Clean Water for Haiti Stories: The Beginning

I wasn’t here at the beginning of Clean Water for Haiti – that was Tal and Adele Woolsey. Their story is remarkable, but I don’t think I could do their story justice in a blog post. Tal followed God’s direction in starting Clean Water for Haiti. He knew that when God tells you to do something, you do it, end of discussion. As it says in the board game Monopoly “Do not pass go, do not collect $200”. That means, do it now, even if it’s inconvenient, even if your friends and family think you’ve gone nuts. It takes a lot to have that kind of courage, or perhaps it the wisdom Tal and Adele had – to fear God more than man.

The mission was founded in 2001, I moved to Haiti and met the Woolseys in 2002 and started working with them the beginning of 2003. In the beginning, Tal worked very closely with a single technician named Antonio Presindor and together they installed many filters mostly in the Saint Marc area. Without going into the depressing details, Tony upset some people and a group of people hired an assassin to kill him. Two weeks after I first started working at Clean Water for Haiti, the assassin shot Tony just outside my room at 4am. There was a vast amount of blood. Tal drove the truck while I held onto Tony in the back of the truck while we went from hospital to hospital trying to squeeze some kind of help, any kind, from the Haitian medical system. The day wore on, Tony went into shock and came very close to dying. Finally, more than 24 hours later Tal got Tony up to hospital #4 where there were both doctors and an operating room and they were able to save Tony’s life. Before putting that incident to rest, I just want to say that Tony was shot three times with a 12 guage shotgun – once at point-blank range through the neck. Not many people have survived such an attack.

Tal and Adele hadn’t intended to stay in Haiti indefinitely but it may be that Tony’s shooting played a role in their decision to leave Haiti. It was an extremely stressful and unpleasant situation and with the exception of the Port au Prince earthquake, I have never had a worse day. Shortly after their decision to leave, Tal asked me to take over as director of Clean Water for Haiti. I prayed hard about it before realizing that this is what God called me to do with my life. Thus, I fell into the directorship of this organization I had just started working for. I had a lot to learn and no time to learn it.

Tal left for the last time my good friend Barb McLeod had moved in and I wasn’t left entirely on my own at the mission. At the end of 2003 in Haiti, things were starting to get sketchy. Aristide, Haiti’s charismatic and controversial president, was facing some sort of a popular uprising against him. Others claim it was a coup d’etat backed by one of more foreign governments – I don’t know what to believe myself. The problems first manifested in Gonaives. In early 2003, a gang stole a bulldozer and bulldozed down a wall of the prison, releasing all the prisoners. Haiti’s special police, the CIMO moved in and restored order. It happened more than once, however. Eventually, the gang members lay in wait for the police to come, killed a number of them when they arrived and drove them off. It released a wave of civil disturbances around the country and prisons were opened up in Saint Marc, to begin with, and other cities later. It was an exciting and frightening time to be in Haiti.

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This particular photo was from the news at the time of the funeral procession of an assassination victim – the Aristide government was accused of some sort of complicity and the procession went through the area in front of the national palace. The police came in to break up the protest/procession. It epitomizes the intense feelings of the population at the time.

Missionaries started leaving, and the international organizations we were working with folded up shop and waited for the country to get safe again. I had to cancel the only Biosand filter training we had scheduled. Barb and I hunkered down, as it were, and watched events unfold as I tried to figure out how to keep doing our work. After Gonaives drove out the police, Saint Marc soon followed. Unlike in Gonaives, however, the police decided to retake Saint Marc and came in with a large amount of force and gun battles raged around the city. La Syrie seemed to be the center of fighting, and for a month after the fighting the smell of corpses drove people out of the neighborhood. Saint Marc as a whole became not quite a ghost town, but eerily deserted. Whole families moved away and went to live with relatives in the countryside until things calmed down. I went in to get groceries once and saw a kid carrying an uzi riding around on the back of a motorcycle and briefly wondered if I really ought to be there.

Saint Marc remained in control of the police, but Cap Haitien, Hinche, Ti Goave, Aux Cayes and pretty much every other major city ran the police out and opened up the prisons. Eventually Aristide was confined to Port au Prince and his supporters enthusiastically barricaded roads and mugged people trying to scramble to the airport. The airport shut down. Barb and I were a little sketched out when the airport closed, but at least now we could shut down the conversation when people told us we should leave. We both feel that when God calls you to do something, he doesn’t call you because it’s easy, or safe, but because he wants it done. I did not like the airport being closed, however.

We had a Canadian friend with a big boat that he lived on with his family. We were in communication and I agreed that I wanted to be on the boat with him if he ever decided to leave the island. February 28, 2004 David told me he would be leaving the next day and he would show up here at the beach so I could go with him to Guantanamo Bay. February 29, early morning, Aristide fled (or perhaps was forced out of) the country and flew into exile. All of us immediately changed our minds and waited for the marines to arrive. 3 days of looting the capital ensued, destroying many years of development in half a week. Then the marines and the French foreign legion arrived and stopped the looting. We stopped holding our breath at that point and knew things would start to get better.

During this whole time I was trying to advance the cause of clean water in Haiti. We did manage to drill a few wells. However, the biggest advance we made during this season was a modification to the Biosand filter itself. The pre-2004 filter was heavy. It was 330 pounds of solid concrete, and delivering one took so much effort that I started putting my head to work on how to make a lighter filter. With the help of an engineer friend Mr Otto Schick, we redesigned the filter and the molds used to make them and the filter now weighed a mere 180 lbs! We shared the mold design with CAWST, and the design was adopted world wide with CAWST trained projects. That felt pretty good.

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