A Rant in 4 Parts: Part 4 –

(In which I mix metaphors and generally rant.  It took awhile to actually publish, though this has been written for months.)


To say that, “This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” is to undersell the training involved in a marathon and the scope of a natural disaster.  A marathon runner spends months, if not years, training for their activity.  The National Disaster Management Office and the people of Vanuatu had one chance to get it right.  A marathon lasts a day – one long, physical day.  The rebuilding efforts to bring Vanuatu’s food supply, infrastructure and economy back to its previous levels are going to take years.

We are almost seven weeks out from when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu.  In that time, the media cycle has moved away from Vanuatu to rest briefly with Typhoon Maysak and, as of today, with the earthquake in Nepal.  The media needs headlines and news, and I’m not upset that they’ve turned their focus elsewhere because I, too, want to know what’s going on around the world.  I hope there are follow up articles about Vanuatu, but it isn’t a lot of hope.  The long-term rebuilding isn’t sharp and easy to compress to a few simple words.

The experts who went to Vanuatu to help distribute supplies, provide emergency medical care and fill in a million other small ways are leaving now.  They did their jobs, and they seem to have done them well enough.  Other experts are starting to analyze the job they did and discuss how to do it better in the future, which is as close to marathon training as disaster response can get.  It is a valuable thing for response efforts everywhere.  But it doesn’t feed the people of Vanuatu.

That’s where we’re at now.  Crops are still months away from maturity and schools are still waiting on materials to rebuild their classrooms.  We can’t make this process go faster, but we can make it go smoother.

The second part of this rant was about how I, and you, are not the right people for the job of emergency relief.  We can’t replant as well as they can, we can’t build schools or construct watertight houses from bits of leaves and sticks.  What we can do is offer support.  We can push for tourism to return to the islands that were directly hit and increase on the islands that were less impacted.  We can look for exports from Vanuatu and buy now while the sales will have the most impact.  We can raise money for local charities and continue donating.  We can keep talking about this place and these people and remind the world that the disaster isn’t over.

The first shoots of new greenery have come back to Port Vila.  People are rebuilding.  People are replanting.  But crops take months to grow and schools take years to build.  Which is why people talk about a marathon, because this is the part that just doesn’t end.  It is going to take years to replace what was lost and more years to return to economic growth.  We can’t make the plants grow faster, but we can offer our support throughout the process.

3-22 A Rant in 4 Parts: Part 3 – The Value of Life

Philosophers have asked the question, “What is a life worth?” for ages and we still don’t have an answer.  The value of a life as set by the US medical insurance field is $50,000 per year.  According to Standford Graduate School of Business, a year of life is worth $129,000.  Or if you prefer the Russians, you could go by their 2010 standard reimbursement for loss of life at USD$118,900.  But no matter how many numbers you shuffle around, they don’t gain more meaning.

During my time as an Emergency Medical Technician, we had to do Mass Casualty Incident Trainings.  These varied from 2 vehicle accidents to poisoned labs or downed aircrafts.  (The scenarios where up to the creativity of the designer.)  I hated being the first person to respond to these fake calls.  Because even giving people fake triage tags for fake injuries on a fake call was too much for me.  I became in EMT to help people, not to say they are beyond help and walk on.

These two interrelated debates are what face disaster relief specialists every day.  The value of a life and the need to triage that life against the circumstances surrounding it.  Is bringing one person back from the island worth the cost of a tank of fuel?  What if the trip is doubled up so that it brings food and water out and that person back?  Does that outweigh a reconnaissance flight over another island?  What if that island wasn’t in the direct path of the cyclone?  Or is only sparsely populated?

These are not decisions I envy anyone.  I’ve had to make fake decisions to let an actor die of a fake heart attack so that I could get more actors into the fake safe zone in a fake chemical leak coming from a fake lab.  And I still questioned that choice, and wondered if there was a way I could do both.  (Spoiler, I couldn’t.)

As much as we act like we want to play God, when it comes down to it, we want to save everyone.  We want to rush aid and relief to everyone, all at once.  But that isn’t possible.  So relief workers have had to make choices, brutal choices, about where to prioritize aid.  They will have to continue making those choices for the next weeks and months.  And the best people will cry themselves to sleep over the choices they made because they couldn’t find a way to save everyone.

