Give now for the next disaster

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.

The Undercovered Country

Here's the link to my story in the Columbia Journalism Review. The takeaway:

If foreign reporters knew Haiti at all, it was via the removed perspective of the war correspondent—as a witness to horrors that he or she would never know first-hand. This experience was perhaps best sketched by Bob Shacochis, the journalist and novelist, who describes arriving there as a reporter in the opening to his 1995 Harper’s cover story, “The Immaculate Invasion.”

He describes the frenzied, cash-greased path into Haiti from the Dominican Republic, which still casts a dark and menacing countenance of its own (my road trip from the Haiti border to Santo Domingo last summer required passage through a dozen separate military checkpoints over some 150 highway miles). Upon reaching Haiti’s besieged capital, Shacochis describes a Port-au-Prince ripe for physical collapse: “Vast areas of the cityscape seem constructed out of shortcuts and makeshift solutions, erected by the homeless for the homeless, creating the smoldering architectural temperament of a dream constantly solicited and constantly deferred …”

The contrast was the Hotel Montana, the palace atop a succession of winding roads in the comparatively tony suburb of Pétionville, home to many NGO workers and international personnel. The Montana served as four-star bivouac for privileged visitors: politicians, successful émigrés, and, of course, journalists.


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.”


Finally I got around to replacing the public-domain letterage at the top of this site with a few stray fonts from the deep catalog of photos I've accumulated over the years.

The S is from the inside of a boxcar-turned-barn in my grandmother's pasture; Pine Bluff, Ark. I found it when I went to shovel dried horseshit into a bucket to serve as fertilizer for fruit trees my dad and I were planting in her yard.

The A is from the neon front of the Billy Goat Tavern; Chicago. Think of me next time you walk by the iconic "Tap & Grill" sign.

The M is on the walls outside the restrooms at Vino's; Little Rock, Ark. Fine spot for calzones and microbrew.

The E is from a movie theater exit at the Rave in West Little Rock. Can't remember what I had gone to see when I snapped that picture ... but, oh, wait. The file is stamped 11/1/09, and amid the (fairly comprehensive) pile of movie tickets I keep around is one for the 7:30 showing of "A Serious Man," a review of which I wrote for the Arkansas Times. See it before Oscar season; it'll damn sure draw nominations for something. The Coen brothers tend to be good for that sort of thing.

The I is from a huge "PARKING" sign on the top floor of a deck overlooking downtown Hot Springs, Ark.

The F lives atop a shuttered grocery in Gurdon, Ark., a hamlet in the timberlands of the southwest of the state. It wasn't far outside Gurdon that I saw this magnificent mailbox you see at top.

The L is from a taptap in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Check August posts for a fuller discussion.

The second I is a Washington Monument profile I snapped when I was in D.C. a couple of years ago to cover the Bassmaster Classic winner's victory visit to the Oval Office when it was W.'s playpen.

The N is from a children's book-themed mural near the downtown Little Rock library. I walk past it each day to work; this is from the "Where the Wild Things Are" pane.

The G is from a (badass) clothier in downtown Texarkana, Ark., called "G.Q. Style." The open-air pigeonarium at right is next door.

The dot is a 16-pound bowling ball taking a rest at Ozark Lanes in Fayetteville, Ark.

The C is part of a signature on a mural at Bonnaroo two years ago. Damn -- almost three, now.

The O is a logo painted inside Little Rock ad agency Stone Ward. The colors and symmetry struck me on a visit there one night.

The M is from a cigar sign in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: "Hecho a Manos," or hand-made.

And not that it has anything to do with any of these, but as I was rummaging through seemingly every file folder on my scattershot desktop tonight, I found this photo I snapped of Barry Obama in Cedar Rapids on the eve of his win in the Iowa primaries two years ago. Even then it was clear this guy was endowed with charisma squared. I've seen the past three presidents speak as they campaigned, along with several -- John Kerry, John Edwards ('04 and '08), Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, John Richardson, Joe Biden -- who fizzled.

For shots of a decidedly less august lot, check out this photo essay I donated to Deadspin, of the duck gumbo cookoff that every November turns the sleepy rice town of Stuttgart, Ark., into a boozy riot of ass-slapping. I hope it's not the last time a major blog meta-tags a piece of mine with "#sadwhimsy," which come to think of it describes a lot of this little state. Still, why more people don't drop by Arkansas to tour the sad and whimsical now and then is beyond me.


