Haiti … where lives are on the line
State co-op personnel go to assist; see hope rising despite the remaining rubble
By Jonie Larson Gates
Nearly one million people continue to live in tents in Haiti as a result of last year's earthquake. Despite uncomfortable conditions they have found ways to prepare good food and wear clean clothing as witnessed by James Coleman, President and CEO of Shelby Electric, pictured here with seventh grader, Ansell.
Photos courtesy of Shelby Electric Cooperative
Tents are the new way of life in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Rubble from collapsed structures is heaped in the streets with few places to shove it. If there’s a spot, there’s a tent. Approximately one million people are still living in them.
Trash abounds, much in part because many incoming supplies and food are distributed in foam containers and bottled water comes in plastic. One way they eliminate it is to burn it and that creates a constant haze over the city and an acrid smell in the air.
But the message recorded by media groups who land at the airstrip to get 10 minutes of “update-from-Haiti” footage is misleading, says James Coleman, President and CEO of Shelby Electric Cooperative. “The people down there are sick of it,” he says of the portrayal, adding, “The people of Haiti are resilient.”
That’s the message he wants U.S. residents to know about the many Haitians who found themselves homeless and in survival mode as of Jan. 12, 2010 when a 7.0 quake hit. On that date, the world as these native people knew it, fell down around them.
Just more than a year later, the city’s landscape may not look a lot brighter to the visiting eye, but Coleman says to look deeper.
He just returned from a training expedition in the ravaged country. He and three of Shelby’s lineman – Terry Oldham, Kris Koehler and Brian Chevalier – experienced life for three weeks outside the comforts of the U.S. In Haiti, as part of a National Rural Electric Cooperative Association delegation, they helped teach line safety to government crews known as the Electricite De´- Haiti (EDH), in the hopes of reducing work injuries and deaths.
As planned, the U.S. crew was doing the teaching, but they became students, too. It broadened their perspective, sharpened their vision and gave them newfound respect for a people they knew little about when they arrived.
Chevalier and Coleman, in the weeks following, both describe a people with pride, who have character and appreciation for what is being rebuilt – a people who have birthed a new existence out of despair … and what might seem odd under the circumstances – people who are extraordinarily clean.
Coleman describes a young boy who walked by the worksite each day on his way to school. Ansell, a seventh-grader, lives with his father. His mother died shortly after the earthquake. In getting to know the boy, Coleman found out he speaks fluent Creole, Spanish and French and he’s learning English. He was impeccably dressed each day in his school uniform, which was clean and pressed.
That cleanliness is widespread. Both Coleman and Chevalier say they were surprised at such efforts from the Haitians.
“In the restaurant, we’re from the richest country and we’re the worst dressed,” Coleman recounts.
The locals who approach visitors asking for handouts are few, despite the conditions.
“I saw less beggars there than in Washington, D.C.” Coleman says.
The Shelby leader’s passion about the mission simply spills over.
“The people are recovering; the politics are not recovering.” He says world groups – some volunteer and some for-profit – are often caught up in getting the biggest piece of the reconstruction pie. Consequently, the greed slows up the progress.
While the Haitian government wants to be in charge, the fact is, no one is in charge. To put it in perspective, in the fall election 19 people ran for president. The resulting runoff had not occurred at the time of Coleman’s visit.
So, much of the progress is left up to the people.
To date, only 10 percent of the rubble that fell, killing upward to 200,000 people, has been eliminated. But the locals are making a dent in it, breaking it down and reusing the rebar.
As for the EDH linemen, they were and continue to be eager to learn. They want to be safe. That’s where the delegation made huge impacts.
“This was heads and tails the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. I left there knowing we’ve saved some lives,” Coleman says.
The four men from Shelby were accompanied by others through the NRECA assist, including Paul Dow, Coordinator of Video Productions at the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives. Dow often travels for the NRECA, getting footage of worldwide efforts to link the world to electricity.
Dow’s take on Haiti mirrors many of those from the Shelby crew, but he also has an eye to catch the unusual for posterity. Dow filmed Francois Gieudonne, a man who lost both arms around the elbows while working on the lines. Although he could no longer work, he came to the trainings occasionally. He is able to drink water from a bottle, but can no longer feed himself. On those days he dropped by, his wife would come at noon to help him with his meal.
“It was the only thing he knows (line work) and now both arms are off … “ Dow says. Just seeing him standing there, you have to wonder what he’s thinking.
“It definitely reinforces the need for us to be there,” Dow says.
The work of the NRECA delegation was viewed by hundreds in March at the national convention. Dow’s filming and guest appearances from some of the Haitian EDH leaders were a part of the program.
Chevalier, who was impressed by the gift of a Haitian man who bought each trainer a Haitian bracelet with his meager means, gave the prayer at the national meeting in Orlando. He said Coleman wrote it, but it spoke from the heart, “saying how fortunate we are.”
Chevalier, 28, an eight-year lineman with Shelby who reigns from Springfield and the original lineman’s school, says he is more than willing to help those who have so little.
“They make the best of what they have.”