Friday, October 7, 2016

Haiti: Ora Pro Nobis

I tell myself that it’s bogus, ridiculous, even…the fact that I have been able to do nothing, all week, except watch Hurricane Matthew make its way (as a storm) past my sister in Tobago, past us some hundreds of miles south of us (though we still felt it), and then…

…well, you know the rest of the story.

Oh, wait, you don’t.

Nobody does—not even the officials in Haiti who even today, three days after the storm passed, cannot survey the damage.

The first clue, perhaps, was that the Dominican Republic reported four deaths, but that there was no news from Haiti. Given that the center of the storm went though Haiti, but not through the Dominican Republic, this argued that no new was not good news.

It’s only gotten grimmer since then. As of 32 minutes ago, the BBC was reporting that the death toll in Haiti is over 400. But news reports are also saying that areas in Haiti are still unreachable: so who knows what the final toll will be?

In fact, we’ll never know, which is a commentary on the nature of the situation in Haiti. Because the hurricane is now “battering” Florida: I tell you this because I saw helicopter footage, and there is a five-foot section of a big K-Mart façade that has been slashed. Oh, and a meteorologist in Daytona Beach was standing next to a pillar outside her hotel—to avoid being hit buy debris, she told us solemnly—and directing the crew to film the only debris visible on an otherwise unaffected street. So there I was, in Puerto Rico, in an air-conditioned café, peering at a three-foot chunk of aluminum on a Florida Street.  

Then there is this:

Right—you can understand that if you had to wade through miles and miles of this, you might never know exactly how many people died in the storm. That is, of course, if you could even get to scenes like this, since many of the bridges are out.

But that’s not the real reason we’ll ever know.

One of the worst things about the current Saffir Simpson categories is that it focuses exclusively on wind. Right—moving air can be scary. I’ve been through a category three hurricane (Georges, in 1998), and the howling of the winds, the blasts of generators exploding, the thunder, and the sound of debris crashing against my house…yes, that was scary. But I was also in the second floor: the walls of my building were three-feet thick: there was no way the water could get to me. And it is exactly the water that does the damage.

Remember Katrina?

I had followed that storm too, and the night before it hit, I knew: New Orleans was finished. And so it came in, and then the news came in, and guess what! New Orleans had been spared! The damage was nowhere near what had been feared! Sighs of relief!

Of course, there was that little report of the levees being breached…..

So Hurricane was a category 3 when it hit New Orleans. So? OK—the wind created a storm surge, which was responsible for some of the levee failure. And there were questions about the construction of the levees, as well. So yes, the wind was a factor: it was the flooding, however, that did the damage.

As it is the flooding that will do the damage in Haiti. Because the ground was already saturated before the hurricane hit: and the terrain of Haiti? Well, Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, cites the Haitian proverb: Beyond mountains, more mountains.

It’s true geographically, but it’s real meaning is metaphorical: the hurricane came, and now is gone, but is the damage over? Of course not, since there is now a critical shortage of food, of water, and of resources. Oh, and the country doesn’t even have a president, since the elections were to have been this Sunday. So all of that argues that starvation, dehydration, and most critically, disease will kill many more in the months to come.

And the disease most to be feared? Cholera, which in one of the most ghastly sagas in recent medical history, was actually introduced into Haiti by UN workers who came in to do humanitarian work after the 2010 earthquake. Now, in fact, it is the worst cholera epidemic in recent history, according to Wikipedia, and who ever argues with them?

And so the hurricane was the first mountain: there are many more. And however bad cholera may be, my suspicion is that a very much more prosaic condition will kill many more, especially children.

Diarrhea, leading to dehydration, leading to death.

Dehydration is a mountain, apparently, that we can’t move.

Consider, for example, that a Google search turned up, on the second page, a New York Times article entitled, Diarrhea Persists as Scourge of the Third World. Then consider that the article was published in 1983. Right, 33 years ago….

