I seek out books on the Haiti earthquake in the hopes of finding one that captures what I experienced and perhaps helps me to understand it better. Instead, all of the books seem to describe a different event. Like the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant, one author talks about the leg and another about the trunk. Perhaps all I know is the tail.
I had high hopes for two books that just came out: Jonathon Katz’ The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster and Amy Wilentz’ Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti. Each book captured part of what I experienced, but they each described a world that I didn’t know.
Jonathon Katz was an AP reporter that had lived in Haiti for a couple of years before the earthquake. His account of the actual earthquake and the events of that night were the most powerful part of the book. I found it to be especially spooky because Carolle and I had lived and been married in the house that collapsed under him. I had hoped that his book would show a strong understanding of Haiti and how the events unfolded. The best parts of the book were his description of the night of the earthquake and then his quest to find out the UN’s role in introducing cholera. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the book felt superficial—more of a drive-by viewing of the disaster response.
Amy Wilentz’ book was the opposite. Whereas Jonathon Katz tried to tell a straight forward story of the disaster, Amy’s book seems to be more her grappling with the earthquake and its aftermath. The book reads more as a collection of thoughts than a coherent story. It is a very personal book as she openly wrestles with her feelings towards Haiti and journalism—is she helping Haiti by getting people’s stories out or is this just voyeurism? Her first book had been on the epic struggle to get rid of Duvalier and of Aristide’s rise to power. But Aristides’s presidencies were failures and Duvalier is back in Haiti. Perhaps it wasn’t such an epic time after all. Her book clearly reflects her personal struggle with the impact that she is having.
Both books skewer the disaster response provided by the international community. The subtitle of Katz’ book nicely sums up his view, How the International Community Came to Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. Amy Wilentz wrote “It’s fair to say that one of the biggest issues to rise from the earthquake’s dust is whether aid agencies and international development organizations can ever be trusted, either by the victim community or by the donors who fund them. Are they honest—do they know how to be honest; can they be honest and survive?” She goes on to complain that aid agencies are not effective at working themselves out of a job.
Yes, it was confusing and there were some big mistakes made (the construction of the Corail camp out in the middle of nowhere being one—providing services in makeshift camps was another). Both lionize Sean Penn for running a camp as well as the pros. But if the pros are running camps as well as Sean Penn, doesn’t that mean that the “pros” were doing something right, too?
This is where both she and Jonathon Katz got it wrong. The earthquake response that I saw was an exhausting slog against incredible obstacles and through a bizarre maze. Although some of the early journalists seemed to have believed that Port-au-Prince had been completely destroyed, that was never true. Half of all the buildings in Port-au-Prince were not significantly damaged. Although President Preval’s government seemed to disappear in the first days after the earthquake, it soon reasserted itself.
The biggest complaint against the work that the NGOs did is that we did not build a shiny new Haiti from the rubble of the earthquake. Yet that was never our mandate. As weak as the Haitian government was, it was still the national government. It was the only institution that could have declared eminent domain to seize land to create camps, widen streets, or enforce a new city wide master plan. Neither the NGOs nor the United Nations had this authority. When the government was unwilling to take these steps, no one could. But what’s the point in bashing the Preval Government? Its weaknesses were quite well known and documented.
I ran the earthquake response for the Pan American Development Foundation, one of the larger NGOs, from the day after the earthquake until this past January. Of course I made mistakes—we were trying to move as fast as we could in a very complex environment and using whatever resources we could find. We passed out food and other goods that had been collected in the States to help the poor Haitians. I would much rather have received cash, but our local partners were happy to receive whatever we could give them. I would much rather have purchased local rice rather than receiving donations of fortified rice, but the imported rice was free and we didn’t have much cash. Our first attempt at home repair in the Jacmel area fell flat—we had budgeted too little money and the repairs were too isolated.
We also had huge successes. We helped evaluate the safety of over 400,000 structures throughout the earthquake impacted area. This gave hundreds of thousands of people the confidence to return to their safe house and provided a blueprint for the repairs that were needed. We trained hundreds of engineers, masons, and contractors in improved construction techniques and used them to repair 10,000 houses. We helped neighborhood committees come together to determine how they wanted their neighborhood rebuilt. We helped scores of microentrepreneurs to start small businesses.
In Dr. Farmer’s earthquake book, Haiti After the Earthquake, he seemed to believe that his organization was the only one to do a good job. I’ll bet a lot of us feel this way. My organization did a great job. It’s too bad that all the other organizations couldn’t do as well. Naturally some organizations did better than others. Unfortunately, most people who donated, donated blindly. They gave to the Red Cross because they always give to the Red Cross, even though the Red Cross’ reputation as a slow bureaucracy is documented after every disaster. They gave to Wyclef Jean because he is a famous Haitian, not because they thought that he had a professional organization behind him. I wish that more of the funds had gone to PADF and other organizations that were well established in Haiti, but I thank God that people did give.
Perhaps someday I’ll find a book that tells the story of the earthquake as I saw it—the story of a hard struggle to have the greatest possible impact as quickly as possible in an incredibly complex situation.
Our work wasn't perfect, but it was the best that we could possibly do and Haiti is better off for it..