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Inside Disaster

Tom Carnegie, Head of Shelter – Canadian Red Cross

Tom Carnegie

Q: What is your name and position?

I’m Tom Carnegie, I’m the head of the shelter program for the Canadian Red Cross in Haiti.

Q: Describe your role?

Well, the head of shelter is responsible for developing the overall program, the overall shelter response program for Haiti in the working areas that we’ve taken on.

Q: How important is shelter in the CRC?

Shelter is definitely the main activity of the Canadian Red Cross in Haiti and we are developing other programs in health primarily. But at the moment it is, and has been, shelter. So my responsibility is to develop the program and to run it and implement it.

Q: How many shelters will you build?

Our initial goal was to build 7,500 shelters in Leogane and Jacmel. And the split ratio between that has changed a little bit but approximately 3,000 in Jacmel and 4500 in Leogane.

Q: How has it changed?

It’s swinging heavier towards Leogane at the moment because the more assessments we do there, the higher percentage of surveyed households are eligible for shelter… somewhat the inverse is happening in Jacmel. So it’ll probably end up being higher in Leogane.

Q: In total how much had the Red Cross Federation committed to build?

It’s around 30,000 for the whole federation. I think that’s the number.

Q: Are there different challenges to rebuilding in each area?

It’s a good… good question to ask how the difference between Jacmel and Leogane is affecting our program because Leogane being on the north coast is close to the epicentre of the earthquake. The level of damage there is strikingly higher than Jacmel. 80-90% in the centre of Leogane, 80-90% of the buildings were destroyed and the opposite of that is the case in Jacmel. So that affects, you know, how we work there, the density of our response when we assess a community — there would be fewer buildings destroyed, few households serviced in any given area compared to what’s required in Leogane.

Q: Jacmel is more urbanized as well isn’t it – less rural than Leogane?

Well, in Jacmel there are numerous working areas and some of them are more rural areas, or as we call the peri-urban, between rural and urban areas. Suburban basically. And in the urban areas such as Ste-Helene, it’s extremely dense. Basically there’s no lot area or land area around the houses except for the circulation space between the buildings. And this means that you either build the shelter for the household in the place that the destroyed building is, or you can’t build it there.

So that means basically demolition of everything that is there in order to build. At this point probably… maybe 20% or 30% of the houses there we have space to build beside, but the numbers still aren’t in on that.

Q: Are there any camps in Jacmel, like you find in Port-au-Prince and Leogane?

Well, people aren’t in camps in Jacmel mostly because there aren’t as many people affected. Overall, if you look at Jacmel core and the outlying areas, when you put it all together, the overall density is much lower than Leogane. So there’s more places for people to go and plus there’s host families, meaning that affected families from the earthquake will go to a relative or a friend’s home somewhere outside of the region sometimes for temporary accommodation.

And those areas aren’t as available in Leogane and Port-au-Prince especially. I mean, the denser you get, the more camps and Port-au-Prince is a good example of that.

Q: What’s the idea behind a transitional shelter; what are they transitioning to?

The whole idea of transitional shelter is in question because initially it was termed transitional from the emergency phase to the long-term permanent shelter construction. But now that we’ve been here a while, we know that there’s really no place to build permanent shelter other than the home plots that people were already on before the earthquake. So there’s really nowhere for people to transition to and there’s no other kind of shelter for them to have other than what we give them now, or space to build it. So what we’ve done is taken the word transitional off our program and it’s just a shelter program. And for some people it may be transitional, but for the larger majority it’s not. It’s what they have and what they’re going to have for some time.

Q: Why is land tenure important in reconstruction?

The whole question of projecting a security of land tenure into our agreements on our shelter sites is critical to protecting the vulnerable people that we’re trying to serve. And if they only have six months on a lease or one year on a lease, and we give them ownership of the structure, then they could lose that structure in a year if things don’t go well in discussion with the owner of the land. So we are shooting for a three-year minimum.

Q: Is there no permanent solution?

The issue of permanence is one that we would like to be able to deal with but we can’t really deal with it because the economic condition of families isn’t such that they know they’re gonna be able to pay rent for a long time. They don’t have long-term rents for the most part. Most leases are only a year, if there is a lease, and the agreement is often month to month. So what we’ve tried to do is extend their security to a minimum of three years, and beyond that we were lucky to get three years agreement. And we don’t really have a plan for what happens to the people after three years because it’s impossible to do that, and the people themselves don’t know what it is. But the objective is that within that three-year period they can stabilize economically.

Their livelihoods can hopefully be re-established. And they will have a home for that period of time and not have to pay rent somewhere else and they can get themselves back together.

Q: Will people pay rent in the transitional shelters?