There’s been lots of progress in the last 33 years, which is why I can now sit at a computer and watch a piece of debris on a Daytona Beach street. Or see a segment of a K-Mart façade that has been damaged. Actually, the “computer” in the last sentence dates me, since I could have seen all of this on my cell phone. So the stock market has risen and fallen scores of times, we have learned to treat the “deadliest” disease of our age—AIDS—and…oh, wait.

Does dehydration kill more than AIDS?

Who knows? My point is that the treatment for dehydration is hardly on the order of the treatment for AIDS. But that would mean going into the Third World, establishing supplies of clean water, establishing a supply chain, and making the treatment available. Of course, somebody has done that: a British couple who created ColaLife, about which they say (and drawn from their website):

The ColaLife movement is based on three observations:

1  You can buy a Coca-Cola almost anywhere you go in the world, even in the most remote parts of developing countries
2  In these same places 1 in 9 children die before their fifth birthday from preventable causes. Most die from dehydration from diarrhoea.
3      The child mortality figures have not changed significantly for at least 3 decades which would indicate that current initiatives are not working

The founder of ColaLife hit upon the idea of making a wedge-shaped diarrhea kit that would fit in the spaces between the necks of bottles of Coca-Cola. Here it is!

The idea is insanely simple. The devil, as it always is, is in the details. For more information, click here.

And so it’s been a confusing week. Or rather, a confusing two or three weeks, since two weeks ago, a supposed bolt of lightening threw the entire island of Puerto Rico into a blackout. Yes, we were all stumbling around in the dark, swatting a Zika-bearing mosquitoes, and gazing up at the stars, which for the first time in decades had decided to shine. And then this week, I was looking at my cousin Brian, who works for Minnesota Public Radio and is a big choral music fan. So he was interviewing the members of two preeminent groups, Cantus and Chanticleer. They had met, these two groups, as so many of us do, in a bar. But when they decided to sing the Ave Maria of Franz Biebl, well…it was one of those moments that got captured onto a cell phone, and then it went viral.

So the hurricane was beating down on the next island over, or perhaps it was due for the next moment. Anyway, Haiti was…well, can I say it now? Haiti was fucked, and twenty men plus my cousin were preparing for a concert three thousand miles away from the Caribbean, and I was in a café. And I was wondering: how far was I really from either Minneapolis or from Haiti? By the slightest twist of meteorology, I allowed myself to think that Minnesota was just up the road, while Haiti was another world away. But that—we all know—is delusion.

So today I woke up and prepared to watch the five-foot gash in the K-Mart façade, as well as contemplate the single piece of metal that has managed to fly onto a road in Daytona Beach. I could do that because my husband’s aunt, and my good friend Rose, and texted me that she had weathered the storm. She’s in a town just outside Orlando, and even though I thought privately that she was only halfway through the storm, I was glad to hear from her. So I went off to the café, and discovered that for a week only, the two choral groups rendition of the Biebl would be available on YouTube and Classical MPR. So I listened to that—tears in the eyes—and then heard my cousin, telling me that the leaves are turning up there in Minnesota.

And what is turning, down here in the Caribbean?

So now it’s several hours since I started this post, and guess what? The BBC now tells me…wait, I’ll just give you the headline: Hurricane Matthew, Haiti Dead Reach 800 as South Awaits Aid. And to save you going back up to the beginning of this post, I will tell you that the first BBC article said that 400 people were dead. Now it’s twice that.

Great music gets attached to great moments: after the September 11 attacks, it was Barber’s Adagio for String, in the choral version, which went viral. And so I sit in a café one island over from where the death toll is doubling in hours, and I think: why shouldn’t the Biebl go viral? Why shouldn’t those bright guys up in NPR twist the choral arms of Chanticleer and of Cantus, and get them to OK the use of the track as background for a fundraising video for Hurricane Matthew Haiti relief? And why not ask NPR supporters to donate a ColaLife kit for every hundred or thousand hits on YouTube?

It’s only three PM on a Friday after, as the leaves turn in Minnesota and the bodies mount up in Haiti. And I haven’t been drinking…

…but just imagine what I could have dreamt up if I had?