Reuters' Felix Salmon makes the case in full that I scratched at a couple of days ago in his Friday blog post "Don't give money to Haiti." He leans on The Smoking Gun's investigation into Wylclef Jean's charity, Yele ("Internal Revenue Service records show the group has a lackluster history of accounting for its finances, and that the organization has paid the performer and his business partner at least $410,000 for rent, production services, and Jean's appearance at a benefit concert") and the mind-boggling fact that the Red Cross still hasn't spent half a billion dollars in donations that were earmarked for tsunami relief to argue against earmarked donations.
"Not to put too fine a point on it," Salmon writes, "but that’s money which could be spent in Haiti, if it weren’t for the fact that it was earmarked."
His suggested solution is one that has begun to look more and more reasonable to me: give give give to Medicins Sans Frontieres. The group has erected makeshift hospitals and treated thousands in the immediate aftermath, but the need is going to continue. There have been too many people partially crushed this week for there not to be a massive round of amputations. Wound care and veritable battlefield surgery are of more urgent import even than emergency shelter or, especially, the rent on Wyclef's recording studio.
Gad, Haiti. Why’d it have to be you? Again?
The chicken at top was one I photographed at an outdoor café in Port-au-Prince in August. Better times.
I’ve been marinating all day in coverage of the Haiti quake, in part because an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review’s site asked whether I had any thoughts on it. Some of what I’m going to send him in the morning, pending a final read-through, regards the Hotel Montana. The four-star hotel in Pétionville is a pile of rubble, countering any assumption that only the poor took the brunt of this one. Below I’ve posted a short Flip video of the Haitian singer Belo at a concert I attended with my friend Jonathan in August. There was a fashion show; there was music; there was rum. People were smartly dressed. It was damn fine scene. Now it’s a grave for something like 200 unaccounted-for French nationals (and presumably hotel staff, though I’ve seen no mention of them in the stories I’ve read today).
I dug up an old Harper’s story by Bob Shacochis on his trip through the Montana when he covered the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994:
I stand in the illuminated lobby of the Montana Hotel, space-warped into an après-beach party, gawking at the throng of media celebs, the Eddie Bauer tropical-fashion show, the crush of machos at the bar in shorts and network caps, looking as if they’ve spent their day playing softball. On the patio, CNN is feeding a satellite; in the lounge, a big-screen TV broadcasts the Michigan-Colorado game. …
Reservations for dinner are made. The embargo’s impact on fine dining in Pétionville is zero. Souvenance, the restaurant of choice for the capital’s aristocracy of crisis (the politicians and millionaires, the well-heeled gangsters, the diplomats and journalists), is booked up, so we settle for the gastronomic artistry of the chef at La Plantation, where the clientele can fill their glasses with the best French wines to toast the continuing – and, in some cases, karmically inexplicable – miracle of their survival.
Other points from today:
People want to give to the relief effort, and have asked me the best way to do so. The short answer is, pick a relief agency whose overall mission you believe in and donate to it. Most first-responder agencies and other relief agencies don’t use donations on a one-to-one basis anyway; your money will go to fund all their efforts, wherever they may be. I’m partial to Heifer International and Oxfam myself, but you can’t go wrong with the Red Cross or Medicins Sans Frontieres. If you’re determined to donate strictly to this effort, go to Wyclef Jean’s Yele.
Pat Robertson is a ghoul. Shepard Smith remains the best thing Fox News has going for it.
CNN's Ross Levitt has the disaster coverage version of the dreaded "What I ate for breakfast" Twitter feed. Here's a sample. Seriously, it's painful.
@susancandiotti has landed in #Haiti. I'm still waiting 4 a plane 2 land hre in Santo Domingo that will take me thr. A lot of waiting. about 13 hours ago from UberTwitter
The maintenance guy at the Santo Domingo airport makes a mean cup of joe. #alwaysafoodie Still haven't left for #haiti. about 13 hours ago from UberTwitter
My #Haiti ride--I think. http://tweetphoto.com/8642512 about 13 hours ago from UberTwitter
Ok, seriously this time. I'm about to take off for #Haiti...I think. #fb about 13 hours ago from UberTwitter
Preliminary numbers of the dead have ranged from a few thousand to half a million. Take those with a humongous grain of salt for now. I doubt seriously anyone had an ironclad notion of how many people were living in Port-au-Prince even before this damnable nightmare. What I’m wondering now is whether any of the newly homeless will be offered refugee asylum in other countries, and whether the government’s literal, physical collapse will affect that. Documentation and identification were already pretty thin there. You have to wonder if part of Bill Clinton’s urgency at the United Nations today had to do with the fact that there’s a country of 9 million people within a few hundred miles of Florida that nearly literally has no government. Sheer proximity has to be a concern for the State Department as much as just about anything else.
Last, I’ve got terrific admiration and affection for this guy right now. I took this picture in his old bedroom; I don’t know what has become of it, since his Facebook status today said, “House is wrecked.” But he’s kicking all kinds of ass right now, and in conditions no one should have to face. Buy him a drink, top-shelf, next time you see him. Another line from the Shacochis story:
“At ease, Captain Barton glares into space, spits, cusses. He deserves a measure of sympathy. He grew up mostly in Kentucky, graduated from Officers Candidate School, and went to Fort Bragg, but no matter how much money taxpayers spend, you can’t prepare an American soldier for a mission like Haiti, or a Kentucky boy for a place like Limbé.”
If you’re looking for villains – and in these times of Congressional peanut galleries, Café Press shirts and bloviating mountebanks, we all are – may I suggest you adopt a nemesis in the style of one Aaron Jackson: worms.
