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From the Editor: Notes on Organizing Matador's Haiti Relief Effort

by Julie Schwietert Jan 28, 2010
You can feel and think so much in the span of a single week.

As the editor of MatadorChange–the Matador blog focused on social change, environmental awareness, and community building–I felt compelled to organize Matador’s response to the earthquake in Haiti. What follows below are hastily scribbled notes written on receipts, in a rain-soaked notebook, and on the back of my grocery list during one of the most intense weeks I’ve ever experienced.

1. Francisco is serving dinner when we hear about the earthquake in Haiti. The idea to use Twitter to mobilize a relief effort comes immediately.

2. I cared about the Sichuan earthquake. I cared about the Aceh tsunami. But there’s something about Haiti being in the Caribbean–closer to home, a place where I’ve spent a lot of time, a place I know well–that makes the disaster seem more concrete, less abstract, and more urgent.

3. We are in a waiting room at the Consulate. “My family is sleeping in their car because the house is falling down,” says a young woman–22 maybe?– whose hair is combed carefully into place, whose clothes are pressed. “Your big beautiful house?” the Consul says, his voice rising into the question.

They are cousins. Hers is not a horror story within this palimpsest of disaster, but it’s terrible enough. Everyone’s suffering is individual, and, to that extent, is relative.

4. “A lady is crying in the hall,” Francisco whispers to me. “She just learned that she lost someone.”

5. “Logistics” is a word I’ll avoid using for a long time.

6. What’s more haphazard: disaster or disaster response?

7. I think of 9/11, of Katrina, of the pervasive sense of powerlessness so many people feel. What I want to do is help people feel they can contribute meaningfully.

8. The vultures are circling at the consulate. The fat man has medicine to send, but “Somebody’s gotta pay for it.” The other economic hit men, talking about bulldozers and helicopters, rub their hands together and talk about the “return on investment,” about “long-term gains.” One looks at me and sighs, “Bureaucracy is such a pain.” Does he expect me to empathize with him?

9. In a way, though, I do. Empathize with him, I mean. I want to say: “Fuck red tape. People are dying.”

10. I wish I could draw what this process looks like. It would look chaotic but ordered. For some reason, I get the sense it would be easier to explain and understand that way.

11. I’ve become so dependent on Twitter, I find myself writing #Haiti with a hash tag no matter where I’m writing.

12. The Consul says he is hungry. He says it as if he’s not in the middle of coordinating a response to a disaster. I’m not sure what to make of his seeming calm.

13. I take a nap with Francisco and Mariel. We sleep close together, as if disaster might touch us while we’re not awake. I dream of falling down a long, narrow flight of stairs. When I look up the symbolism of this dream, there are mixed messages: one, a fear of failure. The other, an object of envy. I don’t know what to make of this, but it leaves me unsettled.

14. More than 1,500 emails. I have sent more than 500 replies and my gmail is blocked. I set up a secondary account. It fills up quickly. So many people want to help. I am awed by this, am grateful. And slightly overwhelmed.

15. I’ve “met” some phenomenal people: Rene, in Chicago, who’s in contact with an organization that may take some of our volunteers. Daniel in Miami, who’s working on press. Jess and Carlos here in New York, handling our volunteer list and picking up donations, respectively. Jackie in Boston, who’s focused on collecting donations for babies and kids. Andrea in central Florida, who has tons of water (literally) ready to ship. And Matador members- Gabriela, Cathey, Allen, to name just a few– all pitching in in different ways. I think, as I always do in extraordinary situations, what could we do together beyond disaster?

16. Three days into this, and I’ve forgotten what I was doing before the quake. Francisco says I should take a shower. I’ve been sitting in front of the computer or on the phone for 13 hours today.

17. Coordinating well-meaning people gets complicated. From the outside, it’s hard to see how much work it takes to put together something as simple as getting donations to a warehouse. Everyone wants an answer now. Answering now is not possible.

18. When it’s night, I don’t sleep well. My last thought is of the Bresma kids, sleeping in a yard. Under other circumstances, there might be something adventurous about that. Under these circumstances, it’s terrifying.

19. And that’s why I say to Francisco before we fall asleep one night–which night?– “I just can’t imagine. I’m torn up over it.” I can’t even say “the babies,” our 3.5 month old daughter sleeping soundly between us. “You’ve got to stop,” he says, reaching over and touching my hair. He means to stop thinking about it. It. The babies.

20. We have mobilized thousands of people to take tangible action. It’s exhilirating. It’s complicated.

21. It’s been two weeks and two days since the quake. I was waiting to end this with some hopeful note. So far, I’m not sure what that would be.

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