Posted by: posthaiti | July 30, 2010

rubble strong, rubble fresh

“i feel rubble fresh this morning!”

it was my morning mantra, and i usually had to repeat it about 14 times before i peeled my aching — and already sweating, i might add — body off my sleeping mat. by 6 am the sun had already come up, fellow vols were stirring in the bunks around me, and i was hopelessly committed, even in a half-awake daze, to the prospect of rubbling that day. my friend nina said i was addicted. not really. there weren’t that many other jobs to do and anyway, signing up for the next day’s work at the all-hands meeting the night before usually required either a blowtorch, a knife, or the tendency to be an asshole — pushing and shoving were common among the 100-plus vols among us. plus, i just didn’t care that much. “fuck it, i’ll rubble.” rubbling was satisfying, too. there was some level of fist-pumping that one could reach after a hard day of playing with rocks. measurable output, as my dad likes to say.

basically, we dug rubble. big rocks that consisted of a blend of cement, cinder blocks, and the occasional car trapped under the building before it went down. and no, no body parts. (morbid, but many people have asked me that.) so, yeah. digging. in the very hot sun. again, the words searing and blaring come to mind. it was hardass work, and after two months, i was glad to come home and recupe. not to mention, i fell ill four times, lost some weight, and was exhausted of the lackluster food, which was *not* haitian food but *HODR* food. there is a difference, and i’ll get to that in a later post. needless to say, i’ve been eating my way through New York City, San Francisco, and all the airports between there and here since i got back last month. but, i digress.

the rubble work was the primary concern for HODR, being that they are a disaster relief org (at least the last time i checked). HODR landed in leogane in late january, during which they conducted initial structural assessments of homes in and around the town of leogane. in effect, project coordinators went to various collapsed or damaged homes (if yoleine had left hers standing, she might have been on the list) and “assessed” them in terms of the feasibility of using (volunteer-staffed, of course) demolition teams to bring the damaged buildings down safely. after demo, the house would, fingers crossed, become a nice, big pile of pretty rocks; wubble, as the haitians with their accents would say. sometimes, this wasn’t the case. in the quake, some buildings simply gave out under the weight of shoddy construction and almost paper-thin rebar (reinforced bar, which gave the house shape and “structure”). at many of the sites i went to, entire ceilings sat on top of slabs, having gone from penthouse suite to ground floor in one fell swoop.

our job, as rubble teams, was to clear the rubble off the cement foundation slab and cart it to, well, another place not on the foundation slab. to do this, we used shovels, pickaxes, sledgehammers, and wheelbarrows — i guess that would put us in the iron age category, eh? anyway, that “another place” meant anywhere there was space, whether an alley alongside the house, a ditch, or the side of the road. being that this is haiti and FUBAR is the name of the game, there were piles of rocks everywhere, and as far as we, the vols at HODR, knew, there was no systematic process for taking the rubble away. every team leader kind of made it up as he or she went along. one vol, tim, came from sydney and spent over two months on project. as aussie tim liked to say, “guys, we’re gonna move this pile of shit over to that pile of shit.” at first, i thought that was a rather jaded view; it didn’t take me long to realize that nope, we were, in fact, moving the rocks from one pile to another. and we did this manually; since everything by way of resource has a hard time of finding its way into the country, there’s not much heavy machinery. (actually, there were quite a few mack trucks floating around, and they were taking the piles somewhere, as far as i could see.) some sites took days, others weeks.

for the most part i felt good. i mean, i’m in shape, but there were a few days when i think i actually overheated. during my first few weeks, the heat index was about 110 degrees F. most of the foundations that we cleared were utterly shadeless with no trees in sight and the ground, a screaming white reflecting pool of heat below. the whole point of this exercise in clearing rubble was so that the family who had been living there before the quake could either one, put their tent on the slab, or two, rebuild their house on the slab. imho, both scenarios are and will continue to be unlikely in the near future (we’re talking, couple years new future). it’s too damn hot to put a tent on most of the slabs, and there’s no infrastructure to bring in materials to rebuild homes. not to mention, who the hell has and will have money to pay people to do the work?

i would occasionally become discouraged. are we wasting our time? then, i’d take a look around and notice that the streets were improving: there were fewer tents in the road and the piles of rocks seemed to be disappearing. a surge of pride would rise up. i did that! for instance (and this is where a pic would come in handy, but the wine-on-mac situation has yet to be resolved considering the money-not-in-bank situation that persists), on the road that lead from our base at belval plaza to the grande rue (main street), i could see the difference in eight weeks time: a street that was literally cramped with tents was now almost free of them, there were fewer piles of rubble, and new businesses had opened. as we rode our morning taptap ride to the rubble site we were working on that day, glances left and right proved satisfying; wherever i turned my head, i could spot a bare foundation. holes, really, but safe holes. places where people could physically let go of the past and start over. leogane changed when i was there, and i helped change it. measurable output.

as to what to do with all that rubble? unfortunately, there wasn’t evidence that HODR was working with the locals to move it outside of town or use it for something productive. i heard whispers from vols who actually went to a town meeting and met some of the civic leaders, and they said that yes, they were discussing ways to move the rocks to a small coastal town west of leogane and start crushing it into gravel. it’ll be interesting to see if orgs like HODR or CHF open up to partnering not with supposed government officials, but with civic leaders. it is, after all, their town.

there’s a good article in the NYT by deborah sontag on the complexities involved in removing rubble. it also, to me, points to a problem: the media always tends to cast haiti as despairing, and haitians as people who “really need our help.” sigh. read on:

Further, rubble removal, a $500 million problem facing the recovery effort, has proved especially difficult in Fort National. International experts say it would take three to five years to remove all the debris from Haiti if 1,000 or more trucks worked daily; fewer than 300 trucks are hauling rubble now. But those trucks cannot penetrate much of Fort National, which has only one main road and lots of steep alleys. In some places, even wheelbarrows cannot be used. Rubble has to be carried out pail by pail, which at least provides jobs.

Tortue Larose, 27, who earns $5 a day cleaning up Fort National, stood at the partly cleared summit of the neighborhood recently, pointing at a speck of green plastic in the dirt: “See that green?” he said. “That’s where my house was. That’s where I was born. That’s where I intend to die.”

Where to dump the rubble that fills Mr. Larose’s buckets presents another problem. There is no debris plan for Fort National just as there is no master plan for rubble removal, said Eric Overvest, the United Nations Development Program’s country director. Normally, he said, a rubble plan is developed within a month of a major disaster. Port-au-Prince, the capital, did not have a pre-earthquake land use plan, complicating matters.

Still, in almost six months the government has identified only one rubble site, the municipal dump called Truitier. More sites are needed — as are decisions on whether rubble will be recycled and how.

Additionally, debris contains personal effects, and sometimes bodies; it also has a potential monetary value if it is to be reused. “It’s not just the rubble, it’s the question of rubble ownership,” Mr. Scales said. Most in Fort National are renters but the rubble technically belongs to the property owners. And sorting out who owns what land, and getting their permission to excavate has proved difficult, Mr. Scales said.

“It isn’t a case of going straight onto land with an excavator,” he said.


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