Monthly Archives: January 2010

Information scarcity in Haiti

When I visited my family in Haiti this summer, I was culture shocked. Culture-floored even. It was like being on another planet. And it was hard to live there, despite my dad’s efforts to pamper me.

The food was good but did a number on my stomach. I dealt. The weather was excruciatingly hot and I got sun exposure that made me puke my guts out. Whatevs. At my sister’s high school graduation I experienced dehydration that made me want to cry. Meh. Every day I was swarmed by mosquitoes, accumulating about 200 bites at one point. It’s the food chain. One of them probably gave me Dengue fever. If it was that, it was a mild case — could’ve been worse.

But the thing that made me really uncomfortable, that made me throw up my hands and exclaim “How do you live like this???” was the lack of Internet, and thus the lack of information and communication.

If you know me, that won’t come as much of a surprise. But hear me out, because this is not entirely a bratty complaint coming from a privileged American.

My family has three computers. They have what looks like a standard broadband modem and a wireless router. My sister is used to getting online and chatting with her friends via MSN messenger and checking email and stuff. But, she is also used to going without it. She doesn’t depend on the Internet, just like she doesn’t depend on electricity. To many Americans, myself included, these things are necessities, but to them they are luxuries.

Even though they have the hardware for high-speed computing, Haiti’s infrastructure is the limiting factor. You’ve likely heard discussions of bandwidth allotment, and how some Internet Service Providers in the U.S. have been limiting the bandwidth that individuals and networks are allowed. Bandwidth essentially determines the speed you are able to do things online, and refers to the rate of transfer of information “packets”. People who download movies are considered “bandwidth hogs” because, since they are doing something that consumes a lot of the available bandwidth, there is less available for others, making their computing processes slower. One of the reasons why you have to wait for a YouTube video to buffer before you can watch the whole thing seamlessly is low bandwidth. If you think low bandwidth is a problem anywhere in the US, you should see it in Haiti. If you want to watch a one-minute YouTube video, you have to pause it and wait for it to load for ten minutes. Sites like Netflix, Blip.fm, Hulu>> Don’t even try it. Want better transfer rates? Too bad. There’s only one commercial ISP in the country.

In addition to the low bandwidth another factor limiting computing is the lack of electricity. A tropical storm knocked the grid power out during the first week of my stay this summer, leaving individuals to rely on gas-powered generators and inverters to power their home appliances. With gas being pretty expensive before, and really expensive in the aftermath of the earthquakes, getting online is not a priority or possibility for most. It prompted a few humorous, “Daaaad, can you run the generators? I need to check my emaaaailll” moments this summer, to which my sister would smile and shake her head and my dad would say, “Yeah sure, I’ll get right on that,” and go back to reading the newspaper.

Us Americans, we leave lights on when we’re not home or in a room. We leave appliances plugged in when we’re not using them. We waste electricity in all kinds of ways. In Haiti, you don’t. Our electricity consumption is tallied into a bill that is delivered to us at the end of the month, and any wastefulness catches up with us then. But in Haiti, you have to calculate how much gas is in the generator and how much power is in the inverters to figure out if you’ll have enough time to finish an email, or a movie, or charge a cell phone. I always make it a point to turn the lights out when I leave my apartment now.

There’s also the matter of Web services in Haiti. The fourth day I was there, we heard via radio that there was a riot downtown at the funeral of a Bishop for reasons I still don’t understand. The UN was there and the report said that four people were shot. This of course, sounded very startling to me, so I went online to try to find out what was happening.

I soon learned there is no Google News Haiti. In fact, the Google services you can access in Haiti are severely limited compared to what they are in the states. The prioritization of search is completely different and it assumes your preferred language is French. In the U.S. when there is a shooting, you can’t not hear about it through every medium possible. But I couldn’t find any information about the downtown shooting whatsoever. So I asked my sister, “WTF, why can’t I find out what’s happening, where are all the journalists?”

“I dunno. I guess they’re too busy running,” she replied nonchalantly.

