Hurricane Tomas has been hard on Leogane, hardest on the tens of thousands in the Ouest department, which Leogane is the capital of, still living in crude, homemade shelters in IDP camps. All Hands spent about a day and a half in lockdown, no one in or out of the base, watching the steady rain. The winds didn’t pick up. It didn’t even rain very heavily, certainly nothing like the torrents we saw during the rainy season, but it rained for days, and flooded a lot of the town. All Hands has, historically, arrived on site with just a small assessment team a week or so after a disaster. Big volunteer operations usually don’t start until a month after a disaster. Here we were in the middle of a disaster, and there was some concern about what our response would be, or if a big group of volunteers of widely varied skill sets could do any good.
Turns out, we can do tons of good:
Shoveling mud out of peoples’ homes is one of the most draining, wrenching things I’ve ever done. The flood response mud teams are brought into aching intimacy with how the hurricane wrecked these peoples’ lives. Shoveling, bucketing, or sweeping mud in a small, dank, reeking, windowless concrete room that was once a man’s bachelor apartment, or a family’s living room, is heartbreaking. Their soiled linens, furniture, cookware, keepsakes, and clothes stand in the mud because families didn’t have the heart to pick them up, and didn’t know how or have the tools to clean up for themselves. Clearing mud is also one of the best things I’ve ever done. It is the most direct good I can imagine doing for people in need. Despite the mud being at least a little, and maybe quite a bit toxic with disease, fuels, battery acid, overflowing sewers, and god knows what, our volunteers are passionate about clearing it. Neil, one of All Hands’ very long-term volunteers who works harder than a team of Clydesdales, thrives on it. When the team he was leading finished mudding Hospital Saint Croix, which was closed due to flooding, he said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
There’s a place for heavy equipment in mudding, too. I spent a day in one of our Bobcat skid steers clearing streets that were knee-deep in watery mud. Driving a Bobcat flat-out and pushing a giant wave of a couple hundred gallons of mud is a bit mind-blowing. It sure impressed the neighbors, who were the most appreciative of any crowd I’ve seen in Haiti. One man spent ten minutes just thanking us in great English. Another, with an irrationality that’s common here, stopped me to yell at me to help clear their street. At least, I think so. My Kreyol is pretty bad.
“Stop! Help us! Move the mud!”
“That’s what I’m here to do.”
“HELP! MUD! MOVE!”
“Um, okay. I’m going to move the mud now. Could you stand back a bit please?”
“Thank you thank you thank you thank you.”
The Bobcats’ current project is clearing the grounds of Lekol Saint Croix, a school next to the hospital, which is an acre-sized mudbath, and mildly nightmarish, even for machinery. Both machines are finally working today (I’ve fixed a broken hydraulic coupling and a broken engine mount this week), so we ought to be able to knock it out, hopefully for the school to re-open on time on Monday. I don’t know when the mud will dry, but some of it is three feet deep and untraversible by people or vehicles. We could be moving mud with Bobcats for some time.
|I called it a mud pit, right?|
|The mud dump.|
|Landon, Bobcat, mud. Sublime in its simplicity.|
|Nothing to do for mud but scoop it out.|
The real consequences of Hurricane Tomas for Leogane are just beginning, though. MSF has reported six cases of cholera in Leogane, at least some of which, apparently, originated here instead of the Artibonite region where the outbreak originated. None of which, however, are “confirmed.” Despite MSF doctors making confident diagnoses of cholera, these cases may never be confirmed. We’ve found out that confirming cholera is a myth, or maybe just a bald lie, though. All patients with suspected of cholera have samples sent to the MSPP, the Haitian Ministry of Public Health, which is responsible for the official confirmation and reporting. It’s now widely said, by various people in the Health or Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) “clusters” of UN agencies and NGOs, that the MSPP dramatically underreports cholera cases to avoid panic. This is shocking and incredibly stupid. For one, people are already freaked out. Two, underreporting will under-mobilize the humanitarian response, which is the only thing stopping this from spreading like a California wild fire. MSF are no fools though. They’re the designated entity for cholera response in Leogane, and they’re going ahead and treating these six people for cholera whether the MSPP “confirms” them or not. For those of you worried, cholera is eminently preventable by simple hygiene. It has a very low incidence of transmission from patients to health care workers, because it’s so avoidable. We’re buying materials for 500 household sanitization kits, which we hope to distribute in the next day or two, and designing informational material in Kreyol about how fucking preventable this disease is. The outbreak in Leogane is frustrating, worrisome, and sad, but it will certainly keep the job from being boring.