Back in the day, Clean Water for Haiti was a training organization and we didn’t build filters at all except for demonstration purposes. We were a very small organization and we mostly worked on improving the training center. Come 2004, our work and our fledgling little organization were turned upside down. Tal Woolsey, our beloved founder and his wife, returned permanently to Canada in February, the same month that Aristide was forced out of the country by a either a coup d’etat or a popular uprising, depending on who you talk to. Haiti became quite unstable and dangerous, and we had trainings canceled. Many, perhaps most organizations suspended operations and all of their foreign staff pulled out and took unscheduled vacations. The Peace Corps also pulled out which was a shame for us – we had hosted a short training for them and we were hoping to get them more involved in Biosand filters.
We remained in the country, hunkered down and doing what we could while we waited for things to get back to normal so we could start giving training again. We did manage to get one neat little project completed that I’ll tell you about some other time… Come September, a nasty tropical storm blew in over the north of Haiti that dropped a ridiculous amount of rain in the Gonaives watershed. Water rose until it flooded the streets and kept rising. The rain didn’t stop as the flowing, muddy water entered people’s homes, and it didn’t stop falling as people climbed up onto their roofs as it rose 4, 6, then 8 feet up the sides of their walls. Smaller homes vanished under the water altogether. The destruction was apocalyptic, and as the water descended the next day people found their homes entirely filled with mud and all their possessions destroyed. Something between 3,000 and 5,000 people had lost their lives.
Consider this: every single well and every single latrine in Gonaives had become entirely filled up with mud. It was an absolute sanitation nightmare.
I didn’t know what to do other than to get on the phone and email. We had previously trained 18 Biosand filter technicians with World Vision and I asked their Haiti director if they would consider installing filters in Gonaives to help the population. I was told that World Vision couldn’t possibly work out the logistics of such a project but if Clean Water for Haiti would do it, World Vision would fund it. I swallowed hard and a vision of a mud covered nightmare entered my mind. I made some more phone calls.
The next day we loaded all of our molds into our truck along with some other tools and materials and headed for Gonaives. The nightmare began before we even reached the city. There was a large depression in the desert area outside of the city which had filled with water and covered the road. It was a raised road bed, so without being able to see the road through the muddy water, one had to look at the cacti sticking up through the water on either side of the road and drive roughly midway between them. Several trucks had misjudged and flipped over off the side of the invisible road bed. The road through the lake was about a mile long. I took a deep breath, said a prayer and drove in.
Our first drive through the lake was truly a surreal experience for me. All the red lights came on in the dash, but the motor kept running. Fortunately, the truck has a snorkel. The water rose up until my feet were actually under the water as I worked the accelerator. I learned an important lesson the hard way: it is not possible to change gears while underwater. The clutch itself becomes immersed in water and it works fine until it’s disengaged. When you try to re-engage it, the water acts as a lubricant and wild clutch slippage is the result. A big old school bus saved us. It came up from behind and it just started to push without asking for permission. Once I had momentum going, I was able to drive us the rest of the way through the lake.
We started working in Gonaives at a time when it was truly bleak. Mud had taken over the city. We started with a run of 300 filters and when word got out about what we were doing donations started coming in. World Vision’s $10K was added to by Pure Water for the World and Crossroads (100 Huntley Street) until we had $60,000 designated for Gonaives filters which is more money than we had ever had available before. At first we used contractors but then because of quality control issues we decided to run the project directly.
Tony Presindor was brought in as project manager and at full speed he was producing 36 filters per day – 18 molds poured twice each day. Needless to say, the work was extremely difficult. Gonaives had been largely been taken over by gangs. We wanted to install filters in Roboteau, a slum area close to the ocean, but to do so we had to get the permission of Jean-Tatoone, aka “the general”, the gang leader in Roboteau. I had to smile and shake his hand and thank him for his hospitality. All the while I was inwardly cringing as I pictured myself shaking hands with the devil. The internet made vague reference to Jean-Tatoone being responsible for something known as the “Roboteau Massacre”, whatever that was. “The General” has since died in some sort of a gun battle, I’m unsure of the details. I can be fairly certain that one of his followers won’t show up here to talk to me about the negative publicity he’s getting here, though. In any case, Jean-Tatoone’s support enabled us to get filters into Roboteau at a time when not many people were able to get in there and help.
By mid 2005 when we wrapped up the Gonaives project we had installed some 3000 filters in Gonaives and the organization had changed dramatically. We were no longer just a training organization. We had learned how to install filters in large quantities. We learned that it is nearly always a questionable idea to give away filters, even in a disaster situation, so we modified our model into a subsidized project. We learned a lot of things about how to manage employees. Most of all, people knew who we were. We had done an amazing work under incredibly difficult conditions and while there were problems, we had managed to help many thousands of people gain access to clean water in the midst of a disaster. Our donations increased substantially, and we were able to start an ongoing Biosand filter distribution project that has become Clean Water for Haiti as we know it now.