I was eager to go directly to Haiti in the beginning of February to help, but I knew I would be just another mouth to feed and body to house. I didn't want to put more of a strain on the limited resources in country, maybe taking away from the people who really needed food and shelter. Instead, I decided to bring something with me to help, so as not to come empty handed.
Being a huge fan of Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Domes, I began to explore how to build pre-fabricated domes. I thought that a pre-fab dome structure would be an ideal transitional shelter, easy to fabricate, very portable and simple to assemble with a minimum of tools required.
I decided on what seemed to be a realistic number, 10 domes, to not get too grandiose in my plan, so I could actually accomplish it and not get overwhelmed. Ten domes could house at least 100 kids. I also decided to build the domes for orphanages because getting involved in the IDP camps seemed too complicated and giving shelters to individual families problematic on many levels.
I started to make calls, talk to people in my community and things started happening. I had to find a non-profit organization willing to serve as my fiscal sponsor. I contacted Buckminster Fuller Institute, which is located in Brooklyn. Will Elkins answered the phone when I called. When I told him why I was calling, he already knew about my project. He invited me to come the next day to meet with himself and the director, Elizabeth Thompson. They were extremely positive and supportive about my idea and they were willing to be my fiscal sponsor. However, after about a week, it became clear that they would require at least a month to sort the paperwork out. Too long. So I continued to search for a willing non-profit. I found one with a local activist group called "Not an Alternative" They were immediately supportive and took quick action to give me fiscal sponsorship within a week of the initial conversation.
During this time, I was researching how to fabricate the frames out of conduit pipe. I found all the information I needed on the good old world wide web. Anyone can do what I did. I googled it. "How to build a Geodesic Dome". Blammo. Done. I found this website: Desert Domes They had all the information I needed to build the frames on that site. My friends at 3rd Ward in Bushwick gave me access to their metal shop to fabricate a prototype to make sure the calculations were correct to build a 17' dome. The size was chosen because with the calculations, for a 2 frequency dome, there would be no waste from the offcuts from ten foot conduit pipe pieces. David Seigel at 3rd Ward was a huge help in this initial phase. Zach Tucker from Swimming Cities also helped a huge amount- he and I spent more than a few hours pressing the ends of conduit pipes with a hydraulic press at a motorcycle shop in Greenpoint. Many other people helped as well. The first dome build happened at Bushwick Project for the Arts. It was a huge relief when the calculations were spot on and it went up in less than 2 hours!
When you are on the right path, things tend to fall into place without a lot of effort. I was on a roll. Many people were getting excited to donate their resources towards Domes for Haiti. Turtle and Hughes, a woman owned electrical supply company in New Jersey was the first major donor. They donated 3500 feet of 1" EMT conduit pipe.
I needed to find someone willing to do the metal fabrication. After experiencing what it took to fabricate 65 struts for one dome, I knew I had to redefine the meaning of "DIY" to "GSETDIFY" (get someone else to do it for you) John Laidman of Laidman Fabrication didn't take that much convincing. I cold called him and after hearing the words "orphans, Haiti, shelter" he agreed to fabricate all 700 pieces Free of Charge. In a ten minute telephone conversation.
I called up Turtle & Hughes and gave them John's shop address in Greenpoint. They delivered the 3500 feet of conduit pipe the next day.
Then I got stuck. I hit a wall with the prototype for the covers. I had originally thought I could make the covers out of recycled vinyl banners from the tv and advertising industry in NYC. I thought I could do it myself, DIY style. I found a pattern on the wonderful world wide web for a 17ft dome cover and used my position as a stage hand to gather up a large supply of vinyl mostly donated by MTV and Scenic Corps. I found what I thought to be a vinyl welding machine, actually two of them, from a guy that worked at the company I used to work at. It turned out to be a machine designed to melt plastic bags shut, not thick vinyl!
As you can imagine, there was a lot of trial and error over the course of this project.
