Friday, March 19, 2010

Better Living by Design?

I had a conversation with an engineer from another Carribean country yesterday about future plans for permanent housing here in Haiti. The generally accepted practice here is to start building a simple dwelling and add on to it over time as your budget and time allows. This makes perfect sense to the average family here but if the materials and structure design aren't sound you may end up with a house of cards ready to topple in the future.

This topic has been covered extensively in various places so let's skip ahead to the relevant part here. Our organization's plans for permanent homes would incorporate better design and materials but we also plan to encourage incremental building (horizontally, not vertically). We would build in areas affected by the earthquake that would be much less dense than Port-au-Prince so there would potentially be less need for multi-story residential housing.

On the other hand this does involve an artificial limit on what families may decide to do in the future. Our volunteer engineer would point out that for an additional cost we could design homes that could better handle additional stories. But is cost the only issue here? I would say no. The NGOs that will be here for the long-term rebuilding effort will have to draw a line at some point in order to balance the (estimated) desires of one family versus the overall need for permanent housing solutions. It is a hard decision to make. There needs to be some government influence in this as well (i.e. building codes and zoning hopefully.) 

Would you spend more to give some families additional flexibility or spread the opportunity at simple, decent homes to some more families? Feel free to post your comments below.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Just Need a Cot to Sleep On

Usually I wake up whenever the generator gets cut on at our Petionville apartment but today the sun and about 80 other people getting up at the same time did the trick. Of course this was at about 5:45 in the morning. Today is my first full day working in Leogane.

The extent of damage in this community is fairly severe (approximately 90% of buildings here are destroyed or in need of repair) so coming upon accommodations is fairly tricky. So for the sake of comparison allow me to illustrate the difference in sleeping arrangements using the pictures above and below.

Really I just need a cot to sleep on and a mosquito net to avoid malaria (as well as lymphatic filariasis) so I'm glad that I was able to be hosted here for a few days by Hands On Disaster Response. I'm sure we'll be working on a bit more furnished accommodations down the road though.

P.S. You can probably tell that photography isn't one of my core skills.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Getting Your Hands Dirty

Volunteer demolisher with sledgehammer
I flew into Santo Domingo Saturday on my way back to Haiti and was picked up by one of our Dominican staff members. It being the weekend I asked him if there was any build work going on at any of the job sites. He told me that there wasn't and I quickly remembered the distinction in how our organization works in the US versus in other places around the world. Saturdays are our most active days for building back home in the States since that is when most of our volunteers are able to build. In developing countries (well, really in most countries in general) people are trained and employed to build our houses with a varying component of local and international volunteers coming in to chip in on an individual or group basis.

Volunteering is a great way to directly engage people in solving issues around the world, whether its digging wells in Africa, working in a field hospital in Myanmar, or cleaning up trash at a park in your own town. The concept seems to have its foundation based in Western/developed nation culture but other areas of the world identify with this concept of giving back to those who may need it most or working for the benefit of the greater good.I met a couple of guys a few weeks back who volunteered with an NGO in Gonaives and are now working with the same organization in Leogane now on a stipend based on the good work they did in 2008.

When disasters occur many people take this volunteering spirit to a whole new level. It reminds me of some commericals that used to come on TV for Pike Nurseries with this jingle focused on "playing in the dirt." Some people found it annoying as all heck but I think it was done well for the people they were trying to target. There's a big difference in hiring someone to plant a garden for you versus you doing the planting yourself and getting to feel rich dark earth between your fingertips. I think the same thing is true when it comes to helping communities after a disaster. Even if you can't literally be on the ground it does feel better to be working in a kitchen feeding volunteers or managing a warehouse rather than sitting at home and calling a nonprofit to donate $25 or $50 (maybe not 100% of the time, but you get my drift.)

That means there's a lot of frustration out there when organizations try to hold back the tide on volunteers rushing into to help after a disaster in Latin America, Asia, or Africa. In the case of Africa that tide may not be as high (unfortunately) but its true there as well. Whether its for security reasons, lack of infrastructure, or neutralizing the affected community's ability to tap into its own capacity to recover and rebuild we can say we need help meeting the needs of people but just bringing in more people may not be the right answer at the moment. It gets even more complicated when your organization has a history of bringing volunteers to a place and you suddenly have to restrict that to take new factors into consideration. From the volunteer's standpoint though these things sometimes aren't that clear (and can get even less clear depending on the media coverage.)

