Some Q & A with Blayne Kirsch in Haiti

Blayne Kirsch (right) of Salem is working with a team of US Navy engineers in Haiti.

Blayne Kirsch of Salem is an engineer who is a civilian employee of the US Navy.  Kirsch has been in Haiti for the last month as part of a team assessing all kinds of structures for safety and giving other aid in the wake of that nation’s devastating earthquake last month.

Kirsch has agreed to share some of his observations and experiences with West of the I readers. Here’s some answers to questions I posed to him recently:

What’s life like for everyday people at this point?

When I was out in Port au Prince for the past 3 weeks conducting Structural Damage Assessments, I would see so many venders lining the street. The venders are selling food, cooked on the spot, home grown vegetables, clothing, sugar cane and small consumables such as gum, candy, and small quantity items of personal hygiene. I assume there are so many venders because so many of the businesses have been destroyed and people need to eke out a living any way they can. There are many congested open market areas in the city which we avoid when out in the town or try to pass through quickly.

Where are people living?

Port au Prince has a population of about 2.5 million; there are an estimated 200,000 people living in Indigenous Displacement Camps (IDPs) (tent cities). Soon the rainy season will start (mid March) and then hurricane season starts in June. One of the main functions of the DOD Joint Tactical Force (JTF) is to identify several parcels of land to relocate IDP camps that are currently located in flood zones or private property. My understanding is that the Haiti Government and the United Nations have agreed to buy the parcels of land to move the people out of the potential flooding areas. Our team of engineers conducted 2,500 Structural Damages Assessments over the past three weeks. About 99% of the assessments were on private homes. We would conduct Damage Assessments in teams of two engineers with 6-12 Army 82nd Airborne solders providing security. When conducting the assessments in the neighborhoods, I noticed that just about everyone was living in tents in their yards or staying at the house during the day and sleeping in the tent cities at night. Basically, we had 20% Green (inspected), 40% Yellow (restricted access) and 40% Red (unsafe). It was very rewarding to tell people their house was green.

Are people working?

Haiti had 30-40% unemployment before the earthquake on Jan 12. Haiti had been severely impacted by the recent global recession. I talked to our shuttle driver, a local Haitian. He said the unemployment is about 70-80%; so many of the businesses have been destroyed or are unsafe to work in.

Is life anywhere near normal for them yet?

Since arriving, I believe that some normalcy is returning i.e. people are getting by, but what is normalcy when 80% of the structures in the Port au Prince area are unsafe? When out in the city working, I came across schools that are being conducted in the tent cities. Many of the early structural Damage Assessments we were tasked with were for schools and public buildings. Many schools are closed. I have heard some will open by April if they are able to and others will try to complete repairs by next fall.

Private sanitation is another issue. There is a lot of public urination. There is no operational sewer system, so according to the Shuttle driver people do #2 in plastic bags and throw it away, typically on the street. Port au Prince is littered with large garbage piles on the streets. I have seen garbage trucks out collecting and trying to get ahead of the piles that are forming in the streets.

What are your living conditions like?

We were sleeping in air conditioned trailers until Feb 28 across the highway from the US Embassy. With about 1 hour notice we had to break camp that we had been in for the month move about 1 mile down the road from the US Embassy to an Army camp where the Army is providing security. Now we are sleeping in 12-man tents with approximately 3 feet between cots, under mosquito netting, with grass floors and no air conditioning. My wife sent me a door mat to put by my cot so my feet are kept mud-free when it rains. The temperatures at night are typically in the low 80’s. I sleep on my sleeping bag instead of in it. The showers are limited to wet down, turn the water off while soaping up, and then rinse down. The water is tepid at best. Bathrooms are port-a-johns.

We have set up a work tent with satellite communications for our computers. Needless to say it hot in the tent during the day. On March 3 we started receiving an evening cooked meal from the Army. It is a good break from the Meals Ready to Eat (MREs).

What is your workday like and what kind of communication challenges do you face in keeping in touch with home etc.?

We start each day with a 7am meeting, we take a lunch break between 1-3pm if we stop for one. Dinner break I take around 6:30 pm then do the necessary paperwork until 10 pm. When away from our base camp or the US Embassy we always have security personnel with us. I bought a Blackberry here, so I have a local cell phone and internet service to call home and communicate with family members. The languages spoken in Haiti are French and Creole, so learning how to use the phone and finding the type of calling plan I needed was a challenge. Today the phone system is down which happens about a couple times a week. About half the time, there is a lot of static on the phone lines. My wife got an international plan so she could call me, but could never get through. I am learning to use Facebook to communicate with friends and family.


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