I decided to glue the vinyl together using this special glue called HH-66 which, incidentally, is super toxic. It basically re-arranges the molecules of the vinyl and melts the shit together.
I found a wonderful pattern maker through a friend who was working for a major clothing label (that which cannot be named) who pirated her own time at work to make us a to scale pattern template. We went into my friend Brett Lord's former place of employment in the fabric district and used their cutting machines and tables to cut out enough pieces to make the first dome cover prototype. (Brett has since moved on to a full time pursuit of his performance career and you can see his ariel expertise in the new production of the House of Yes's Horror Show this week!) I spent the next week staying up into the wee hours every night at Bushwick Project For the Arts, wearing a gas mask, gluing vinyl shapes together. When it was done, it didn't fit the dome, it was too large. It was a horrible week full of toxicity. It was a total bust. But I did learn a lot. Mistakes are valuable lessons. Failure is one of the steps to success, if you keep walking.
I completely canned the idea altogether of fabricating the covers out of vinyl when I learned that when it burns, it gives off poisonous gases. It also off gasses toxic fumes. This was a case of my DIY, dumpster diving ideals not panning out at all. It was a wee bit crushing, but I got over it.
I spent the next forever looking for a tensile structure manufacturer who would not only be willing to prioritize my project but also give us a significant discount in the manufacturing of ten geodesic dome covers. It was a very difficult search. I must have called every tent, awning and dome manufacturer in the states. No one was willing to do it. I was extremely disheartened. I thought my project was going to fail. The momentum we had reached kept me going. We did a bunch of fundraisers. An old friend of mine on the west coast, a dj named Little John, put together an electronic music compilation of some really great artists who all donated their musical tracks to make a compilation for Domes for Haiti. There is a link on the sidebar. Everyone who downloads tracks sends donations to Domes For Haiti.
I kept searching and talking about my project to people. I gathered tools and shipping crates. We packed up the finished struts. I tried to raise more money. It was slow going.
One day I was looking online at the good old world wide web. I was on Facebook, looking at Grassroots United's photo albums. I saw a photo of a beautiful canopy tent that looked kind of like a circus tent. It was in Haiti. There was a note on it that the tent was made by Nantucket Tents. I immediately called them up and introduced myself and Domes for Haiti. They were very friendly and they told me that they didn't make the tent themselves. They refereed me to a sail maker in Massachusetts named Matt Sperry who has a company named Sperry Sails.
I called Matt up. He showed an immediate openness and enthusiasm for the project.
He agreed to build the covers, to prioritize the project and to give us a great deal on the price.
Even with the huge discount he was willing to give us, it was the single largest expense we had encountered along the way. He needed a little over $11,000 to manufacture the covers.
I was overjoyed and stressed at the same time. At the time, our total budget that we had raised for the entire project was under 5 grand. But we didn't give up.
I told him to go ahead with it and we'd raise the money somehow.
My friends Swoon and Ben were working on another Haiti project called Konbit Shelter.
They were having a drag benefit dinner presentation for their project and they invited me to come do a presentation of Domes for Haiti at the event. That is the kind of community I live in. People work together to help each other realize their dreams. It's an amazing place, Brooklyn, full of amazing and wonderful artists. Most of them are absolutely crazy and totally beautiful. Many people in this community spend most of their time working and building collaborative art projects without pay. People here have been known to occasionally eat out of dumpsters so that they can do what they are passionate about. Art. The DIY mentality is deeply rooted here. It was during this presentation that my friend Will Etundi got inspired to help me raise the money I needed to pay to have the covers manufactured. I had been asking him, pestering him actually, for weeks to throw a benefit party for Domes for Haiti. He is a very successful underground party promoter. His parties are called " the Danger"
He strolled up to me after the dinner party. He said to me, "Lopi, I had no idea you were so close to completing your project. Let's do a party for you"
We set the date. 3rd Ward gave us the use of their warehouse space. I called all of my friends and invited them to do art installations for the party. Will called all the musicians and performers. We built 3 large domes inside the warehouse and 3 small domes and set about creating installations on the theme of "Home, Water, Trash" I made an installation of my interpretation of a post disaster home.