So where am I going with this? We have to find ways to help people "get their hands dirty" in other ways when it comes to certain disasters recovery efforts. This could be done by assembling teams to assemble distribution kits or taking in displaced families from the affected area on an interim basis. The NGO community needs to continue to work on these kinds of ideas because we have a bevy of ways (TV, websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) to let potential volunteers know what they can do to help in their own community. The volunteers need to consider this guidance well to avoid making mistakes that many NGOs have learned from decades of experience rather than go on their own.

Photo above courtesy of Inside Disaster  CC BY-NC 2.0

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another Go Round

I'm making plans to head back to Haiti this weekend for a few more weeks. If you thought we'd forgotten about Haiti on this website be assured that it will continue to be a recurring subject.

At the same time though we see that there are other hazards are out there that steal our attention away from areas of need. Our friends in Oklahoma and Arkansas already know that tornado season has begun and this spring is expected to be an active one. FEMA and the states in the Upper Midwest are monitoring rainfall totals and river conditions to see which areas will get more than their fair share of floods. The interesting thing about these threats is that we should be able to anticipate them on an annual basis and be ready for them but not every family has this high on their priority list. Maybe if we had General HonorĂ© visit every community along the Missisippi River Valley and give folks an old-fashioned but insightful talk on preparedness we could mitigate some of the risks but it'd just be  the beginning (by the way if you have a chance to hear him speak in person or see him on CNN every now & then I'd recommend you take advantage of it). 

A wise man once said its easier to fight fires than teach people how to prevent them. I'd add that its easier to show people fighting fires than it is to show what people are doing to prevent them.

Speaking of families, I know my household is not thrilled about another long-distance trip for me but this is all a part of what we do to make things better for others. I must say I feel a bit guilty at times knowing that there are people out there that would go at a drop of a hat to get their hands dirty helping others but its hard to give your kids and wife a hug through Skype (when you have internet access). I try to keep in mind the pictures that one of my colleagues showed me the last time I was in Haiti from the birthday party for his son that he missed to help me put this in perspective though.

I'll save the factual updates for another post - until then keep your eyes and ears open and we'll see you next time.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blog post changed America

Today's post takes off on another article from the AJC - we'll chalk it up as a coincidence and not a trend. 

I decided to spend the extra time taking the train in to work today and finally read an article that I've kept putting off for a while since the headline intrigued me so much (of course you may have noticed on this site that I have low standards for headlines considering the ones I've used in the past.) This article was titled "Doraville subdivision changed America."

Wait for it....wait for must be wondering how a subdivision in Georgia could have changed America, right? (Ok, maybe I'm the only one.) Did someone invent some new type of cul-de-sac there? Maybe it led to a lawsuit or a major Supreme Court case. Anyway, I decided to read this article and I ended up a little disappointed. Why? Let's make a small list:
  1. So this subdivision (Northwoods) was the first large-scale planned development in Georgia. Alright - that's a notable claim despite the dubious honors that Atlanta has gotten from suburbs spreading like kudzu around here.
  2. Apparently some local & state officials are seeking to make this community a historic landmark because of its ranch houses and "a vision of what suburban community living could be."
Let me stop right there for a moment. I understand the importance of post-WWII residential development but once you give Levittown a historic designation shouldn't we have this category pretty much covered already? I'm sure this community is a very nice one but historic...not too certain about that. Yes, it would be good to capture the architectural elements that were used there and study how the community's social ties develop but where do we draw the line at historic? Looking at the official designation from the state's criteria (since there is a state list and a national list), I guess this community could be considered historic but I'm still not sure it sits well in my mind.

I say let's not hand out these historic designations like candy but if they want the sign let them have it (especially considering the ~30,000 national designations given out each year.) If I live in this area and want to modify my lovely little ranch house it would be a bit trickier with the requirements that come with the national designation though.

So those were my thoughts - if you have some let me know in the Comments section. Other than giving me some food for thought this morning one more positive benefit from this article is the introduction of a new tag category on the PlanMetro blog: Only in Georgia. I bet I'll get to use it a fair amount in the future.