Most all families pay rent of some sort and before the earthquake many people had just paid a year in advance, and then, because of the earthquake, they had to move. So they lost that investment for that year on that property, and they’re in a camp or some other place and having to support themselves there. So they have a double hit, you know. They’ve lost their money and now they have to support themselves somewhere else, plus they’ve lost livelihood. The objective, and it has been our objective from the start, is to return families to their home plots. And whether they’re renters or owners of those plots is to get them back to their original homes. And if it means building a shelter beside an existing house that’s damaged to the point where they can’t live in it, we can remove the existing building and replace that with one of our shelters. The objective is to get people back in their home place.

So we’re looking at our shelter not as transitional but as a return to the best security that they can have at this time, and that hopefully within a three-year period they can establish enough security to continue that.

Q: Virtually no reconstruction has started in Port-au-Prince, why?

In the shelter cluster meetings and there’s shelter cluster, there’s land issues cluster, there’s technical working groups and material exploration groups and all of that. And they’re all looking at ways to build in Port-au-Prince, which is the most difficult area to build because of the density. Because of the density of population and because there’s no available land. There’s a building sandwiched between two other buildings, and it’s destroyed to the ground and affecting the buildings next to it as well. It may have housed six families. The ownership of that building, I don’t know for sure but it’s probably complex, more than one owner ’cause large buildings often are more than one owner. But re-establishing tenure for, say, five families who lived in that building on several floors, finding out where they all are and bringing them back to the same place, and then building a building that accommodates that many families on that same plot is a tall order for an NGO. And for shelter NGOs, the best you can do really is to build housing or shelter, and nobody’s really in the business of urban renewal which is rejuvenating blocks of multi-story flats. So that’s a whole other animal for NGOs to deal with. There really, really needs to be a higher level of intervention and control. I haven’t seen any sign of that happening anywhere yet.

Q: Are people talking about it, at least?

Yeah, there’s been some discussion about it but there’s no real players that I’m aware of, and I think there are numerous commercial interests that are probably… probably looking at it. But I haven’t seen any real action in develop… redevelopment or reconstruction in Port-au-Prince. It’s still really at the demolition and removal of debris phase overall and it’s largely by hand.

But again, in Port-au-Prince we don’t have the same level of experience there ’cause we’re not working there. It’s all vicariously through the other NGOS. And in Leogane our rate of build is about the same as it is in Jacmel.

Q: What time constraints are you working under?

Well, because of the urgent need to get as many families accommodated as quickly as possible with upcoming hurricane season, which we are entering into now, the overall objective of the program is to start building right away. We knew that with 7500 shelters on our commitment plate and the time period that we have to work within, the only way we could do it is to expedite that construction. So what we’ve developed is a bolt together panelized system that can be constructed quite quickly. Within two days excavation, construction and finishing can be done with local crews, and that system would get a build rate high enough to accommodate the numbers that we’re dealing with without taking three years to do it. But in order to develop a system like that, you have to design it, you have to engineer it, you have to tender out the construction of all of the materials and components that are gonna go into it, and then you have to ship it all here, you have to warehouse it, and then you have to distribute it to the sites. There’s a lot of steps, a lot of complications, a lot of money involved, donor money, that has to be accounted for in a very transparent way. So we’ve been very careful to make sure all of that is very meticulously done.

And at this moment we’re waiting for the first 500 shelters to arrive in Port-au-Prince… [so] we can start building the panelized kits, as we call it. But in the mean time we’ve built about 120 shelters using the federation’s shelter kit that they’ve been providing to us. We’ve modified it a bit. We’re cladding it in plywood to increase its wind and hurricane resistance, and earthquake resistance. About 120 now and we’ll get up to 150 probably before we start our own shelters.

Q: We have so many disasters, aren’t there already many types of temporary shelters designed and ready to ship?

Yeah, there’s a huge market for garden sheds, and you can get any colour you like. They’re usually metal. You can get wood ones as well. They’re not anchored for hurricanes. We were approached by some manufacturers who had metal clad, metal structured shelters that we could get fairly cheaply and quickly, and we thought about this very seriously because of the availability, but they objective of the shelter program is not just to get people in any kind of structure – although that’s a critical need, which is addressed in the emergency phase. For recovery, the longer term, we’re looking for a more sustainable solution that people can work with. And sustainable is a real buzzword that’s used a lot, but it’s a real word and it means that people need to be able to work with the structure they have in hand. So Haitians don’t work with metal structures, they don’t have electricity, they don’t have power tools, they don’t have the money to buy the tools or to bring electricity in for the most part, and they’re not familiar with working with metal. On top of that, metal buildings, unless insulated, are extremely hot in this climate. So the potential for the family to modify the structure or add on to it with materials in kind is not really there.

Q: So you couldn’t find anything pre-existing that would work in Haiti?