There are going to be people who die just hours before the plane arrives.  And maybe the plane had been earlier, they would be alive.  But really, probably not, because that plane would take a dying person on a low-pressure flight, land on a runway and put the person in a bouncy taxi where it would deliver the person to a crowded, storm-ravaged hospital where the person would wait until they could be seen.  Or until they died.

There are going to be people who could have been saved, “If only…” but what is the cost of that one life?  Is it a plane carrying food and water for three villages?  Is one person’s life worth another 6 hours of starvation and dehydration?  What if the cost is another day before contact with an outer island?  How many people on that island need lifesaving interventions?

These decisions are never easy.  We make rules for ourselves, so we don’t give into the urge to save the first person we see.  We practice mass casualty incidents and discuss best practices.  Because no one wants to see someone suffer and no one wants unnecessary deaths.  But we have to look at the big picture and what that one life is costing elsewhere.

It’s cold, but also reassuring.  We want what’s best for everyone.  These horrible, frigid rules ensure that we can maximize our impacts to benefit as many people as possible.  Even if that sometimes means the loss of an individual.  That’s the reality facing the National Disaster Management teams, the Red Cross volunteers and the dozens of other relief workers.  I, for one, do not envy their job.

3-20 A Rant in 4 Parts: Part 2 – Heroes

We forget that we are resilient.  We, humanity, are a resilient species.  We’ve adapted to a world full of climates and thrived in every one of them.  We’ve weathered ice ages and warm periods, we’ve turned our rival predators extinct and eaten their flesh.

We forget that everyone is powerful.  When we decide someone is a victim, we take away their power.  We look at the victims of Cyclone Pam and think how terrible, I should go save them.  But we need to remember that the people of Vanuatu have been through cyclones before.  They’ve survived thousands of years of earthquakes, tsunamis, and mudslides.  And life has gone on.

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  Ni-Vanuatu are resilient and clever and very good at living in Vanuatu.  They are capable of rebuilding.  They don’t need my lily soft hands and ignorant planting techniques.  They need bags of rice to cook in water purified with tablets, they need enriched wheat to make bread that carried a nutritional punch.  They need chainsaws and axes and nails.

Your soft western hands, like mine, aren’t suited to this work.  Your need, like mine, for plentiful  drinking water on hot days isn’t suited to this place.  I’m not trying to be mean and squash your inner butterflies, but simply, it isn’t about you.

This is about the thousands of people who don’t have a choice about where they sleep tonight.  They can’t leave their comfortable homes to have an exotic adventure while Doing Good and Saving the World.  They don’t get to jump on a plane back to “civilization” or go seek medical attention from top hospitals.  They have to choose between enough rice to eat and a term of school fees for their daughters.  They have to choose between building a temporary shelter or tending to an injured uncle.  They don’t get to step off this merry-go-round when it gets uncomfortable.  These are the people who are truly affected by this disaster.

My heart breaks every time I read my newsfeed.  I want to go there and help pull coconut trees off of roofs, dig new posts and put up walls.  I want to teach condom use in temporary shelters and translate purification tablet directions into Bislama.  I want to help.  I want people to see how much I want to help.

I want to be a hero.

But that isn’t my role.  Not today, not in this instance.  I, like the hordes of other Westerners with soft hands and no experience, have a role to play here at home.  We have a role to play in teaching our countrymen about this beautiful, wonderful paradise and all its cultural complexities.  We have a role to play in raising money for use on the ground there.  We have a role to play in supporting our friends and families there as well as here.  We have a role to play in organizing our communities here, where we can rally support and bridge the gap from here to there with relief funds and support.

This isn’t about you.  It isn’t about me.  My hands are hardened from manual labor but still rip open blisters when I use a machete.  My body has hardened with work outdoors in the frigid winter, but I still sweat when exposed to heat.  I am not the best person for the job of rebuilding.  The best people for that job are already there.  They plant yam each January, they wash clothes in rivers and skin coconuts in seconds.  They live there.

I can’t be a hero.

But Vanuatu doesn’t need foreign heroes.  They need the option to be heroes.