P.S. Apparently the folks at the AJC realized there was a slight letdown from headline to content so they changed the title of the article to "Doraville subdivision preserves American turning point." Might have skipped over this one entirely if that was the headline I originally saw though. Thanks to the AJC for giving me a valuable and practical lesson in writing headlines.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Flood of Attention for the AJC

I've always been leery of accepting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a big city newspaper worthy of the reputation that other big city newspapers get by default. My opinion may have been affected by comparing it to other news sources here like Creative Loafing or even from my birthplace. I think they've done a fair job of covering the Hawks (thanks to their recently departed beat writer Sekou) in recent years but a lot of times their news coverage in general just seemed to be lackluster (I might have hinted at this a few months back.)

Well today I'm going to give them credit where credit is due. If you've seen their recent articles looking back at the September floods and doing a little bit of investigative reporting then you know where I'm going with this. These articles highlight a connection that is at the heart of what this blog is meant to focus on: community planning (or lack thereof) and the effect of natural disasters on communities. In other words, bad planning turns troublesome hazards into serious disasters.

Actually, I think the AJC writers working this beat summed things up a bit better than I just did. They found that the Army Corps of Engineers told the community of Austell as early as 1964 that it was built in a bad place. In essence the local government itself has to accept some responsibility for being in situations like 100 and 500-year floods. I doubt anyone working for the city right now though was around back then for us to point the finger at them and remove from office.

Norfolk Southern at some point thought it was wise to place an intermodal yard in Austell even though their location was at "at the lower end of the 245 square mile drainage basin of Sweetwater Creek." Several government bodies tried to stop them from using this site but their attempts were in vain even though the railroad company built retention ponds to control runoff. We'll add go ahead and add Norfolk Southern to the blame list too.

Cobb County, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the State of Georgia, and even the federal government have their own piece of blame to take on to in this for not effectively regulating storm water runoff. We say that we want property owners to control their runoff but we let GDOT, the Department of Agriculture, the Postal Service, and the CDC off the hook for paying their fair share of impact fees.

Probably the worst part of this blame pile is that we place new homes in risky areas (especially ones for families that are probably first-time homebuyers) because we want new businesses, residences, and their tax dollars to come to our communities and we don't want to bother them with expensive fees and delays to cover all of our bases. Actually, the worst part of all this is that all of the entities I just mentioned (except for renters of course) will likely receive some sort of assistance from the federal government if there is a federal declared disaster in their area, which is exactly what happened in September for Cobb and 17 other counties in Georgia. Guess where those assistance dollars come from...your pocket.

So while we continue to hear about more recent disasters in the news its still important for us to look back and see how the people that are trying to move on after previous disasters are doing now and how we can avoid this happening in the future. I had a chance to see some of the areas around Austell affected by these floods and the evidence of the disaster was hidden by normal looking subdivision entrances despite the extent of the damage. Kudos to the AJC for spending time and energy on this (knowing that it isn't easy these days to justify staff time on old issues in the newspaper industry) and I hope that people in key places are learning this lesson, albeit the hard way.

If you're from Atlanta I'd like to hear what you think about this issue in the Comments section. If you're not from Atlanta I'd like to hear about this issue from your neck of the woods (I know this problem is bigger than just our region and state's delusional way of planning and enforcement.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Quick Hits - Tuesday, March 2nd

It seems my most successful contributions the past few days have been of the 140 character variety rather than full posts. In that same spirit (but with a few extra characters) come take a stroll with me this morning around the World Wide Web (does anyone still use this phrase anymore?):

  • MARTA cuts to the bone: I knew it was really bad when they asked about cutting weekend service back a few hours in a survey to downtown commuters last week. By the time the state is ready to provide some level of funds (finally) there may not be much of a system left.
  • The White House Office of Urban Affairs has a website: Good to know, when they start making things happen let me know. The Initiatives list is pretty thin at this point.
  • Census ads are popping up: There was the Super Bowl one (I wondered what this was about, too much to think about with Super Bowl on) and this one I saw during a recent Hawks game. I even heard there were some ads with Rosario Dawson in them. I'd be interested to hear your opinions on what you think of all these but whether they're silly or not isn't that big a deal (the fact that I've spent more words talking about the Census then the other links tells me they're doing their job though.)
  • Chile: Sigh. Another big one this past weekend. We've talked about this before though: same hazard, different depth & strength, different resilience. I think this one diminishes the focus on Haiti in a number of ways, mainly that we now will probably have a good example of recovery and a choppy and demanding example over the next few years.
That's all for now, enjoy your Tuesday.