My friend Arielle Bier made an installation inside another dome of a waterfall.
Bobby Dangerously made a sound installation to go with it. Olivia Katz and Brett Lord made the third dome installation out of found objects and trash.
Ryan O'Connor joined in the fray with his sculptural expertise and did an installation of a camp fire. Anna Ieggio came and worked on the small domes. We invited the Konbit Shelter crew to do an art auction on the first floor. It was an all out community wide effort to throw a huge benefit party for Haiti projects.
The night of the party, we somehow completed everything just in time. We left to go get cleaned up and have dinner. When we came back to the party, there was a line all the way down the block. I couldn't stop crying for joy all night long. It was a huge success, beyond my wildest dreams. I had been wishing for a long time that I could inspire my community to get into doing humanitarian work and this night was extremely moving and inspiring to me. The possibilities for future projects are limitless when we work together.
The next day Will and I sat down to count the money. I had never seen that much cash in my life. We counted it and there was $25,000. We paid out a bunch, donated some to Konbit Shelter and I walked away from it with a little over $20,000, dizzy with excitement.
I would now be able to not only pay for the covers to be made, but also fund my entire project in Haiti.
my Cat Joe protecting the cash
From the inception to this point, it took from February 23rd to June 7th. That amount of time would have been cut in half if I had had more experience, if I had had funding and if I knew what the hell I was doing. All of that ultimately doesn't really matter. I did it anyway, with the help of community support and my own personal insanity. Giving up was never an option because each person or business that donated their time, services and goods would have been disrespected if I had given up. It's about integrity and follow through. I was super committed to finishing this project at all costs. I was obsessed. I couldn't get the kids in Haiti out of my mind. I was stressed out that everything was taking too long and in the meantime they were sleeping in the mud or standing up all night long every night to avoid the flooding in crappy excuses for shelters.
I was next confronted with how to get the entire shipment of struts, covers and tools into Haiti. I found, through my friend Kara Blossom, a willing company named Atelier 4 who agreed to ship everything from Brooklyn to Miami free of charge if we could pack it up nice. We set about packing it all up. I had crates and boxes and shrink wrap coming out of my ears. 3rd Ward continued to give amazing support by allowing me to utilize their warehouse to pack up the whole thing. We packed it. They showed up and picked up the shipment and I kissed it goodbye. Another mile stone in this project. Each milestone gave me more inspiration to keep going.
I found more support through Mutual Aid for Disaster Relief They provided airline travel vouchers for myself and my friend Kara Blossom to fly to Miami and on to Port Au Prince. Kara and I got all of our shots and gathered up our camping supplies and headed for Haiti on July 17th. The shipment was sent via cargo plane by Amerijet on the same day. I was given a generous 40% discount in the shipping costs by them.
I was eager to arrive in Port Au Prince and to meet our in country hosts, Grassroots United who had contacted me months prior to offer up their base as a place to land and work out of. They are an organization that supports small NGO's by providing a secure home base with camping accommodations and internet access. The accommodations were kind of crappy, but compared to people living in the camps, we were well off and protected by a high wall of concrete blocks with razor wire on the top. At the time we arrived there, GRU was housing several great organizations. European Disaster Volunteers, Give Love and Kleiwerks. Micheal Reynolds from Earthship Biotecture had just built an earthship on the property. They had a geodesic dome and two container houses, a regular house and plenty of tents that volunteers were sleeping in.
There was a feeling of camaraderie present in the air. It was a great welcome that we received.
Kara Blossom and I unpacked, set up our tents and got acclimated.