There’s little to like about common intestinal worms. They’re pernicious, they drink blood from your digestive system and they literally reproduce in shit. Maybe you have a soul, maybe your dog has a soul. I'm no theologian, but I am willing to entertain those possibilities. Worms, however, are soulless sucking machines that benefit humans only insofar as they remind us what a cruel bitch Nature really is, when she gets her way.
Thomas C. Cheng’s 1973 textbook “General Parasitology” enumerates the harm in the dry, disinterested prose that so often makes academic writing unexpectedly resonant:
Until recently, the human hookworm disease was numbered among the most prevalent and important of the parasitic diseases of man. Unlike malaria, amoebiasis, or schistosomiasis, hookworm disease is not spectacular. Hookworm affects populations by gradually sapping its victims of their strength, vitality and health. As exemplified in certain parts of the Middle East and the Far East, and not too many years ago in most of the southern states in the United States, the victims become lazy, shiftless and nonproductive. The resultant economic loss is beyond computation.
For obvious reasons, people in the developing world – and, speaking of the American South, you could make the case that pre-Depression Mississippi belonged in that heap – can’t abide a scourge that saps “strength, vitality and health.” Nutrition in food, already scarce, turns to supporting a worm farm in a person’s guts rather than building muscle, bone, tissue. The World Health Organization estimates that worms may pirate 20 percent of a person’s nutritional intake. For children, especially, the results can be the difference between health and malnutrition, and between malnutrition and starvation.
I’m working on a story that will try to gauge just how effective a national program would be in Haiti, where Aaron runs a handful of orphanages and coordinates distribution of a deworming agent called Albendazole to anyone who might suffer from worms. I was with Aaron and his friends Brayan Jackson (no relation) and Johnny Dieubon the day the St. Pete Times’ Latin America correspondent, the fairly gallant David Adams, and a Times photog, the intrepid John Pendygraft, also crashed at one of the orphanages Aaron and Johnny run in Port-au-Prince. It was warm and humid in the little block building, and when the sun went down, dark. We sipped Haitian beers that David managed to buy from atop a ladder behind the house, through a gap in a wall of cinder blocks. As we sat at the kitchen table and talked by candlelight (night falls early in Haiti right now; the country is on the equivalent of Central Time right now, despite having the same longitude as the Hamptons) some of the children sang in the living room. Here’s the audio:
The orphans' song
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It’s hard to explain how flattering and enchanting it is when young children, some of them painfully undersized for their age, introduce themselves with hands extended to shake, asking, in quiet but confident Creole-accented English, “Hi, what is your name?” Before they retired for the night, Aaron opened and distributed two bags of Skittles I bought from the airport in Santo Domingo a few hours earlier.
That night we Americans slept on five foam mats: four aligned shoulder-to-shoulder, with one across the feet of the others left for the last man to bed, which happened to be me. In a pile of dead mosquitoes (thanks, DEET!) I awoke at some bleary hour (dawn, as you’d guess, comes early, as well) to the some clanging din that I later ascribed to a man across the stony road who I later observed sawing through rebar amid a collection of stray metal objects. We piled into an old donated ambulance and drove to the rural outskirts of Port-au-Prince to pass out pills to people living in homes made, in some cases, of mud and sticks. Here’s David Adams’ account (follow the link for John Pendygraft's photos):
Jackson and Dieubon walked up a stony, rubbish-strewn track going from one rickety adobe-built shack to another, looking for malnourished kids.
"See how orange the hair is?" Jackson said, pointing to a barefoot child covered in dirt, the ends of her hair tinged a rusty color, a sign of vitamin deficiency. Jackson bent over and squeezed the child's swollen belly. "See how hard it is? The worms are eating it up, man."
The symptoms are so obvious, and the cure so simple, that you don't have to be a doctor to make a diagnosis. Side effects are considered minimal. It can be given as a preventative to any child who might have worms but not yet show symptoms.
Swollen bellies are so common, many poor Haitians have no idea their children are sick. With no electricity or treated water services, they also have little means to prevent infection.
"Here it's seen as normal," said Jackson. "It's hard to prevent when it's from bad water. It's all they've got."
One thing I’ll say for Aaron: He has no compunction about lifting up a kid’s shirt – any kid anywhere, it seemed – and thumping on the kid’s swollen belly as though he were evaluating a melon. The dude hasn’t met a stranger in his life. Here’s some video from our subsequent stop at a village set back from the main road, a place he and Johnny call “Little Africa.” There, in a scratched-out patch of clay and rows of skeletal homes, we found children outside a church sitting around a water pump, playing a game with homemade playing cards. Once the Planting Peace guys arrived and started handing out pills – well, it was an event. Five white guys, a couple of them toting camera equipment, distributing mystery pills as Johnny tried to explain to kids and parents alike what they were for, why they were important, why infants couldn’t take them. One woman approached us as we were leaving and explained that while she had a baby with her (too young) she also had an older child back home who needed a dose. Brayan worried that the kids who kept holding their hands out for more pills didn't understand that it was medicine, not a tiny snack.
I’m going to ballpark it and say the Planting Peace guys handed out a hundred pills to kids that day. That’s a hundred kids who were great candidates to have parasites, and several of whom were displaying the outward signs of malnutrition: distended bellies, hair tinged the color of rust. Total cost of the pills: less than $2. One of the great things about hating worms is they’re cheap to kill. If you’re the sort who gets off on exterminating your enemies, it’s a real bargain. Aaron tells me that he’s about to be interviewed (again) by Anderson Cooper, who Aaron tells me once remarked to him, off-camera, that for the cost of a pack of cigs, you could deworm a whole school. Aaron has more information at his site, plantingpeace.org.