Saturday, January 30, 2010

On the Ground in Haiti

We landed in Port-au-Prince just as the sun was rising . After getting our bearings and loading the gear onto a truck, we waited for transportation. Waiting is a sub-theme in most things millitary. Along the edges of the runway were pallets loaded with supplies. Civilians from different aid organizations were also waiting around. There was a sea of water bottles, everything from Aquafina to Fiji . Boarding small tourist busses from the Dominican Republic that had a tropical flair, we made our way to a camp known as APOD - Arial Point of Debarkation. Once in our tent we set up cots. I was lent a mosquito net which transformed my cot into a canopy bed of sorts.

The camp is in a state of constant flux. We had to move twice before we had a tent we could call home. Search and rescue teams made the initial set up and left the tents behind in a deal struck by the 3d Sustainment Command Expeditionary. In return for the tent loan, the 3SCE will use their logistic capability to return them. A jumbo tent ( the fusion cell) went up the first day I arrived and was made internet ready. It will serve as the logistical hub for the entire theater. Incoming troops are coming faster than available space to house them is identified, yet everyone is being accommodated.

The tents that serve as living quarters are basic. Inside them it feels like an oven in the daytime. The cots are standard army issue. Mosquitos and spiders share the space. There are Porto-Johns and portable cold water showers with outdoor sinks nearby. There is no kitchen, only MREs for grub and lots of water; the millitary is big on keeping soldiers hydrated. Considering there was nothing here before the earthquake the camp is pretty great.

I accompanied Sgt. Tomas of the 7th Sustainment Brigade to the port and another camp. His driver, Fred, lives in Port-au-Prince and gave us a mini tour enroute. The damage breathtaking; the devastation is mind boggling. I was surprised to see signs of everyday life everywhere. We drove by a bustling outdoor market and the streets were full of traffic. Tent cities all around the city are a reminder that nothing will be normal for a long time to come.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Operation Unified Response, The 377th TSC leaves for Haiti

At 11 in the morning on Jan 25th I got a call for Shaun Clark, the public affairs officer for the 377 TSC (Theater Sustainment Command), asking me how fast I could get ready to go to Haiti. I was told to be ready to leave by that evening, but later learned I had till the next morning. Everything time-related remains fluid when traveling with the military.

I arrived at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse, LA, on Jan 26th . Shaun filled me in on the role the 377th TSC will play in Operation Unified Response. They will be the logistical support for all US soldiers in Haiti. They are relieving the 3rd Support Command Expeditionary, who have been surveying and analyzing distribution sites since Jan 19th. I am accompanying 19 soldiers, an early entry module detachment, who will be met by a much larger group once they are operational. This unit and the larger one deploying are prepared to stay at least a year.

We boarded a bus for Miami in the late morning, taking with us everything needed to sustain them for the start up period, from MREs (meals ready to eat) to cots. After a 16 hour ride on a chartered bus that included two fast food stops ( I confess to having McDonald's and Burger King on the same day) and a couple of smoke breaks for the night driver, we arrived at an airbase in Miami shortly after 5 AM to find out we might have to wait 2-3 days for our flight out. I write from a large waiting room in an airbase outside Miami where we are prepared to hunker down, if need be. We could still get out today, but no one knows for sure. Though the unit does logistics, they are not responsible for the logistics of getting themselves to Haiti. Overall everyone is in good humor.

The rest of the day our plans remained fluid .I got a little sleep in the afternoon. Early evening we were waiting for the plane we dined on Popeyes friend chicken and had a surprise visit from professional cheerleaders taking part in the Pro Bowl Game. The flight meant to leave at 10 pm was delayed till 12:15am, and then got cancelled. We end up checking into a Comfort Inn Hotel. Hopefully in the morning we will be on our way. The start of this trip is a forecast of what to expect in Haiti. Haiti was no longer the top headline in the news when we departed, but the story is far from over. From where I sit, it's getting more interesting by the minute.