After I got a bit acquainted with the place, the next morning, Sam Block, the director of GRU drove me to a customs broker to explore my options for getting my shipment out of the Amerijet warehouse it was being held at. The customs broker informed us that the normal waiting period for a humanitarian shipment to get through customs was anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months. For a commercial shipment, it would take 3 days and approximately 10% of the overall worth of the entire shipment. For Domes for Haiti, that meant somewhere in the ball park of $3,000. It was absolutely out of the question. That was half of my entire budget for the second phase of the project. We thanked him and got back on the blistering hot moto seat and drove off. I made a note to never wear shorts while riding a moto again. Owch.
Shipment in Jail
The following day, Sam had arranged for a man to come over who was not your normal customs broker. He was a Haitian man, a mercenary who runs a business that hires out body guards to the government and other NGO's. He claimed he could get my shipment out in 48 hours. He talked on and on about his commitment to helping humanitarian shipments into the country and how wrong it is that they make it so much harder to get donations in then commercial goods. He claimed he had donated a whole shipment of food from Miami himself shortly after the earthquake and that the customs officials had cut open his food containers, spilling the contents out and ruining the shipment. For his services, he would charge me the modest fee of $1500 US. "How does that sound?" He asked me.
"How does free sound?" I asked him. I told him that I didn't have money in my budget for that much. He said he couldn't do it for free. I offered to pay 300 US. He said he'd do it for $500 US. I agreed to the price, but with the stipulation that I would not pay him until I had the shipment in my hands.
48 hours passed. No shipment. I asked the Sam to call the guy. He did and was told "tomorrow for sure" This was repeated ad nauseum. For two weeks.
My friend who was supposed to be my project director, Kara left. I was getting desperate, but I was making productive use of the time spent waiting. I hired a translator who was introduced to me by Mike Hague. His name is Julian Noze and he turned out to be a great guy who lived for many years in Brooklyn.
Grassroots United provided me with a list of orphanages.
Julian with Desamour, one of the orphanage's Directors.
I needed a motorbike to ride if I was ever going to get anywhere in Port Au Prince traffic. One of the long term volunteers at Grassroots United had a motorcycle. It was Pauline Paris's bike.
She was super generous with it and let me drive all over Port Au Prince on it. I hadn't driven a motorcycle since I was 15.
I had not been able to find orphanages while I was still in Brooklyn because the orphanages I wanted to help did not have internet access let alone websites. The list GRU provided was crucial to finding those places in need. I set about doing site surveys with Julian on the back of the moto, clinging for dear life. We drove through the craziest most chaotic traffic I have ever seen. We drove through herds of goats, cows and people in the market place. I did not die.
I attribute our survival to angels, however fantastical that sounds, I dont care. Angels are the only plausible explanation I can come up with.
We visited about 20 orphanages and assessed their needs. We decided on sites for domes based on various criteria. Did they have a lease or a deed for the property? Were they an official orphanage and did they have paperwork to prove it? Did they need a shelter? Did they have space for one? These were the main concerns we addressed.
The man we hired to get our stuff through customs turned out to be a real jerk. He showed up one day, urgently demanding $250 US in cash. On TOP of what I already agreed to. He said there was a government official he needed to bribe. I was dubious. I didn't want to give it to him. Especially considering how long I had already waited to no avail. He had promised 48 hours. This was like at the 2 week marker. He demanded the money. Sam, the director, told me to pay it! He told me "things are done differently here in Haiti" Not only did he urge me to pay up, he told me to get in the SUV with the Mafia dude and his two gun toting henchmen and go and deliver it in person to the "official" down by the duone (customs). Everything in me was saying "NO" but Sam said, "Do it" and reassured me that I would be safe. I didn't feel safe. At all. I got in the SUV anyway. It was a strange display that this a-hole of a man was orchestrating for my benefit. To prove to me that he was bribing someone, apparently. We promptly got stuck in the worst traffic jam I've ever witnessed. There was no order in the streets of Port Au Prince. Cars, trucks, UN Tanks, motos, old dudes pulling giant hand trucks with enormous piles of twisted metal on top, goats, skinny cows, street kids all wove in and out of each other going every which way. Then it was just stopped. An enormous pre fab house on wheels was stuck in the mud. We were across from the slums. It was a miserable shanty town, mud everywhere, people squatting in the mud selling fruit that was in a pile inches from huge piles of garbage. It was insane.
