In this episode of Boing Boing Video, I speak with Haitian-American blogger and sustainable tech development activist Catherine Lainé (photo at left from earlier this year). She was working in Haiti when the catastrophic earthquake struck earlier this week. Catherine spoke to us via Skype video from Cap-Haïtien, where she is working out of a space shared with AIDG (Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group) and a kindred nonprofit known as SOIL.
A number of her family members live in Haiti. At the time of this interview, all were safely accounted for, except for her brother, who resides in the devastated capital city of Port-au-Prince. He is currently still missing. Catherine is trying to get into the city to locate him, as I publish this blog post.
Among the observations she shares: aid groups are running out of body bags, and corpses are piling up so fast that the morgues have no space. The internet is a vital form of communication, as are cellphones—when they work—and she is seeing people in Haiti using social networking services as a means to try and locate missing loved ones within Haiti. The environment is so chaotic and roads so badly damaged that even in-country, mobile technology and web-based social networking services like Facebook are playing a vital role in the reconnection process. Don't assume that because Haiti is so poor, nobody's using the internet. She says cell service has been spotty, with certain carriers performing better than others. She connected to us using WIMAX, and the degree to which that service has performed during the disaster makes her a real believer in the promise of that particular wireless technology.
Edited video transcript after the jump (recorded at 1130pm ET on Jan. 14, 2010), along with Catherine's suggestions on how to help.
BOING BOING: Where are you right now?
CATHERINE LAINÉ: About 100km outside the capital, about a six hour drive given the current road conditions.
BB: What has the connectivity been like since the quake hit?
CATHERINE: Pretty difficult. Everyone got on the phone at the same time to talk to their families, one of the major cellphone companies here—their towers collapsed. But communications are normalizing, and I've heard from relatives via cellphone today.
BB: How do you go about trying to find someone there, given all of the chaos, and how difficult it is to get from one place to another with damaged roads?
CATHERINE: People are relying a lot on cellphone calls. Travel within the country is extremely difficult. I'm hearing a lot of people using social networks, posting pictures of lost loved ones on Facebook or CNNn's ireport site. Right now it seems that the internet is one of the more resilient forms of communication.
It's surreal. People are used to hearing about Haiti as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and because of this the idea that some of these people in Haiti are using internet-based technology to find loved ones might be surprising. But I'm shocked and happy that companies like Access Haiti are able to keep their services up and operational. WIMAX has been trying to get off the ground in US cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, and I'm definitely a bigger fan of that technology now in terms of disaster coping, after this experience.
Most of the cell providers are down. One of the largest companies is an Irish company, Digicell. Typically they're among the best service in the country and their engineers are having such a difficult time coping. Voilá, another popular mobile provider, is just barely starting to get calls through, it's a shock when phone calls get through, it's like magic when the phone rings right now.
BB: What are AIDG and other sustainability NGOs that you collaborate with focusing efforts on right now?
CATHERINE: We're coordinating with civil engineers to come to the capital and do risk assessment. One thing we're going to try and do is help with translation and logistical support, helping to coordinate the incoming volunteers from various organizations, to help put people coming in from outside to work in the most effective ways possible, because we are very familiar with the country and with the needs here. So, a lot of coordination help.
BB: What do people need to understand about this current crisis that they don't understand?
CATHERINE: I think one of the things people forget about natural disasters is that after the immediate disaster falls out of the news, the need is still there. When they're opening their hearts right now, they also need to think about a long term giving strategy. Put it in your Google calendar, and give again in a year. When the reconstruction starts, we're going to need another outpouring. Reconstruction is a long process and we're going to need their help for a long time.
People need to realize it's not going to turn around overnight, but that they should not lose hope for Haiti.
BB: Many watching this may not be familiar with Haiti. When we hear about Haiti we think about this poor country cursed with a history of violence and natural disasters. What would you say to someone who thinks of Haiti as a problem?
CATHERINE: People need to think about the way they frame news stories... referring to Haiti all the time as "the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere," it's just an example of journalistic laziness. In any story, there is a backstory that doesn't sell papers, that doesn't get traffic. The story we hear about Haiti is always about its poverty, and not about its beauty.
What's so heartbreaking about this particular tragedy is that just when Haiti is at this point of such hope, Bill Clinton running the Clinton Global Initiative and saying this is the time in history when Haiti has the biggest chance for positive change... people don't know that, the typical person in America hasn't seen the amazing richness and beauty of the country.
My family's here, so it's hard for me not to come here, but the energy, the language, the people... the first time I came here was in 2006, and it felt like coming home. It's like Marmite, you love it or you hate it. Once Haiti gets under your skin it's there for life.
I think it's good that more Haitian-Americans are reporting about the news, in this news cycle. They can give a different sense about the country than someone who's just going there for the first time and is not of the culture. There's a sense of a different tone with which people talk about Haiti, a different flavor who are either from Haiti or have had experience in developing countries, they have a different understanding. When people talk about Haiti, there are a lot of arts and culture in different parts of the country.
Haiti isn't just a basket case. I think people need to understand the other social, economic, and political factors that have conspired to make Haiti the way it is right now. You need to think about those to understand why Haiti has come to the point it is right now. Haiti has not become almost a failed state by accident.
For instance, consider the difference in how the Carter and Reagan administrations dealt with human rights during the Duvalier regime. During the Carter administration, the rights of journalists and activists in Haiti were respected a little more because of the pressure from the US. But when Reagan took office, that all changed because of America's focus on "fighting Communism," and journalists and human rights workers here felt the pressure immediately. Haiti does not exist in a vacuum.
BB: Catherine, are there some final thoughts you'd like to leave our viewers with?
CATHERINE: Being here, it's been incredible to see the outpouring of support and emotion that people have put forth... If there is any good thing you can get... from a disaster like this.... it's that people can be.... so kind and generous. [pauses, in tears.] I would say more, but...
There are so many bodies on the street, the morgues are full, the Red Cross has run out of body bags... just the thought of all the people who are still buried under the rubble... right now, it is overwhelming.
Catherine suggests that those who wish to help the people of Haiti consider donating to the following organizations: