The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, is likely to go into the record books as the most destructive natural event of modern times. Around 250,000 people are thought to have died when a destructive force equal to that of the 2005 Asian tsunami hit a densely populated area barely the size of Massachusetts.
As the author of Lonely Planet's Haiti guidebook and web coverage, I felt that it was important to return as soon as possible to help.
Writing travel guides isn't much of a specialist skill compared with medicine or construction, so I was looking for a project taking unskilled volunteers, preferably without a payment that might be sucked up by office overheads. I settled on Hands On Disaster Response, who had set up a base in Leogane, west of Port-au-Prince and close to the quake epicentre. HODR have run postdisaster projects in Peru, the Philippines and Bangladesh. Crucially for me, they also had Haiti experience, having operated in Gonaives after the 2008 floods.
Arriving in Leogane, where the earthquake either destroyed or damaged 80% of the buildings, I perceived the scale of the reconstruction challenge as almost insuperable. I'm reminded of the Haitian proverb 'Deye mon, gen mon' (behind the mountains there are mountains). The HODR base hums with activity, with dozens of volunteers rushing through lunch before returning to the day's jobs.
As Marc Young, one of the directors, tells me, their volunteers come from a broad spectrum. 'We've had 70-year-young grandfathers, college freshmen and families volunteering with their teenagers. There are attorneys who want to shovel rubble, architects who want to build and labourers who want administrative tasks.' Some spend just a week, others seemed intent on staying until the project's end in January 2011.
Volunteers are divided into teams to tackle individual jobs as groups. Top of the list are the rubble-clearance sites, with everyone slapping on the sunscreen to wield shovels, sledgehammers and barrows to clear ruined houses. It's hard work under the Haitian sun but immensely rewarding, and locals press in to help. Amid the concrete, there are constant reminders that the rubble represent smashed lives. On my first morning I recovered a set of someone's wedding photos, which were carefully kept aside to be reunited with their owner.
When sites are cleared, rebuilding began, and as I left volunteers were rebuilding their first school. Other, more skilled, volunteers were working with the mayor's office to survey and restore Leogane's water supply. HODR have also started a cash-for-work programme for locals, deepening their ties with the local community.
While the road ahead is a tough one, my experience seeing the international volunteers and local Haitians working together puts me in mind of a more optimistic proverb. Men anpil, chay pa lou: many hands make the load lighter.