from the earthquake mixed with the accumulating detritus from a third world city; household waste piled high from food and glass to sofas, oil drums and old cars.  Picking their way through the garbage were crows, dogs, the occasional pigs and human beings, including children.

Progress through the urban areas was painfully slow at times, but eventually things started to alter; the houses were not packed so closely together, there were more trees and smallholder plots and tiny plantations of coconuts and bananas.  The houses were now more substantial; not affluent necessarily but with a proper terrace around, more bungalow in style.  Some were wooden and painted.  It finally dawned on me where I was; I was back in the Caribbean.

Spending most of the week in Port Au Prince, I had been exposed to this crazy mix of Latino, Caribbean and African influences, with the pretence at north American and old colonial throwbacks.  Now away from the density and intensity of the city, I saw Haiti for what it really is, an easy going, resource rich and in many places, stunningly beautiful country.  Port Au Prince was the Caribbean on acid; only in Port of Spain or Kingston had I seen anything close to the level of hypertension and anarchy.  As I say for every country you ever visit, don’t stay in the capital or the biggest cities, they are often dreadful mutations of the country as a whole; it is as true of London and Paris as Port Au Prince and Accra.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Memorial to the workers

We eventually found our way to the entrance to the National GIS (or CNIGS), on an affluent hillside.  I walked up to the reception and asked for my contact, Bobby.  The centre was housed in a number of buildings, many of which seemed to be prefabricated and modern.  The walkways between the offices were all in good condition and seemed new.  There was a good reason for this.  CNIGS had moved from its old offices after the earthquake; the old building of a typical simple concrete construction had pancaked during the quake and killed the director of the institute and nine other staff members.  A large part of the building was destroyed and as well as the horrific loss of life, much of the equipment and the large reserves of data about Haiti were also lost.  I noticed on my way out that a memorial to the staff who lost their lives had been placed against the outside wall of the first building.  On a shiny brass plaque the names of the dead staff were mentioned, and a map of Haiti had been made out of jagged lumps of stone.  I never asked, but I suspected that in fact they were pieces of rubble from the original building.

It was not the first time I came across a personal impact of the earthquake.  Here were a group of people doing a job very similar to mine, working with maps and GIS and data to help the decision makers, the visitors, the community at large, to have the best available spatial data for their meetings, studies, atlases or websites.  They were in their offices doing all those jobs at the time of the quake and in a flash their lives were wiped out.  Standing in front of this tastefully minimalist monument  was a solemn interlude in my busy day, and its positioning on the first building as you came in the entrance meant that the staff were reminded of their dead colleagues every day they came to work.

CNIGS had considerable support from the global GIS community who donated equipment, training, volunteers and then helped them find this new temporary home.  A new permanent building was being designed elsewhere in the city, and new procedures to keep safe the valuable archive of mapped data were in progress, and hopefully safeguarding the lives of the staff too.

I had obtained most of the data that I needed from CNIGS, for which I was very grateful as it saved me a lot of time.  I was so used to spending days scurrying round many offices spending hours explaining the project, gaining the trust of the staff, trying to get data and in many cases being frustrated when either bureaucracy or downright pigheadness got in the way.  I am always amazed when I find generous people who understand that releasing the data in to your hands will add value to its existence, help the nation you are in and you are not robbing anyone of anything.  The next day was spent by me in the hotel  sorting the huge amount of data into something that I would be able to use in the next visit for the final outputs.  Christophe and Jean Luc headed north to visit some existing fish farms.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – At the ministry

I was glad of the sleep, despite being several hours behind UK time, I was fatigued from nearly two days on the go.  It meant the next morning I was not too groggy to wake up for an early breakfast.  Jean Luc insisted we travel as early as possible to the office; any later than 8 and we would spend the whole morning on the road.  So after a quick breakfast we met our driver at the reception and descended the windy road into Petionville.  We got through the town centre quite quickly but soon had joined the steady line of traffic down the main road towards the airport.  We did well though, it took only two hours to get to the Ministry of Agriculture compound at the back of the airport.

The ministry’s building was a large colonial style edifice with striking yellow painted plaster walls, a green roof and white highlights on the large window frames and balustrades.  Mainly two storeys but with an extra storey on stumpy towers and surrounded by tall shady trees; it must have been one of the grandest buildings in the neighbourhood.  It also showed that agriculture had had high status at one time in the country, no doubt related to its plantation history.  From the appearance of the buildings at the back; 1960’s and 70’s construction there had been some investment in agriculture then too, but it was to these newer constructions we headed towards.  For the main building had been a victim of the earthquake, its facade badly cracked in several places, surrounded by a wooden fence it was out of bounds to everyone.  Regrettably I could not see that Haiti would ever have the money to rebuild it.