Update - shortly after falling asleep, i was woken up and told to come to the lobby to catch a bus back to the airbase to fly out.
We all got on a C-130 for Haiti and landed as the sun came up. I arrived in Haiti tired, but ready to take it all in. A logistical nightmare that is being tackled moment by moment, is one way to describe the situation here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Homage to Flo McGarrell

Flo McGarrell wearing one of his fiber art creations

When I first heard of the earthquake in Haiti I thought of Flo McGarrell. I knew he was there. I called his mother Ann, and I conveyed my sense that Flo would be fine, leading the rescue efforts of others. I was wrong. Despite Flo's strength, the earthquake's suddenness made survival more an act of luck than will. He was killed instantly on January 12th when the Peace of Mind Hotel in Jacmel collapsed. His body still remains trapped under the hotel. A friend who was with him at the hotel and the remaining members of FOSAJ, the art center Flo ran, have been unable to dig him out. The State Department may send some heavy lifting equipment to Jacmel so the body can be recovered.

One natural disaster put me on the path to meet Flo and another has taken him away. Ann McGarrell, Flo’s mother, contacted me after seeing a series of photographs I did about post–Katrina New Orleans. We collaborated on a book using photos she selected from my series and a poem she wrote inspired by my photos. This collaboration also brought Flo and James, Ann's husband and Flo’s father, into my life. Both are fine artists of the highest caliber.

I was privileged to share a Thanksgiving with them. Flo prepared raw food concoctions that were scrumptious. That weekend I took pictures of Flo’s crocheted hats so he could enter them in a fiber-art competition. Ann, James and Flo acted as models on a cold Vermont autumn day. He talked to me about the art center in Haiti he was going to be running and invited me to visit and teach a workshop there, an offer I will always regret not having accepted sooner.

Flo was multi-talented and had a generous spirit, openly sharing ideas and help. His life and his work were interconnected. Working and living in Haiti was a synthesis of his many interests. He had started making "agrisculptures," using plants and recycled materials to make a statement about sustainability. In Haiti, he ran the art center on a shoestring, committed to bringing the local art community in Haiti together. His optimism and positive outlook were infectious.

In a recent interview Flo said, "I have a few guiding principles, which I think must propel me toward this artistic freedom you speak about: Don’t hide, don’t lie. Do that which scares me. Resist the urge to settle. Be as many things as possible in this lifetime.” From what I know of Flo that is exactly how he lived. Flo’s commitment to these principles and his life’s work are inspirational. The randomness of his death is difficult to grasp.

On Friday, Jan. 15th I went to a banquet hall on Wall Street to photograph a benefit for FAR, the Fund for Armenian Relief, a humanitarian organization formed to aid the victims of the earthquake that hit Spitak, Armenia 25 years ago. I arrived early and followed voices I heard in the distance near the Stock Exchange. There was a rally, tying many issues together. A mishmash protest of sorts by the Bail out People Movement . The crowded chanted that Wall Street should bail out Haiti, return the riches it has stolen. Councilman Charles Barron on Brooklyn, stated the $100 million Obama pledged to Haiti amounted to $50 per person and demanded more help be given to Haiti.

At the banquet a few of the speakers mentioned Haiti, but their focus was Armenia. The evening was a reminder of how long it takes an impoverished nation to recover. I write this waiting for a flight back to New Orleans, a city still hardly better and stronger than ever, as Bush had envisioned it. It is unfortunate there is no end in sight to war. Cleaning up the wrath of nature seems task enough for the world. The earth's moving plates know no boundaries, and when they shift, we are all equally in peril.

To Flo’s family and friends, I reiterate my deepest condolences. To everyone else, I want to share Flo’s life and work.
The McGarrells wearing Flo's fiber art creations

To see more of Flo’s work go to

The Rutland Herald wrote the following

To read more of Flo’s own words read a recent interview in Art : 21 Blog

To see James McGarrels site created by Flo click here

Protest on in NYC for more aid to Haiti

Protest in NYC for more aid to Haiti/ Councilman calling for more aid to Haiti