I checked online almost every day but I never found an explanation of what had happened.  My sister shrugged off the shootings with a “meh” attitude. My dad actually laughed at my reaction. He went upstairs, came back down with four guns and said “Are you still scared? Here, take one of these, let’s go downtown and find out what’s happening!” I was not amused.

But I guess that’s part of living in Haiti — being content with not knowing. But that contentment could be a dangerous thing. I am a firm believer that knowledge is power, and would venture that one of the reasons why rampant corruption has existed in Haitian government is because most people don’t have access to knowledge of what exactly they’re up to. The government there isn’t checked by the media the way that it is in the United States, and even if it was, it might not matter because the information gathered would only reach those in the top 5 percent of Haiti’s income distribution graph — the people who are in the position to influence political decisions anyway.

This might be me being idealistic, but maybe if, in the process of rebuilding Haiti, there is as much of an effort to get people wired as there is to get them water, the segregational constructs that allowed previous corrupt regimes to keep the masses in poverty will no longer be able to stand.

Essential reads on Haiti

The past week and half has been incredibly frustrating for me. I want to stop everything and focus entirely on Haiti. It’s become an obsession. Both of my Twitter accounts have been saturated with Tweets about Haiti. Sorry if this is bothering anyone, but it’s what I have to do. If outlets on the Web like blogs and social networking sites are a reflection of the outpourings of one’s mind, then mine lately are an accurate representation of mine. Probably conservative, actually, as I still have to work, still have to pay rent, and still have to do the whole social butterfly thing. I wish I had more time. Or one of those time-stopping watches that the Harry Potter chick has.

With all that’s on my mind about Haiti, the frustrating part  is that I’m not learning enough, not writing enough — or as lucidly as I want to —  and not doing enough about Haiti. But lots of people are. Also though, lots of people are writing myopic crap about Haiti, which adds to the frustration. I’m a very “Fine, I’ll just do it myself” kind of person, which is what motivated me to go into journalism in the first place, and seeing the kind of propagandized regurgitated bullshit that some media outlets are turning out makes me want to fucking walk to Miami and swim to Haiti.

Anyway, here are the pieces of journalism I’ve read over the past week that alleviated my frustration.

1) Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians? (By Ben Ehrenreich, on Slate)

The single most important read about the situation in Haiti, in my opinion. Via a Haitian list serve my mother is on, I have been getting about 20 emails a day with incredibly valuable yet underrepresented perspectives about what is happening on the ground in Haiti from people who are intimately familiar with the history of Haiti and the extent of the corruption that has occurred there — corruption to which the U.S. has been a frequent contributor. This article brilliantly synthesizes information about the U.S. efforts in Haiti and points a very critical eye at the decision of the U.S. to prioritize military operations over delivering humanitarian aid.

2) Country Without a Net (By Tracy Kidder, on The New York Times)

For a country that is so close in proximity to us, the average American knows very little about its history and its current state. Even being half Haitian, I only really started to learn about it in the past few years (despite, or maybe as a result of, numerous forced attempts by my mother to educate me about Haiti’s history and culture). Furthermore, my concept wasn’t really solidified until I traveled there in June of 2009. This article does an excellent job of highlighting the historical events in Haiti that contributed to its status as one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

3) Aid Makes it to Haiti But Not Onto the Streets (On CNN World)

This relates to the priority of the U.S. military operation over the relief effort, and is one of the most infuriating things about the current situation. With 11,000 troops and counting on the ground, one would think they would find a way to overcome the infrastructure deficiencies and get the supplies out to those who need them.

4) Haiti: My Experience on the Ground (By Richard Morse, on The Huffington Post)

When the first quake hit Tuesday evening, there was a lack of information about what was going on on the ground. That’s why I was very grateful for the Twitter stream of Richard Morse, manager of The Olofson Hotel and a personal friend of my mother. My mom has a history at the Olofson, as she used to frequent the place when she lived there in the early ’80s. She met Richard when she last visited Haiti in October of 2008 and stayed at the Olofson hotel. Richard is not a reporter, or a trained journalist, but he is a writer and has a unique perspective about the situation in Haiti. I met him when his band played at S.O.B. in Manhattan last fall. This essay provides insight into the corruption that occurs in Haiti.