G11: Gadget envy worth 32 days' rentG11: Gadget envy worth 32 days' rent
I can't remember the last time I spent $500 on something other than auto repair. I've never spent that much (non-company money) on a plane ticket; even going to Haiti was only $375 round-trip. (Though, to be accurate, Spirit did see fit to charge an extra 25 bones each way for the right to molest my luggage.) Hell, my rent is only $475 a month.

But today, with the body of my trusty 30D still in the shop ($301, incidentally) I plonked down half a G on a camera that came highly recommended by a friend who described its predecessor, the G10, as the smallish companion to a full-sized SLR, the photojournalist's equivalent of a dagger secreted away in a boot sheath. The G11 has a swiveling LCD and drinks in light up to 3200 ISO. It shoots video, of the non-HD (just D?) variety. It'll fit in a pocket, which'll be a nice change of pace from the 30D, which for its formidable display of sheer bulk, is rarely stealthy. Lugging a huge camera into a situation is like wearing a giant sign that says "get some attention here." Girls talk to you. Drunks talk to you. Babies realize it's their time to shine. But sometimes it's nice to sneak around, so hurry your ass, UPS Ground.

Mostly my hope is that will take pictures that match the images I see in my head when I survey amazing things. As this one did:
Bumper cars: Why Coney Island rules.Bumper cars: Why Coney Island rules.

Islanders, tallied

When I told my friend Robert last night that Haiti has about 9 million people, and the Dominican Republic about 10 million, he asked in astonishment, “How big is that island? Like, as big as what state? South Carolina?”

Uh, actually, yeah, almost exactly as big as South Carolina – only 10 percent smaller, in fact. (Helluva guess, man.) But South Carolina contains just 4.4 million people. If you want to get a sense of the population density of Hispaniola, it turns out you have to put the population of Texas into a space as big as Indiana, or cram every Californian into something Iowa-sized, or just take South Carolina’s current populace and add everyone who lives in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Colorado. Then throw up a big ol' fence, ratchet the unemployment up to 83 percent, steal all the trees and let the good times roll.

A view into Port-au-Prince: photo credit Jonathan KatzA view into Port-au-Prince: photo credit Jonathan Katz

As the Worm Turns (Dead)

Hookworm: Worthy of scornHookworm: Worthy of scornIf 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.

The road from Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo

Mountainside mining in southeast HaitiMountainside mining in southeast HaitiThe road from Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic is one of those drives that reminds you: No matter how nowhere you think you are, you can always be somewhere more nowhere.

We sped east through the manic traffic at day’s end, passing first through the urban ruins of this sprawling metropolis, which gave way to the grass and sparse cinderblock shacks, which then gave way to adobe huts and fields. Those gave way to cacti and scrub brush. We saw men straining the scree they mine from denuded hillsides here (see the photo above) and a woman sifting through a smoldering dirt pile, looking for charcoal – the fate of a scary number of the trees here. Then we passed a lake that has been rising so fast the roads are disappearing. In this country, humans and nature are locked in a constant landscape-wrecking contest.

The border itself was like a post-apocalyptic disaster movie: storm clouds threatening, a landscape of mud and swamped cinder-block buildings, and sketchy taxi drivers haggling with poor schlubs like us, who arrived too late for the last bus to Santo Domingo. We agreed to pay $140 apiece for the six-hour drive. When it was settled, the owner of the car opened his trunk, pulled out a Dominican license plate, screwed it between the brake lights of his Accord, and then asked us for gas money upfront. A few minutes in, a motorcyclist pulled up beside our driver and flagged him over: a friend of his. Suddenly we were four in the car. And within a couple of miles, we were waved over by the first of a dozen military checkpoints who wanted to know who we were, where we were going and what was in our bags. No, we weren’t Haitian. No, we weren’t smuggling dope. Yes, we were journalists. So hand back the passports and piss off already.

As the road unspooled and blackened, with our driver’s weepy Mexican music seemingly on repeat the whole way, we began to see real towns, something I haven’t yet seen in Haiti: shops with standalone signs, tree-lined plazas, dedicated parking spots. As we went from third world to first world (or Santo Domingo’s passable impression of the same) the military stops got less frequent, less strict. The road went from craterous moon surface to sedan-friendly blacktop. We stopped for freezing-cold Presidentes which we drank wrapped in brown bags and stashed under the seat during checkpoints. We drove through jungles where grapefruit-sized toads and tarantulas like walking hands came into view with the headlights.

