Thursday, February 25, 2010

Haiti: How to Rebuild?

Above is a recent photo of a house in Belize that we rented for a few months back in 1983. This house is around 40 years old, and is still in good shape. It sits on a concrete slab, but the house itself contains no concrete and no lumber. (The only wood products used are a few light pieces of trim around the windows and doors.) The house is made of light-weight metal studs, some of which you can see protruding from the gable end on the left side. The roof is metal, the outside walls are thin cement-based composite board with an even thinner coating of stucco. The inside walls are gypsum drywall. The total package is strong, light, waterproof, and wind- and fire-resistant.

The situation in Haiti: hundreds of thousands of people are now homeless. The UN has decided, wisely, that providing tents for these people is a waste of money. Instead they're trying to provide them with metal roofing to construct makeshift shelters. Ultimately the answer may be structures like the one pictured above. A metal roof supported by a metal framework would provide durable shelter from the rains which will be starting by June, and would also be light enough not to present a threat in the event of another earthquake.

As long as the walls were firmly anchored, the floor could be an afterthought, installed later when the owner had enough time and resources to do so. Even the walls could be temporary, eventually replaced by a lath or hardboard covered by a type of tabby.

Given a workable design and a few basic materials, coupled with the average Haitian's ingenuity in scrounging scrap materials, which should be available in abundance, there's a chance that this type of construction might be the answer to Haiti's need for permanent, safe housing. Just a thought....

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Haiti: Hope and Horror

At left, ruins of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A number of Americans were among those killed or injured in the collapse of the venerable structure. Still missing is volunteer Walt Ratterman of Knightsbridge International, a California-based charity, who was working on a solar power project in Haiti.
(At one time we lived for several months on the street leading up to the Montana. I remember that Mike Wallace, the TV newscaster, had a house on that street, although we never saw him. We'd talked about going back to Haiti earlier this year, and we would have stayed at the Montana, however briefly, for old time's sake.)
The horror of the situation has been widely reported to the world, and teams of aid workers from all over the planet have arrived and performed miracles of service and sacrifice. At home and abroad people have opened their wallets, and food and medical aid are now coming into the country. There have been a few problems: the specter of food riots, and Haitian bureaucrats holding up food and medical supplies at the airport with their ubiquitous red tape and desire to levy some kind of a "tax", seemingly oblivious to the suffering of their countrymen.
It's to the advantage of those still suffering that the international press is present, although now that some of the horror of the situation is no longer novel, the New York Times has actually run an article on Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta's choice of clothing.
Gupta in particular should be commended for staying behind at a field hospital, when UN authorities had ordered all medical personnel to leave the wounded behind, for purported security reasons.
Cooper got a minor "reality check" later in the week, reporting "on the ongoing process of an apparently organized effort run by local authorities to gather up the bodies littering the streets, collect them in dump trucks, then transport them out of the city, where they would be dumped in mass graves. The mass graves are shown as mounds of dirt in the hills outside the city, appear to be relatively shallow and hold no information to identify the dead other than the bodies themselves."
Grilling a (female) Haitian official American press-style on the situation, he was unable to elicit a "straight" answer.
If he'd been briefed on the details of Haitian folk culture, he would have known that many Haitians believe that bodies must be properly buried and remembered by relatives and family so their spirits can pass on to heaven. In Voodoo, some believe that improper burials can trap spirits between two worlds. A proper burial is necessary for a certain life-force to leave the body gradually, lest the soul be trapped in a sort of underground limbo. (This belief was described in ethnobotanist Wade Davis's book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was made into a movie several years ago.) It would be unthinkable for a government official to admit that such a thing had been allowed to happen, even in the interests of sanitation and prevention of disease.
As the relief efforts continue, we can sure that unforeseen problems will crop up. We can only hope that somehow the Haitian people, including expatriates, will summon up the courage and wisdom to straighten out their country themselves.
And let's fact it--thirty years ago Haiti was already overpopulated and an ecological disaster. Europeans and North Americans have been sensibly limiting the size of their families for years. It's neither racism nor flouting God's law to suggest that it's high time for Haitians to do likewise.