Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass- it is about learning to dance in the rain.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Here are pictures of the house where we stayed. Looks like one section fared better than the others. That bottom picture is the clinic, (partly standing) and three floors of guest rooms and facilities above! All flat! The older cobblestone part withstood the quake better.

Lack of Infrastructure

So many scenes from the Haiti earthquake and the struggle to bring humanitarian aid to the hurting people bring back memories of my visits there. It is incomprehensible to the average American mind what lack of infrastructure means.

Lack of Infrastructure:
· No garbage pickup
· No mail delivery
· Sporadic electrical service
· More sporadic phone service
· Product shortages – milk, eggs
· Scarcity of clean water
· Understaffed Police Department
· Nearly non-existent Fire Department (I never once saw a fire truck or a fireman. Don’t know if they even had any)
· Lack of Hospitals – lack of supplies & staff in the hospitals
· Few clinics - understaffed and poorly supplied
· Weekly or Monthly clinics with lines of people
· No evidence of organization anywhere
· Roads are nearly impassable; no road signs; no street signs
· Shanties constructed randomly on mountainside
· Shanty Town near port worst I’ve seen anywhere

It was 2005. We stayed in a guest house of which the bottom floor was an orthopedic clinic. One evening we helped sort orthopedic limbs into bins: left leg, right foot, left arm, etc. Creative therapists would take these generic castoffs from American sources and customize them in large pizza ovens (also American castoffs) to soften the plastic or metal parts. Clinic was held once weekly. The line lasted all day with patients seated all over the lawn, patiently waiting for a limb to be examined, fitted or scheduled for fitting. Open sores were cleansed and bandaged. There were no antibiotics, no pain-killers, just the basic first-aid: alcohol, a dab of cream of some sort and a gauze bandage. Limbs were measured. The worker would search through a bin for an appropriate appendage, measure the work to be done, mark the orthopedic limb for pizza oven adjustment with advice to come back next week or next month. And that was an orthopedic clinic.

In Haiti, “Clinic” is an event, not a place. “Clinic” is held when there are doctors, nurses or therapists available. Groups of visiting medical professionals visit a small building and hold “clinic.” People lined up for blocks to have someone look at a goiter, a wound, a growth, a fever, a rash, etc.

In Chicago we joke about roads and potholes. In Haiti, it isn’t a joke. Two or three kilometers outside Port Au Prince the main road deteriorates to a few small patches of asphalt every hundred yards or so. The majority of the road is one pothole after another, some large enough to lose a car, all of them large enough to cause serious damage to the careless driver. I’m talking holes a yard wide and a foot or two deep. No exaggeration. There is no driving the roads at night. At all! Average speed on the road is about 15 miles an hour because now and then on a good stretch, it’s just a simple bumpy dirt road. Remember: This is PRE-earthquake. The road from the airport in Port Au Prince was asphalt with Chicago side-street-sized potholes: The kind of potholes that reporters like to show on the evening news to show that the “City-that-works” isn’t working. This was the BEST road in Port Au Prince, PRE-earthquake.

At the airport, I was startled at the lack of amenities. It reminded me of old movies of African airports in the 1940’s, although there WAS a conveyor-belt to bring out the luggage from behind plastic curtains that separated the passenger part of the airport from the working baggage handlers. I was relieved to see our host at the baggage carousel to greet us because I could tell we’d have been in trouble on our own. Unfortunately, I speak no Creole and about three words of French. Spanish doesn’t cut it in Port Au Prince. We waited for a couple of hours before it became evident that our bags hadn’t made the plane in Miami.

Our host never did find anyone official to confirm that; he did find a baggage handler willing to tell him that all the baggage from that particular plane had been offloaded and was on the carousel. Our baggage might make a later plane. Our host left us at the guest house with the promise of a phone call later that day. The phone call never came.

Twenty-four hours later, I began the attempt to make phone calls: to the host, to the airport, to the airlines. All to no avail. I received some sort of signal indicating no lines available. About then our host drove up in a pickup truck. He had also been unable to contact anyone, but recommended that we just go look. Happily we climbed aboard to go retrieve our bags.

At the airport, no one would let us in through the front door. Passengers only, they said. So our host led us around to the side of the airport. He banged loudly on a couple of solid metal doors before finding one ajar. Tentatively, we entered the terminal. Folks, this is the BACK of the airport. We just broke in; well, it was already broken, but we entered. There were a few employees about, but no one gave us a second glance. One Haitian man, one American man and four American women in the working part of the terminal and no one batted an eyelash. Live and let live seemed to be the policy. Our host found someone willing to talk and asked about unclaimed baggage. The man gestured in the direction of the largest pile of luggage I have ever seen in my life. I instantly regretted not bringing my camera. But how was I to know that it would be a Kodak moment?

Stunned, we eyed this enormous pile of luggage, roughly 30 feet in diameter and 10 feet tall. We’re supposed to search through this pile on the off chance that our baggage is there, I thought. We tentatively looked at the tags on bags around the edge. Then one of my cohorts spotted a red bag that was ours. The two men pulled it free from the pile. Yep. It was ours. Our host and the lone male in our group began looking through the pile. This was going to take forever. Our time on the employee side of the plastic curtain wasn’t going to end quickly or easily.

I directed the three women to a clear spot to one side with instructions to watch our bags. I have no idea why. They’d been sitting there unguarded for who knew how long, and we were hoping they were all there. What could happen in a few more minutes? But according to our culture, I distributed the jobs, one of which was “guarding” the baggage. Then I turned my attention to the pile. I climbed nearly to the top of this unsteady blog of “stuff” to retrieve yet another of our bags. Finally, someone had the idea to just organize them as we went. So we began our work as baggage handlers, setting suitcases in straight lines for future retrieval by their owners as we sorted our way through the pile. Two hours after breaking and entering the airport, we headed out with our luggage. Every piece of it.

I listen to the news and I remember. I remember what lack of infrastructure meant to us in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Delay is something that Haitians are accustomed to. When the devastation of the earthquake, the additional unavailability of medical attention, and the urgency of receiving medical treatment for wounds are added, my heart aches for the patient Haitians. They who are accustomed to so little, who are happy with small things, need help in a big time way, and no one can find a way around this infrastructure problem.

Who is capable of making deliveries to the neighborhoods? Who is organized enough to care for the elderly in nursing homes, for the newly-made orphans, for the wounded waiting for care? Who is available to hold classes for the children, to occupy young minds while the world around them is crumbling? My brain goes to the resources I know are there.

Haiti has no government left to fill the void; the United Nations has no organization left to pick up the slack. What are left are the churches. I know, there’s the whole problem of church and state. But what’s wrong with employing the churches to deliver aid to their neighborhoods during a time of crisis. It was Ghandi who said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Isn’t that Haiti, now? What better thing than to have a troop of local people entrusted with feeding their neighbors?

No infrastructure. None to speak of. But the churches are there. They are organized; they know where the hurting people are. Will somebody please empower these pastors to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to find medical help for the wounded? Please??

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