I haven’t seen anything that is really directly applicable to this situation and that we could justify in saying, “When we leave here and there’s 7,500 buildings that we’ve built, that it’s a significant contribution to the infrastructure of Haiti, that there’s a legacy there we know will be there for a decent length of time.” There’s a lot of factors at play in designing a structure for here. There’s not just hurricane and earthquake resistance, there’s resistance to rot and termites, which is very big. So you have to use material that’s been treated to resist that and it has to be constructed in a way very rigorously that any cuts or openings in the wood are treated as well. So we’ve taken all that into account. The metal roof that’s on the houses is insulated with a foil insulation, so we reduce solar radiant heat gain in the building by 98%. At the very most it won’t be any higher temperature than outdoors, which is significant. It’s well ventilated. And the panel system is designed in a flexible way that we can locate the door anywhere on the face of the building. We can gang a door and a window, or we can have two windows and a door, or we can have a door and a window… to suit the adjacent buildings on the site and the tight conditions that we’re working with. The families are taking advantage of this design flexibility at every turn. So that’s why… that doesn’t exist on shelf. Maybe next somebody will send me an email – “Uh, that structure that you were saying doesn’t exist, here it is.” Well, they’re late. They should have done it earlier.

Q: What’s your educational and employment background?

What I bring to this in terms of my background is a lot of building experience and a lot of looking at building situations and how do you resolve the logistics of that and come up with a quality solution. I apprenticed as a carpenter. At the age of 18 I started building stuff and was into architecture and buildings already in high school… drafting and all that. I loved architecture and I loved building stuff, and I finished my carpentry apprenticeship and studied architecture. I did a couple of degrees in architecture, went to Berkley, and I studied the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic when I was there and was developing sustainable building systems with the cooperation of some communities in the central Arctic. That was my thesis work. And CMHC, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, funded that. Since then I’ve worked in Tanzania, Africa, and Indonesia in resettlement type of work. I bring about five years of experience in resettlement work and re-establishing people in their homes. So I combine the architectural training that I’ve had and my hands-on construction experience, and that seems to bring a whole solution. We hope that it continues to work.

Q: You find your building experience has been useful?

People trust you a lot more when you know how to do what you’re asking someone to do. And if you can do everything, then they can’t really argue (laughing)… with that. And you’re more likely to make a solid decision. I still make mistakes and I’ve made a few on this project, and hopefully we can get back on track. But nothing major yet. And there’s so many variables you can’t hit everything, but you’re better equipped if you know everything. That’s always been my philosophy – knowing as much as you can and don’t reject knowledge. Or experience.

Q: Do you have family back in Canada?

Yeah. It’s a very hard… it’s a bit of a grind at times and it’s very hard to be away from my family. They’re in Toronto and we see each other every couple of months or more and… it’s hard. But we made a commitment as a family to do this and my kids, Jack and Isabel, and my wife Flora Gene have all supported this completely. They said, “We’ll stick it out for a year while you do that ’cause we believe in the Haiti situation being resolved.” And they knew that I could do it. I hope I can live up to their expectations. But overall I do this kind of work ’cause I’ve always been kind of committed to the social potential of architecture and building, and generally not been happy of working within the area of architecture and development that just services a narrow band of society. And there’s so much of our society, not just in North America but even more so in developing countries that is not serviced by good design or thoughtful development of public spaces or even production of goods. There are the have’s and the have-not’s, so I decided to go and work with the have-not’s. That’s where I am.

Q: Do you think the homes people live in effect their lives?

Well, that’s a long discussion of architectural determinism that (laughing)… I don’t think we have time for here. But I think there are essential aspects of architecture. I mean, you consult with your community and you find out what they need, and what works for them, and you carefully reflect back to them what you think they’re looking for, and you develop the solution together. Yeah, you can make a big difference with architecture. And many of the architectural assumptions made in developed countries don’t really consider the needs of the people. It doesn’t take much to loo around and find examples of that. We got lots of resources to solve those problems there, we just have to choose to do it. And if we’re going to put design professionals and construction professionals and logistics professionals in a place like Haiti or any other area needing assistance, then we better make sure that the people have the mentality and the sensitivity to deal with people the way that’s needed — to come in and parachute solutions because it’s already on the shelf. We can do it, let’s just get it done, and move on to the next one. Yes, we built a thousand houses in a month, but are they the right houses? Are they in… are they given to the right people? Are they provided in the right way that the people have some input?

Q: How do you judge your success or failure?

Has their livelihood and their knowledge base been increased or enhanced? Those are the questions that the Red Cross is really focused on. And this is my first time working with the Red Cross but I can’t say how much I’m impressed by the application of the principals. They really walk the talk, and when they say “impartiality” they mean that they are impartial and they’re not affected by outside influence. They strive to make sure that doesn’t happen. Even when you stray once in a while, somebody will say, “Um, I think we’re not quite on line here. We’ve missed the objective of servicing the people that need the help.” The basic concept of humanities is the primary thing and that’s why I’m here ’cause I really believe in that. And they believe in it too. There’s a big support system for that. You’re not on your own with it like, I have been in other places. So it’s the place to be.