Emergency Shelters for Haiti: Yes! But Not So Fast…


Uncle-Sam-I-Want-You_1I want  to emphasize again as I had first done in my other post about Haiti that I am saddened by the events that have befallen the people there. It’s a tragedy. I really hope things smooth out for the citizens of Haiti; with prospects of “normal” life and a discernible recovery happening in the next few years.

Since the Haiti quake, like the horrid things which had transpired on 9/11, we are scrambling for answers to try to patch up the casualties of the disaster and assist with what we have. I have had several emails regarding the use of shipping containers as emergency housing units and sending them over to Haiti to help. It’s noble to think we can just act on a situation and have it fix things because it seems to address the need. The sad truth is that even if I spearhead a construction campaign using donated resources to build these units and cranked out 100 of them, to actually see them arrive in Haiti or any other place ravaged by natural disasters is highly remote. Why? Because believe it or not, there is more red tape than you can ever imagine. Imposed by whom you may ask? Our very own government, of course.

Katrina was the proving ground for FEMA’s responsiveness. Remember the backlash for the agency’s lack of foresight and responsiveness after the weeks and months that had passed since the unforgiving hurricane slammed the gulf cities? It was embarrassing. In the end, a lot of the temporary housing units brought into the destroyed areas were brand new mobile homes… which cost the government about $15k or so per unit uninstalled; and by the time they were transported and set up, they were about $30k each. What happened to those units? Well, after doing their job of housing the displaced people and exposing them to high formaldehyde levels, they are being destroyed since maintaining them isn’t a viable solution. Basically, “Get out, Katrina victim, and find a home somewhere else!”  NY Times Article on what they are doing with the trailers now. Not all of the victims received these trailers, there were a lucky few who had nicer, cottage-like shelters for which they didn’t (and still don’t) want to vacate from because “…they are so nice…”

Guess how many emergency shelter options were presented to the government after Katrina? 5? 12? Try somewhere near 70! All proposals were from different companies vying for their share of money and finding a solution for the next disaster which will surely revisit the U.S. again one day. What did they choose? Which shelter types are ready for deployment to the next emergency? You’ll have to dig that up yourself because clear answers are hard to find.

The indecisiveness of the U.S. government has placed it (and us) in a state of un-readiness for future disasters. So even if there was the magic bullet to solve the problem of housing victims of tragedy on a mass scale, the red tape created and juggling act performed by the agency we call FEMA keeps excellent, viable solutions from finding their way to the victims (future victims–surely an inevitability than a hypothetical).

As for Haiti and getting our vast array of ready-right-now emergency shelters down there, who knows what will make it down there, if anything. I think anything would work. Doesn’t have to be converted shipping containers. Could be tents, plastic domes, giant cardboard boxes… hell, it doesn’t matter as long as there is something besides the unforgiving sun; and relentless flies adding insult to injury–buzzing about the poor, broken-and-battered people strewn around the perimeter of makeshift clinics and hospitals.

We all want to help, but the pie in the sky notion that we can just create shipping container shelters and to Send them off to Haiti! is just a notion that needs to be shelved. Too many obstacles for the idea to be viable in the near future. By the way, there are already at least a dozen companies in the U.S. with a nice stockpile of converted containers, mini shelters and houseboats (some with tens and hundreds) that were made for disasters just like in Haiti, but I seriously doubt even one of those units will make it down there. Sad isn’t it?

Me, go out and create shipping container shelters for Haiti? What for? They will just sit there in the storage yard collecting cobwebs. We are so not prepared for another hurricane on the same scale as Katrina–thankfully, we haven’t faced a Haiti yet. YET.

To help, make a donation by texting “HAITI” to 90999 to give $10 (appears on your bill), or go to redcross.org. My girlfriend and I have given $50 to Haiti (Not much, I know, but it shows you that any amount will do good.) Help humanity… help the tens of thousands of new orphans in Haiti. Give a little. Your heart will feel good after you do, believe me.

  • I dearly wish what you said here wasn’t true, but I believe that it may very well be. This was written less than two weeks after the quake. Almost 4 months later, it’s not just the US Government that is impeding brilliant ideas such as this one, but the Haitian government seems to be doing everything it can to hinder the efforts of the relief organizations that haven’t pulled out yet – trade and port restrictions and tariffs, demolition fees, and the like.

    I volunteered in Jacmel, Haiti, for two weeks, and having already been introduced to the concept of ISBU building, it was a RIPE opportunity to help. Finally getting around to doing some research today, I see I was not the only one thinking that container homes would be an ideal solution for Haiti’s recovery. They still would be. But the politics involved, not to mention the logistics, or even funding, seem prohibitive.

    Which is really, really sad.

  • Sheryl

    Shipping containers? As housing in Haiti? Come on! Do you realize how hot they would be? We used one to store our garage items when we were building our house in Florida and it was so hot you could hardly stand going in for more than a few minutes.

    I just got back from Haiti yesterday. It was hot! Even living in the tents is hot. Metal containers is not a good idea. July 1,2010

  • I would like to say something. I am glad that you are building shelters for Haiti. Can you please build them in Blocks, more steady,like the one in the United states;especially the country suffers earthquake and a lot of time they have turnadoes so they can remain permanent. It would be like the proverb IN haitian lave men siye ate; Since Haiti is a shakeable place by natural disaster.
    I would like to remain in contact with you through prayer and supplications. If they build like five floor buildings they would at least even room with 7 beds with full utility kitchen on the ground wash room a place to pray with a chaplain and service and workshop room where they can learn new skills to be able to move to neww territories at prospective and convenient times so other pooor and homeless one can use. Also keeping RA’s and case worker with viable and good sociable people with patients will help them be diligent about life.
    Not to forget an entertainment room
    Reply Forward

  • dave

    i was just browsing when i came across your container homes web site…..looking to habitat a piece of property seasonally it seemed container building was the answer. i was redirected to the devastation in haiti and the suffering of those trapped in the slums. I applaud you in your efforts to shed light on the subject. then came the solicitation to buy your book “no building codes.” are you suggesting building without codes? Codes are the minimum requirement to make a habitation safe. need an example? Chili was hit with a more powerful quake than Haiti and while suffering temporary, and I stress temporary, damage was back to relative normalcy within a few months. All the while Haiti continues to reel from the effects of a shattered infrastructure. the difference between the two countries….building codes! chili had seismic codes in place while the government of Haiti had adopted the policy of no building codes. to deposit a penny of proceeds from the sale of this book should be construed as hypocritical. i call on you and your misguided morals to put your money where your mouth is and donate 100% of your proceeds to the relief effort. and to echo the words of Sheryl in a previous post “come on!”

  • Hi, congratulations to all of you who work to give a hand to people in distress after a nature’s catastrophe. Just that will put you in a higher category o heroes, there is very few people who does it and I applaud them
    Any type of shelter is better than nothing even shipping containers, here I will disagree with those who oppose to the idea of using shipping containers as dwelling means, today and even in 2012 during the Haiti’s earthquake there are insulation products and sustainable materials that makes living and/or working inside the metal box called ISBU (Intermodal Still Building Units) even better than doing the same in a standard building I assume 100% responsability of my words, because I build my offices with Shipping Containers in the early 80’s and still using them in perfect condition. and spend the last three years developing and constructing homes with state of the art Shipping Containers that respects the most severe construction codes.
    off course it’s very sad when politics and corruption gets in between a nobel and humanitarian labor, it is our obligation to be vigilantes so this can not happen

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