5) Haiti’s Elite Hold Nation’s Future In Their Hands (By Tracy Wilkinson, on the LA Times)

One of the concepts that is largely alien to Americans is regarding the wealth and class divides in Haiti, which are immense. This is one of those things I wouldn’t quite get if I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but after visiting Haiti and driving through the slums and also going to parties at massive mansions that contain riches unlike anything I have ever seen in the U.S., I get it. This article focuses on a member of the Haitian elite, Gregory Mevs, and explains how the actions of the elite will very likely determine the future of the country.

I’ll stop at five for now. But yeah… this is why the world needs journalists. I will leave you with a video my mom sent me this morning about Haiti made in 1942.

The death toll numbers game

When the first earthquake hit Haiti the evening of January 12, my eyes were glued to Google News, scanning every article as it was picked up by Google’s search spiders and pushed into the feed. When I heard the first description of where the epicenter of the quake hit — 15 miles southwest of Port-Au-Prince — I knew the population in that area would be decimated. Driving through there with my dad this summer, I would stare out the window marveling at the dense concentration of people and wondering what life was like for them.

So I was rather shocked when I heard the first death toll estimate on Tuesday evening: Dozens Feared Dead As Buildings Collapse. Either my conception of a 7.0 earthquake was distorted by Hollywood, or that was a sorely conservative estimate.

Over the next 24 hours, the death toll estimate incrementally increased as it was reported by various publications:

Hundreds Feared Dead in Haiti Earthquake (ABC News)

Haiti Earthquake: Thousands Feared Dead (CBS News)

Then Haiti’s consul general to the U.N., Felix Augustin, threw out the 100,000 estimate, while at the same time President Druval was citing other estimates between 30,000 and 50,000 and told CNN “It’s too early to give a number.” Now the estimate wavers between the tangible yet likely conservative 200,000 dead and the more elusive “hundreds of thousands“.

It is clear that we will never know how many people died in the Haitian earthquakes. Between the way that bodies had to be disposed of in mass graves without documentation, the most anyone can do is to interview people months from now and try to make a list of all the people who were never seen again by their families.

But what we can know, and need to know now, is how many people are currently dying in Haiti. How many people are still trapped beneath the rubble, clinging to life? How many people have escaped immediate harm and are now in need of water and food, but unable to access these resources due to infrastructure collapse from the Earthquake?

Most importantly, how many people are currently in the care of the medical teams but are dead and dying because planes full of medical supplies are being diverted from the Port-au-Prince airport, or because the supplies that have been delivered are just sitting there instead of being delivered to the make-shift hospitals and triage centers where they can be used?

According to the news media as of today, that number is “at least five”. And accurate though that may be, it downplays the severity of the situation.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, we have seen nothing but conservative estimates from reporters. I understand the desire of the media to stick to tradition and only report facts that are confirmed by primary sources, but when their ability to get those facts is limited by geographical, technological, and other constraints, some other kind of estimation and prediction is in order. Otherwise, the picture that gets painted is one that is misleading. Whether it is out of journalistic precautiousness or laziness that reliable estimates are not being formed and delivered to the public, nothing can justify downplaying the urgency of the situation.

Instead of waiting for some political figure to pull a number out of his ass to publish it, why don’t journalists on the ground in Haiti use their own logic and abilities to get information and assemble their own stats. Nobody is going to die from an educated overestimate, but several people might die from the status quo.

Haiti at night

Taking a break from all the death, destruction and violence, here is a far more beautiful sight of Haiti. It is one that I was fortunate enough to see when I was there in June, and though the lights are off in Haiti right now, it is a sight that I hope to see again someday.

Photo from my cousin Rachel Periera’s facebook page.

The sight at the fallen Palace

I’ve been getting emails about the aftermath of the Earthquakes in Haiti via a list serve with some very unique commentary from the Haitian perspective. As we proceed with relief and peacekeeping efforts in this country that has been subject to occupation throughout its history, including an “often brutal” American occupation from 1915 to 1934 (NY Times), it’s important to recognize that certain acts of intervention may be perceived differently by Haitians and Americans.

Regarding the decision to land U.S. military helicopters on the National Palace lawn…

Photo via The Ledger*

 

From Ilio Durandis via Bob Corbett’s Haiti mailing list:

I know that many people would say this is not the time for questioning any moves by the United States of America. Many would say that we should be grateful that they are even considering helping the “poor” Haitians in distress. But oh boy, that sight of US helicopter landing in the yard of the National Palace does not give me any impression that those soldiers are there for humanitarian relief. As a matter of fact, it is a direct message that us, Haitians, are meaningless in those whole relief effort. Yeah, US airborne can take over the National Palace, and there ain’t nothing anyone can say or do about it.

Of all the places that the helicopters could land, why the yard of the National Palace? I am getting even sicker. Please can any American on this list tell me how they would feel if a foreign army were to land their soldiers in the yard of the White house, after any kind of disaster in the US. Come on now, help us with some dignity. We are still a sovereign and an independent country. Aren’t we? I will say it clearly here, I am opposed of any silent invasion of my country. We need humanitarian relief, not warriors in our country.

Bring relief, not M-16 and war tanks.

— Your Passionate Servant,

Ilio Durandis
Founder
Haiti 2015
www.haiti2015.com

Well, how would it seem if a foreign country landed a military helicopter in the White House lawn if such a tragic disaster occurred here?

Obviously the most important thing is saving lives and getting aid to injured and dying Haitians, and maybe using the Capital as a landing pad is the best way to do that. But moving forward, we must be sensitive to Haitian perceptions. If foreign intervention is carried out in a way that builds resentment among Haitians by making it seem like an occupancy rather than a humanitarian relief effort, will be much less able to succeed in helping those who desperately need it.

*Also interesting, that photo accompanied this article in The Ledger. Read the lead paragraphs and contrast that with the email you just read. It seems there is some doublespeak going on here…

My Amanda Palmer fan girl moment

This is my latest ear worm that has been in my head all weekend:

But you are my love/

The astronaut/

Flying in the face/

Of science

This broad is fierce.

And now to recap the story of my fan girl moment……. I once had a very special encounter with Amanda Palmer.

In July of 2008 I given a press pass and two free tickets to the first Rothbury Music Festival. So I packed up some friends and some camping gear and headed out to the Double JJ Ranch.

At one point I split from my group and went wandering around the press tent. That’s where I saw these two fabulously dressed ladies sitting in the grass. One was holding a pale yellow parasail and looked like she could have been straight out of the victorian era. “HEY!” the other one yelled to me. “Do you have another cigarette you could spare?” Hell yeah, no prob, and I gave her one and a lighter.

Then an arriving vehicle caught the attention of the Victorian woman and she got up and bounced over to it, parasail spinning. And then it struck me.

“Wait a second… is that Amanda Palmer?” I asked the woman, now happily smoking.

“Yeah, and if you come to her show tonight she’ll sign your tits!”

What’s that? Picture or it didn’t happen, you say?

Continue reading

The situation in Haiti

Yesterday, I was finally able to speak with my sister and father in Haiti for the first time since the quake.

Their perspective is probably one that you are not accustomed to with regard to Haiti. They don’t live in poverty but they’re not part of the “Haitian elite” either. I would consider them well-off, even by American standards, but they are still exposed to the same hardships as ALL Haitians are — hardships that are the result of existing under a completely dysfunctional government and lack of support from external nations.

I spoke a bit with my dad, but his English isn’t very good so I mostly found out about their present situation from my sister, who is 19, in med school and speaks near-perfect english. Here’s a report from their perspectives and mine:

The Quakes:


My sister said the aftershocks are still occurring at a regular rate, which you can also see on the USGS website. For those living in poverty with houses made from weak materials, each tremor brings new waves of destruction. It’s easy to read earthquake precaution guides and conclude that it’s best to not remain inside an unstable structure. But what you must consider is that Haiti is consistently, excruciatingly hot.

