The web of friends and family connected to Haitians stretches far around the world. In 2010, roughly a million Haitian nationals had migrated to other countries, while 2,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) worked in Haiti. Time passed slowly while we waited, first, for word from those who lived there and, second, to know what we could do to help.
In Wisconsin, Mike Goodman, my partner, and I sat at home, tea cups in hand, intent on Brian Williams and his nightly news. We were unable to fully grasp the pain, terror, dust, death, fear, screams, sadness, gasps, anger, desperation and heartache those survivors in Port-au-Prince felt that first night.
We contacted and exchanged news with U.S. nonprofit colleagues, with whom we’d traveled during the previous four years to Lamontagne, an area that’s home to 15,000 people, inland from the southern seaport of Jacmel. We heard nothing from our friends in Haiti.
That void of information made our fears worse.
Three days passed. Finally, Pierre “Junior” Oreus, the manager of the organization we founded, Yonn Ede Lot (YEL) One Helping Another, called — his voice reassuring. Lamontagne had suffered no deaths, though nearly every house was uninhabitable. The harshest destruction occurred closer to Port-au-Prince.
Those details would take weeks, even months to learn: A building fell on our friend Oberson. He clawed his way out of the rubble. Others — Mario, Voltaire and Mimose — all lost close family. Ebert, a new father, was killed.
I asked Junior about the school he attended in the morning in Port-au-Prince. “The university I go to collapsed,” he said. “All 300 afternoon students died.”
Through the phone, I heard the exhaustion in his voice. Each of 56 official aftershocks caused almost as much terror as the original Tranblemand Tè, the trembling.
Like other survivors afraid to return to their homes, Junior spent two months on the street edge in front of his house in a makeshift tent, which offered little protection against the rains that came during the weeks after.
One home might be in perfect condition, but it was connected to one with cracks in it, like his, or another that collapsed. Eventually Junior moved in with a friend and shared a room with 11 others, a situation that lasted over six months.
“We slept in shifts, but no one ever got a full night’s sleep. There was always someone awake, talking, watching television or fearful of another earthquake.”
An Irish NGO hired Junior full time, while YEL kept him on part time. He began his first job at 7 a.m., visiting sites of rubble removal to collect attendance reports of the workers.
When he finished Fridays at 4 p.m., he took a bus to Jacmel, followed by a motorbike to Lamontagne where he spent the weekend working for YEL. In this role, he helped the community-based associations — a concept grown from the gwoupman peyizan (peasant grouping) movement to bring about social, economic, or political change — push along their projects in agriculture, education, manufacturing, microfinance or public health. He told us that by the time he finished dinner, his eyes sagged and he had to prop his head up with his arm.
The nature of disaster — peculiar
Haiti, often looked at by Wisconsinites with a lack of understanding — suddenly became interesting. At Lakeland School where I was the art instructor for K-12 students, there was immediate concern for my Haitian friends, whom I’d often talked about, and many questions as to where YEL worked in relation to the quake.
A few staff became earthquake junkies, putting their heads in my art room to ask for updates. While some offered to travel to Haiti to help, others just wanted to know about the subsequent damage.
Sadly, disasters do help generate funds for nonprofits. Friends, family, past donors and strangers alike sent donations.
Disaster relief was not our mission, but we had systems in place to wire funds to people in need. Initially we sent funds for emergency relief to our connections in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel and Lamontagne.
After the earthquake, Port-au-Prince’s economy was limited and food was scarce. Within a week, those who lived in the capital began returning to their family homes in the outlying areas, adding additional pressure to the already strained villages in which they grew up. We recognized that large charitable organizations would continue to provide immediate disaster relief to Port-au-Prince, so our organization adjusted and redirected its funding to local villages.
Could a new future for Haiti be constructed?
Discussions took place between NGOs and engineers and between the governments of Haiti and the United States about how Port-au-Prince could be reconstructed.
The World Bank forgave the remaining $36 million of debt owed by Haiti. Sixty countries pledged $6 billion to Haiti, which some thought was enough to give Port-au-Prince a new life. Recognizing that Haiti’s government was never strong, international generosity was followed by questions and concerns about who would administer funds.
YEL knew what the answer should be: local democratically elected leaders. We had seen presidents of the Lamontagne associations effectively lead their people year after year. They knew how to distribute emergency resources, as well as how to set up long-term projects to meet local peoples’ needs.
That’s where YEL’s donor money went.
Many nonprofits looked at funding the disaster relief situation differently, giving little of the money to the people who needed it most. Instead, much was spent by the NGOs facilitating the process.
Seeing post-earthquake Haiti, firsthand
Goodman and I spent years trying to convince our friends in the U.S. that Haiti was an interesting and valuable place to visit. “Throw an earthquake into the mix,” Goodman said, “and suddenly, it becomes popular.”
We planned to travel within six months of the earthquake and began vetting many people who asked to come with us to find those we thought “appropriate.” Each traveler should offer viable skills, a set of connections and an interest they could commit to the future of Haiti.
From past experiences, we learned that first trips to Haiti offered new visitors an opportunity for observation; Americans rarely “understood” Haiti on their initial visit. They needed to see the country, know the history and understand the motivations and nuances of those who lived there. We wanted those travelers, eventually, to offer something that wasn’t charity. We wanted their investment — financial, emotional and structural.
Goodman flew to Haiti in May of 2010, taking with him two colleagues — a sociologist, Candace Warner, and a historian, Barry Gidcomb, both from Nashville, Tennessee.
Goodman intended, with Gidcomb and Warner, to look at the status of YEL projects and the organization’s health, and to hear from their leaders, first-hand, their thoughts for their future.
To be continued.