Our driver hit a four-lane stretch of burnished ebony – a velvety black carpet of highway that we knew would take us straight to the capital. After a couple of miles, he realized he was driving eastbound in the right-hand lane of the westbound lanes. He cut through a gap in the median and cussed himself. His co-pilot reassured him in Spanish, “People make mistakes.” We stopped for fried chicken and a pit stop in one of the truly skuzzy restrooms of the world: no seat, no light,Santo Domingo: A view of the Caribben Sea from our crashpad as a storm arrivesSanto Domingo: A view of the Caribben Sea from our crashpad as a storm arrives standing water on the floor, stripped shower-knob fixtures jutting out of the wall, an odor like a wet yak breaking wind. Then it was back onto the road with fried chicken and plantains and Jonathan describing the actual worst restroom in the world: a bottomless, seatless shithouse built over the edge of a chasm in the Andes, where bus tourists were expected to risk their lives just to move their bowels. Not surprisingly, the interior was coated with evidence that even Peruvians draw the line somewhere.

The checkpoints became more spare and more chill: the eleventh, in fact, consisted of little more than a quick glance at our passports, a few words from the cabbie and from Jonathan (fluent as he is in Dominican Spanish) and then a large brown hand sleeved in camouflage reaching in to give us dap. Then we arrived in Santo Domingo to find that our esteemed cabbie is allergic to city driving. He parked (again facing oncoming traffic) and left us to stew while he found a Santo Domingo cab that would take us the final few miles to the flat where we were staying. There we found splendid Spaniards, a gregarious Guadeloupean and a 2,000-or-so square foot rooftop patio with an open-air shower. I partook. The next day, as a storm moved in, I got this snapshot. Then, my camera crashed. Subsequent Hispaniola tales may be illustrated lightly.


The taptap: carpooling as conceived by HaitiansThe taptap: carpooling as conceived by Haitians
After a morning given to tagging along on a drive around Port-au-Prince, let me now celebrate the indispensable bus/taxi trucks that trundle around, picking up workers and students and literal hangers-on from designated stops.

Haitian subway, thy name is taptap. I only wish subway cars were painted with such obvious aplomb. But then, subways have a way of keeping curls of dust from overtaking you as you sit along the insides of a moving pick-up truck.

Not all are emblazoned with English slogans; some are in Creole, others in Spanish, still others in Hebrew. Some feature little more than a skeleton of a cap above a truck bed; others, as you see in these photos, display a touch more style.

I have yet to partake but if plans hold my esteemed host and I will be hitching on the Dominican version later as we head across the border on the way to Santo Domingo. Which may make for sporadic contact for a couple of days. But what's new.

Dog day

It’s a curious thing when you know the lasting image from a day in one of the world’s truly overwhelming cities will be one of the last you saw.

I mean, we went from the hotel down a slalom of thisclose pedestrians and past a shocking flipbook of commerce and chaos. We met with, broke bread with, overlooked ravines with, visited a cockfighting arena with and visited the home of a Haitian national who was deported from South Florida to Port-au-Prince 11 years ago after his rap sheet got too big for the States to hold. We dropped in on a small business in which women weave recycled litter into purses and wallets and sandals for sale here, in the States and online. And we took the long way home, past the citadel that is the U.S. embassy and the U.N. outposts and one of the longest, craziest lines of traffic I’ve ever seen, dodging motorcycles, entrepreneurs, hello-down-there! potholes, crossing dry creekbeds with a goat foraging on one side of the bridge and a hog on the other …

Then a quarter-mile from home, we hit a damn dog. Poor thing was a variation on what I’ve come to call the Haitian national dog: a rangy long-tailed tawny dog that plumps itself to 24 pounds on the garbage it scavenges ahead of the chickens. The dog wandered into the street right in front of us, sauntered through our lane, decided better of getting hit in the oncoming lane, and backed its way under our tire. It screamed, wretchedly. Men on the sidewalk winced, then yelled at us to pull forward. The dog cried as it limped away, its back right leg now a useless gray looseness. As we had braked, we had dragged it.

It was a fuck-all rotten way to end an otherwise fine day of reporting. But it reminds me of a line from Tim Cahill’s “Road Fever” (which I’ll address more fully later): “There are no old dogs on the Pan-American Highway.” Petionville either.

I was happy hours later to dance to Cat Empire with a dog named Tarzan on some U.N. workers’ patio.