Via ClimateTemp.info

The average temperature in January is only about four degrees (F) lower than the average temperature in June, and it rains MUCH less. When I was there this past June, I  got violently sick from sun exposure, and days later experienced the most painful dehydration — and I HAD access to resources. I just neglected to realize what the problem was and didn’t drink enough water. To not be able to take shelter from the sun for fear of being crushed to death, or be able to go anywhere else to find it will be a lethal combination for those on the brink. Haitians are now at a much greater risk of dehydration in addition to having far less access to water, let alone water that is clean or chemically treated.

With regards to my family, my dad is an architectural engineer and they are not afraid of the house collapsing. But they have been camping out on the ground floor in order to quickly exit when they feel tremors, just in case.

Food:


As far as food goes, with something like 80% of Haitians living below the poverty level, tons of Haitians were starving before the quake. In addition to any deaths caused by the quakes themselves, I suspect we will now see a long tail of deaths from starvation and dehydration brought on by these new conditions that will make it even harder to get food to those most in need. Relief in the form of food is desperately needed, and not just for the next week while the whole world is watching, either. Haiti will need a consistent influx of food donated by external sources for months to come just to maintain their previous equilibrium.

Lots of food is generated and circulated by the lower class, who sell products along roads and in the central marketplace of Port-au-Prince. There are grocery stores in Haiti too, which is where my family typically shops. But according to my sister, since the quake the grocery stores are closed. With no electricity there is no refrigeration. Furthermore, nobody knows when the importation of food products from abroad, and the manufacturing and harvesting of food products domestically will resume, so it makes sense for the stores to want to preserve their stock. It’s not just grocery stores either. According to my sister, it’s almost ALL businesses.

“It’s like the whole country is closed.”

It’s not a purely resource-based decision though. In times of crisis, self-preservation comes into play. It is the biological imperative in every living creature to continue to live, despite the odds. In Haiti, those in desperation will do whatever it takes to survive, and it spurs violence as people attempt to take what they need from those who have it. This was already the situation before the earthquake,  Now, it’s going to be exacerbated one-thousand-fold.

Because things are so dangerous, people who have resources are not venturing into the chaos on the streets, rendering most businesses inoperable.

Communication and electricity:


My sister said that there is only one phone service working in the country, Voila, which they fortunately has. From what I remember, customers use Voila phone services on a pay-as-you-go basis for sending text messages and calling overseas. Credit for these tasks comes in the form of cards that are purchased with currency on the street via company vendors. Presumably, if the vendors cannot be located or run out of cards, customers will be unable to communicate over seas.

Another factor is the battery life of phones. The electricity grid is completely knocked out in Haiti. Since this is such a common occurrence there, many homes, businesses and other facilities are built equipped with gas generators that power inverters that provide electricity directly to appliances through whatever circuitry is set up. However, the gas that powers the generators, and essentially everything under these circumstances, is EXTREMELY scarce now. According to my sister, gas vendors have hiked the prices WAY up to rates that only the wealthiest could possibly afford. Earlier today, I saw a tweet that diesel fuel was selling for $25/gallon on the black market. Other gas vendors are simply not selling right now, likely in anticipation for even greater demand to come.

Also, no gas and no electricity means no way to charge laptops and no way to power routers >> No Internet Communication. Richard Morse, who runs le Hotel Olofson, where several American reporters are now staying, complained earlier via Twitter that he needs stronger generators and faster Internet. It is a tough problem. To power the routers to provide computing power that is maybe half of what Americans are accustomed to working with means dishing out a lot of money on gas — money that is becoming less and less meaningful as goods become scarce.

At my family’s home, they have run out of gas. I asked my sister how she would charge her phone when her battery died and she said they still have some power in the inverters. They don’t use them at all during the day and only run them long enough to charge their phones and other appliances at night. When the inverters run out of juice though, they will be without a way to communicate with the outside world, and with me, unless they can find gasoline.

____

When I spoke with my family today, they said that they were able to find a source of food today and bought enough to last them for a while. My sister seemed calm and was telling me to relax, which is only an indicator of her strength and the trying situations she is accustomed to dealing with. “Don’t worry sis, we don’t have to panic yet.”