The dude, who is going unnamed because he might try to kill me if I name him, was prattling off endlessly about how Aristede killed his father and how much he hated him and everyone around us. He mocked a deranged looking woman who walked by. He mocked a hungry looking pregnant woman who passed by. His driver nearly ran over an old lady. They were vicious evil men. I prayed for the traffic to clear up, just to be done with this dubious delivery to not be in his presence any more. We passed by a blown out cathedral. I asked if I could get out and take photos of it. They said, "no" but I got out anyway. The two body guards got out too and followed me like I was some kind of visiting royalty. I disappeared into a hole in the wall, snapped some shots and came back out, nonchalantly got back in the car. We finally got to the customs office and this man in business slacks and a button down shirt with a tie was standing on the sidewalk. Dude that wont be named handed him the envelope with my cash in it. We drove back to the base. The dude made some more empty promises and left.
A week later, when Brenda called to check in on the progress, he started screaming over the phone at her. I couldn't take it anymore, I decided to take the bull by the horns and get my stuff out of customs without that dude. I have documented the entire tedious process in this very blog. If you've a mind to, you can read all about it by going back to the links in July and August. I found out that the main delay in getting it out was because the dude, the big impressive macho guy who took my money and delivered nil, he had filled out the paperwork improperly and it took awhile to get to that. The Madame at the Ministry of Finance had a headache or was muy fatique. She would wave me away like an irritated royal.
I finally got my shipment free on August 11th, just 6 days shy of a month from when I first arrived. I am thankful that it didn't take three months.
I decided to fly home to Brooklyn and get recharged for the next phase. It was a wise move, I arrived back in Haiti, ready to tackle the building of ten domes, re-energized by friends, good food and the cool air in Brooklyn. I felt strangely patriotic during my brief visit home. That was an unfamiliar feeling for me.
When I got back to Haiti, I hired a team of 5 Haitian teenagers to be my crew. The crew was headed up by two sisters, Nephtalie and Nelleke. Nelleke
They are 14 and 15 years old. I put them in charge of the build crew.
There was a fair amount of flirting going on within the crew, but that's what you get when you put girl teenagers in charge of hiring the best workers. They hired the hottest guys they knew and then had a great time every day working with them! Lucky for me, those guys were hard workers and strong . We had a portable ryobi radio that kept us dancing as we worked. These kids mean the world to me and I plan on staying connected to them for the rest of my life. I paid them and fed them in exchange for their labor and enthusiasm.
We put up 9 domes in Port Au Prince at 8 orphanages. One orphanage received two domes to accommodate the amount of kids being served. 1 dome was built in Jacmel, down on the coast at an orphanage that was in great need there.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong over the course of the month that it took to build the domes. I got malaria, tires blew out, I got in a bike accident, trucks broke down, got stuck in the mud, thunderstorms, bad roads, ran out of gas and we got lost more than once. That is Haiti. Haiti is Hard.
This project challenged me on every level of my being. It drew upon resources I didn't even know I had.
Looking back on it now gives me a great sense of accomplishment. I am also nagged by a persistent feeling of incompleteness, a feeling that I am not finished in Haiti or maybe Haiti is not finished with me. In light of the current cholera epidemic that has been rated a level 4 emergency I am brainstorming ways to help in future projects.
I am keenly worried about several of the orphanages I built domes at. They were the more destitute of the 9. Their water sources were very sketchy. They had no support in terms of ongoing regular food or medical. Look for more details on each orphanage we built domes at in my next blog post.
Thanks, as always for reading.