Location: Philadelphia to Santo Domingo
Date: 9/2/2010

The plane thumps and rumbles as it squirms away from Philadelphia’s turbulent grasp. Last time I was on land, DC Federal Agencies had been closed for days, and the coming blizzard swallows any chance for improvement. With mass transit immobilized, authority figures absent,
and 10 foot high snow drifts, our nation’s capital seems more like a zombie theme park than the brain of a Western super-power. The mind of our great country is little more than a puttering arctic wasteland; and words like “emergency situation” and “indefinite closings” exacerbate the contrast. Infrastructure—isn’t that what they’ve been
calling it? Isn’t that the word of the moment?
In the past few weeks, we’ve relished this new addition to our vocabulary. This package of syllables buzzing through the airwaves and landing on our tongues at dinner conversation. Is this the infrastructure they speak of in Haiti? This elusive attribute, this something which is “Why,” they tell us, “We simply can’t get resources
out as quickly as we’d hope.” Sometimes it is a “collapsed”
infrastructure, other times we are told “infrastructure” never graced this place—a locale just at our doorstep. A locale which we encouraged to follow an export based model of agricultural production.
A model which drove many farmers and families to the city, where jobs were sparse, living conditions were poor, and good building materials were hard to come by. A model which claimed better infrastructure, and now implies infrastructure is the impediment to disaster relief. No
one in particular is responsible for this model, and it was carried out with good intentions, but it does beg questions about the present day. Is “infrastructure” really the problem here? Are we using this disembodied concept to avoid the human tragedy here, to excuse our own
Such questions deserve consideration. For if we are using the lack of infrastructure to justify bureaucratic speed, we are kidding ourselves and the people of Haiti. What infrastructure do we suggest which would predict earthquakes? Which would build thousands of earthquake proof homes, alleviate a century of French repatriation payments, and provide emergency shelter for refugees? As long as we suggest that this infrastructure is the same which left clipboard wielding workers bumbling to cough up supplies, frightened by the lack of security—lack of guns, really—-“essential” to distribute food, medical supplies, or basic first aid—-as long as these problems of “infrastructure” plague our ability to assist as much as they strain our capacity to prepare, I doubt that it is anything we need here.
All evidence suggests the best first response came from Haitians themselves, from immediately reconfigured social networks, from aid collection and distribution by individuals labeled as thieves, hoarders, and looters. Undoubtedly, we are all human. I don’t mean to suggest that Haitians lack the all-too-human capacity for calculated material greed. I do, however, suggest that the social networks existing before and after the quake—-the network, for instance, that allowed an American Haitian acquaintance to misdial his fiancee’s
number and have the unknown mobile owner physically locate her amidst the chaos—-these networks defy conventional understandings of familiarity. Besides being literally priceless in the face of millions of dollars of aid sleeping warmly on the airstrip, these communities
are psychologically priceless. Without them, with only bureaucratic NGO’s, consent waivers, and mounds of paper work, I fear the spirit of Haiti would have truly collapsed—wrongly assumed to have happened
There are truths here, truths which soar past the vinyl realm of protocol and enter the extraordinary. There are stories, as real as the proud flesh and bone of survivors, which cannot be questioned and will not fit on the space of a clipboard. There are strange men who
bring bowls of water to survivors entombed in concrete debris for 28 days, there are newborn babies who survive collapsed lungs and rib fractures, and there are doctors whose last moments were spent as devoted volunteers. This, world, is Haiti. She is full of dignity in the face of overwhelming tragedy and incalculable loss. Under her
bright gaze a new generation is born from rubble, day-old babies kick and cry out in the camps of bed sheets and earth—still bringing that same smile from the mother—entirely exhausted, body drained and weak, but spirit soaring.

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