Ritchie Katko spends his days working for the Make it Right Foundation in the Lower 9th ward in New Orleans. This January, while the city was consumed by Saints fever, Ritchie, along with a group of fellow architects and thought leaders traveled to Haiti to offer their assistance. A few weeks ago, they made a return trip to the town of Jacmel, which was devastated by the January 12 earthquake. Jacmel, a port town, is known for having an art scene and elegant 19th Century homes. Fresh off his trip, I asked Ritchie a few questions about his experience in Haiti.
What are you doing there?
This is my second trip down to the Jacmel, a port town on the southern coast of Haiti. Its a 2 hour drive from Port au Prince via a mountain pass. Our team consists of a variety of professionals, from nurses to electricians to planners to carpenters. On our last trip, we were able to secure the donation of a the services of a sea-worthy barge from New Iberia, Louisiana, which we were able to fill with transitional shelters, medical equipment, heavy machinery, solar energy systems, and food/medicine/water. Most of the goods are destined to various NGO’s operating in the Jacmel area, which is inaccessible by large freighters, and soon to be inaccessible via the mountainous roadway, due to the threat of landslides during the upcoming rainy season. A major purpose of our trip is to see the barge into port, and to coordinate distribution of various goods. Beyond that, we will be deploying our various skillsets in whatever ways we can determine are best suited to the people of the region.
Who are you working with?
The Louisiana Haiti Sustainable Village Project, which represents something like 40 different groups. The organization was formed to provide assistance to Haiti post-quake, much like Haiti and Haitian-Americans were able to respond to Hurricane Katrina. Our team is made up of folks who lived through the storms of 2005 or were in New Orleans soon after to assist with recovery efforts. A major goal of the project is to convey recovery lessons learned to the people of Haiti.
What is most shocking about being there?
It’s hard to put it into a single “shock.” Here’s three thoughts.
Three revolutions have occurred in the past decade: widespread importing of cheap Chinese motorcycles (transportation), widespread adoption of cellular phones and internet access (communication), and massive importation of plastic products (consumption). People are realizing that they can improve their lives. 80% of young people understand that energy/water/environment are critical issues that need to be addressed in their lifetimes for Haiti to become self-sustaining.
Most shocking: how poor building practices are, and how there are so little building permitting or construction standards. Rock is everywhere, a better concrete block manufacturing process, and better understanding of construction isn’t far off. Unfortunately, many of the examples for reconstruction are based on timber-construction, something which is very very expensive in Haiti, due the deforestation of the island.
Diesel runs everything. Jacmel’s power grid runs off diesel. Individual homes and hotels and schools are run by diesel. The opportunity for renewable energy is amazing. Energy is everywhere! They’ve got great options, too: Tidal, Wind, Solar, Geothermal, Hydro, and biodiesel are all feasible.
How do locals respond to your help?
The Haiti/New Orleans connection, plus the Katrina/quake connection are very powerful, and have given us a lot of access that we probably wouldn’t ever have. There is a shared bond in the pain and struggle of disaster and recovery that can’t be simulated or fabricated.
With that said, it’s still very early in the recovery process, and people inquire about the length of our commitment to the people of Haiti, and have expressed their frustration with various commitments of the larger, international aid groups who are operating in the region. That commitment, and the obvious questions regarding capacity and resources to continue work in Haiti, is still being worked through.
What should Americans know about what is happening in Haiti?
Recovery isn’t about buying more shelters, it is about helping a country rebuild itself economically, politically, environmentally.