Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Moving and Shaking

I’m beginning to understand why the Haitians are refusing to go back inside their homes weeks after the earthquake. Three aftershocks in less than 24 hours would make the most foolhardy, brave or indifferent person question the sanity of living indoors in Port au Prince. Particularly when the might of earthquakes are only too apparent everywhere you go.

The first aftershock that I experienced since my arrival in Haiti almost two weeks ago happened two nights ago at around 4:30am. There was a sort of low-level roar and it felt as if you were standing just above an underground train as it rushed past below. It only lasted a few seconds – but it was immediately clear that it was an earthquake. Or aftershock as the scientists would say. It measured a ‘modest’ 4.7 on the Richter scale.

The funny thing for me was that I had been awake for hours before the aftershock struck – which was unusual given how bone tired I had been going to bed the night before. And when the Haven team were all discussing the quake at breakfast – the only thing we talked about – one of my colleagues said exactly the same thing. We surmised, rightly or wrongly, that some sort of animal primitive instinct must have told us that something was going to happen and we were preparing for it. Very little sleep was had by any of us that night – even though we know we are living in a sturdy house that has been given the all clear from an engineer.

But, if I were going to be absolutely honest, I’d have to admit that there was something a little bit cool about having felt the aftershock. A sort of feeling of belonging to the club of the earthquake experienced. This was of course because it was so relatively mild, and we knew very quickly that the quake had had no major impact –no further damage and certainly.

So, when I went to bed last night I somewhat foolishly thought that there was no way that there would be another aftershock so quickly. But, I was wrong. At 1:30am this morning, there was an almighty crash and what felt like a much greater movement – although again only for a few seconds. It was very loud – enough to make me sit bolt upright in bed, all senses completely alert, despite having been very deeply asleep (dog tired again). This time, I will admit, I was a bit scared. It was the noise, as much as the tremors – and as I said, it felt a lot stronger than the previous evening.

The animals go mental when a quake strikes. All the dogs, cats, cockerels, chickens and birds bark, howl and squawk like they are about to meet their maker. You couldn’t blame them. But, they do calm down and a sort of eerie silence descends. For me, every sense feels heightened and you are attuned to every sound around as you lie in bed contemplating the extraordinary power of nature – its mighty awe.

So, when the next quake struck around 10 minutes later, there was no rude awakening – I was already wide awake. It felt just as strong as the first one, although it may not have been as loud. I must admit, I bolted for the door, although I did stop myself from running outside. Probably because again it was over so quickly. This time I really was frightened. Two in a row. So close together. What did this mean? With no scientific knowledge of quakes, the mind runs riot. Once again, very little sleep was had last night.

But, what the three aftershocks have taught me is to appreciate where the Haitian people are coming from when they refuse to sleep inside, refuse to return to their homes, even if they are intact in the capital after the quake.

I’m embarrassed to say that I almost scoffed at one of my Haitian colleagues, who was in Ouanaminthe, not Port au Prince when the Jan 12th earthquake struck. She refuses to sleep in the Haven house in the capital when she is working here with us, preferring instead to stay out in the open with the rest of her family in the back yard of their devastated home. She prefers a tent and the great outdoors. And I’m beginning to see why.

The other thing that really struck me about these series of aftershocks is how the brave residents of Port au Prince are now almost revelling in their decisions to eschew the interior for the exterior. Of course one of the hot topics of conversations post after shock is how did it make you feel. Every one of the Haitians I spoke to today said they didn’t mind them at all. Of course they have seen the worst that Mother Nature can do in terms of earthquake. And these aftershocks were ‘modest’ as the BBC put it today. But, it was more than that. It was verging on congratulatory that they had made the ‘right’ choices by refusing to move back inside their homes.

As someone involved in the whole area of shelter – and in Haven’s case, providing much more than a house – a home, this is both interesting and challenging. Will the people of Port au Prince and surrounding areas who survived the big quake ever want to return to their homes? Will they never want to live inside concrete again?

One of the main priorities of the response from the international community, the NGOs like Haven working in the emergency and indeed the government of Haiti, is to certify the houses still standing and, if they can are deemed safe, to get the families to move back into them. But, with the attitude of the earthquake survivors being so vehemently against the ‘inside’ it may take a lot more than a piece of paper to convince them to venture back to what most of us consider the safest place in the world – home.

Friday, February 19, 2010

First Impressions

It’s hard to know how to prepare yourself for arriving in the midst of a humanitarian disaster of the scale of the earthquake in Haiti. Even if it is one month on and life, for at least some of the survivors in Port au Prince, is returning to normal. It was exactly one month to the day since the earthquake when I arrived in Haiti to join Haven’s emergency response team last Friday.

Even as you drive out from the airport you immediately see the camps that some of the estimated 1 million homeless Haitians now are living in. It’s strange. One side of the airport road has very formalised tents, set out in neat rows, braced down with plenty of space between each one. The other side of the road is teaming with people, with what can only be kindly described as makeshift tents, squashed together, practically on top of one another. These ‘tents’ are made of whatever material is available to the owners – plastic bags, cardboard boxes, bed sheets, if they are lucky some plywood or corrugated iron.

The latter scenes are replicated everywhere you go in Port au Prince. A million people have been left homeless as a result of the earthquake – at least half of these have fled the capital to other parts of the country not as affected. The other half a million are now living in these temporary camps. Some, like the people on the left side of the airport road are lucky. They have gotten proper tents, have access to food, water and some class of sanitation. The others are not so lucky.

Aid is getting out there – but the need is so huge it is difficult to reach everybody and address every need. But, we are all doing our bit. Haven is mainly involved in two ways – providing latrines in 16 of the temporary camps across Port au Prince to prevent the spread of disease, improve health and give back dignity to the people and then secondly in providing temporary shelter to families living under bedsheets before the rain comes in Haiti. And it’s coming soon. We’re also involved, as part of these programmes, in providing cash for work for people living in the camps and improving sanitation and hygiene through education programmes.

But, as you travel around PaP, as a newbie, you cannot help your jaw dropping as you see buildings literally razed to the ground. You turn a corner, and there’s another massive pile of rubble which was once a home, or an office, or a shop. You think to yourself, no one could have survived if they were in that building. And you are probably right. It is overwhelming. And unbelievably sad.

One of the other things that really struck me in my first 24 hours in Haiti was driving through the capital at just after 5am on Saturday morning. As we passed by one of the large informal camps I saw literally hundreds of people queuing quietly in the dark. I asked the Haitian driver I was with what were they doing – they were waiting patiently, quietly, determinedly for food. There was no sign yet of the food truck – the people were just beginning to queue early. Perhaps there was nothing else to do but wait.

The other thing that is crystal clear here is the fear of the Haitian people. Everyone fears another earthquake. No one wants to sleep indoors anymore – even if their houses were not damaged by the quake. People may stay around their houses – in the open mind you – during the day. But, when night falls, many communities close off their streets with makeshift barriers, made of rubble, sticks or whatever else they can lay their hands on. They then sleep in the open. Feeling safe in the knowledge that no roof will cave in on them tonight.