So behind one of these buildings a small door took us in to a series of modest rooms that acted as the Fisheries Department’s national headquarters.  I met the staff including the chief fisheries officer and we had several meetings.  My main intention was to establish the meeting with the national GIS office and this achieved I talked with staff about what data they did have.  A GIS had been established in the office, as I find in many places, but the staff were not confident in what existed on it or how the software operated.

We lunched in the staff canteen, as far as I could make out, but it was quite unlike any canteen I had ever been in.  A short walk across the compound under the shady trees brought us to a house, little more than a chattel house with gingerbread roof and balustrades.  The main seating area was an open terrace with room for about twenty people.  We sat and had our dinners ordered – that old Caribbean thing about having a big plate of hot steaming rice and peas loaded with some hot spicy meat or fish.  Washed down with the sweetest soda you could imagine.  But the ambience of this location; a quiet oasis in the Port Au Prince valley and the good quality of the food made it a pleasant lunch.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Living and Dying with Earthquakes

The same is not true about earthquakes in Haiti.  Some countries live with earthquakes every day; many around the Pacific Rim frequently have violent shakes and have learnt to treat them with enough respect but also with calm and an air of normality.  Even in the Virgin Islands, it was reputed there were on average two earthquakes a day.  When I sat in my office in the corner of the Conservation and Fisheries Office, above the central roundabout in Road Town, I regularly felt my swivel chair vibrate.  I would take a look out of the office window and if there were no big trucks passing the building at that moment I determined it was a tremor.  The office was built on reclaimed land, and was therefore sand vulnerable to liquefaction and I think it amplified any effect.  I seemed to be particularly sensitive in the corner of the building as I picked them all up and would often be the informant to the rest of the office.

Many of these zones where little earthquakes happen are the safest places to be; the pressure built up from huge plates of the earth grating against each other is released little and often.  But in other places the pressure is of a nature that it does not move – maybe the plates are being forced directly towards each other, maybe a knotty piece of mountain is blocking the natural sliding that is needed to release.  But like all pressure, those forces need to be released at some time.  And in Haiti,  there had only been the effect of two earthquakes over the past two hundred years; one in 1842  and a second, centred on the Dominican Republic  in 1946.  Maybe only a handful of people could remember the 1946 event. This means not only a lack of experience by individuals on how to prepare or react to a cataclysmic earthquake but an institutional and national amnesia.  Mix in the corrupt nature of much of government, the lack of planning, limited and ignored building standards, and woeful preparedness for emergency response meant that the country was almost brought to its knees in January 2010.


A few years earlier this airfield was covered in a tented village that served as the base of operations for the search and rescue teams

Search and Rescue teams, aid agencies, government assistance, NGOS, the Red Cross and military struggled to reach the country in the days after the quake, and remained for months treating the wounded, feeding the survivors, trying to prevent disease (although the relief effort itself exacerbated the issue there) , and try to re-establish the basic infrastructure.  But everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong; the civil service was decimated which meant local and national government had all but collapsed.  A city which was already a powder keg for violence and abuse now became a security nightmare.

The months of struggle to get relief to the affected people turned to months of struggle to put the country and its inhabitants back on their feet.  The large international donors – the USAID, DFID, the EU and others poured not just money in but technical expertise to try to not only make Haiti operational but to start looking at ways for it to become more self sufficient and environmentally sustainable.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – As vulnerable as you can be

The result is that 80% of the population are unemployed; that is have no formal employment.  25 % live in absolute poverty – the one dollar a day threshold.  Many of those who had money have left the country.  The impact on the environment has been devastating; fishing in the Caribbean sea has depleted stocks, already stressed by pollution and soil swamping the coral reefs.  That soil has been washed off steep slopes due to the stripping of trees and other vegetation for fuel and subsistence agriculture.

And in the centre of this small country lies a valley where much of the population has made its way – the capital Port Au Prince lies at the heart of a dense conurbation; the main port and airport and  much of the industry and commerce.  Crammed into mountain ranges on either side this valley is a tense melting pot for all the factions, classes, families and social groups of Haiti as a whole.

In January 2010, the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault which runs straight through the crammed valley of Port Au Prince moved.  With a magnitude of 7.0, the resulting earthquake and its aftershocks caused the death of around a quarter of a million people, with many other hundreds of thousands injured or  left homeless.

And herein lies Haiti’s other problem.  It lies in a region of the earth vulnerable to all manner of natural disasters.  Each year, especially around September and October, hurricanes spin across from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea or across from the Atlantic. Storm surges cause flooding along the coast, the rain loosens soil and rocks on the steep eroded slopes and landslides rip apart the mountains, depositing on villages and towns below.  Because of its poverty and the weary corrupt riddled bureaucracy of government, the planning and implementation of measures to reduce the risk and impact of these disasters, Haitian society is vulnerable to having the worst of outcomes from these natural hazards.  But at least the regularity of hurricanes means that the memory amongst the community of their problems are refreshed each time – maybe not every year, but often enough that a generation does not forget the experience or the lessons learnt.


Piles of rubble still left on the roadside since the earthquake