3-20 A Rant in 4 Parts: Part 1 – Resilience

My Facebook feed is filled with images of destruction.  Tin roofs ripped apart and crumbled like yesterday’s tinfoil, cinder blocks in jagged piles where walls once stood, corner posts as big around as tree trunks standing among the wreckage of what used to be the walls of the houses they anchored.  Each photo makes my eyes water and my throat close.  This used to be home.

I spent 3 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu, a string of islands in the South Pacific.  On Thursday evening, Cyclone Pam veered off its expect trajectory and slammed into the northern most islands.  It continued south, bisecting the mostly north-south country on a diagonal with the eye of the storm clipping the edge of the southern islands.  Wind speeds over 165 mph ravaged crops and tore apart trees and buildings with equal abandon.

I wasted Friday scanning news reports and talking to other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers as we waited to find out how bad it was.  We waited for news of adopted families and friends, we waited to hear of our villages made it through the storm or were washed to sea.  While we waited, we organized.  We created Facebook groups for volunteer translators.  We researched aid organizations and looked at disaster management plans.  We dreamed up fundraisers and ways to distribute wealth.  We called the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC for information on how Peace Corps would go forward with relief efforts.  And we waited.

It is now Friday, week later, and I still haven’t heard from my village.  I have a few aerial photos of other parts of the island and a second hand report of limited damage to pin my hopes on.  My heart is breaking moment by moment as the seconds stretch on into minutes and hours and days and I don’t know if my people are safe.

Then again, this is Vanuatu.  This is a country full of generosity and laughter.  This country has survived countless cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis.  Half the images of destruction show a child giving a thumbs up to the camera or a teen in the background laughing.  These aren’t people who will roll over and give up.

During the Catholic church’s month of charity, I was sitting on the church porch shooting the breeze with a friend.  This man owns two pairs of shorts, three shirts and a guitar.  He lives in a bamboo hut on an island that has one road, no electric grid or internet and intermittent cell service.  He shares a single outdoor tap with his two brothers and their wives.  Out of the blue he said, “You should make extra church donations this month.”

“Why?,” I asked.

“Because this month the money goes to people in need.  People who don’t have enough food or clothes or houses.”

“Who are they?” I asked.  I thought he’d say someone in Vanuatu, local families struggling to pay school fees or Catholics in Port Vila, the capital, where getting food was harder.

“The people in Africa who are starving,” he said.  In Vanuatu, Africa is where black people come from and America is where rich people come from.

“Don’t you think the money could be used here?” I asked.

“No, we have plenty.  We have food and land and water.  I donate what I have to help out those people who are starving.  I would send coconuts, but I think it would take too long for them to get there.”

This is the best of the Ni-Vanuatu spirit.  Generosity isn’t an expectation, it’s a way of life.  Like their laughter, nothing holds it back.  There is a love of laughter and a willingness to laugh for the joy of it.  Their laughs aren’t a polite chuckle or a bit of a giggle but the kind of full belly laugh that lights a room.  Not even the worst cyclone in 40 years can dim those laughs or stop the spirit of giving.

Three years is a long time when you are in your twenties.  It’s a time of growth and change and learning what it is to be an adult.  I joined the Peace Corps in my mid-twenties.  Vanuatu shaped my identity. I learned patience from farmers who tend plants from seed to fruit.  I learned grief from women who collapsed over the casket and had to be picked up before the burial.  And I learned resilience from farmers with failed crops, from mothers with ill infants and, from students repeating years of school.

I see the images of destruction and my heart breaks.  But now, there are images of rebuilding, too.  Trees blown over by the winds are being cut apart and used to rebuild houses.  Leaves torn off and scattered and being rounded up for thatching.

Resilience is a weak word for the amount of work ahead of Vanuatu, but that’s what it is.  The ability to acknowledge the grief, the despair and the rage and then push all of that to the side to find shelter and food for tonight.  The country will rebuild, the people will continue to smile.  Vanuatu is still Vanuatu, so let’s not forget the generosity and strength of a nation, even while we open our hands to help.


Photo show!

So, I made a thing.  Well, really, Jason and I both made a lot of things then we culled them down to the best 28 things.  Then I framed the things and hung them in a gallery.  Well, really, I hung them in the foyer of a church.  But it is like a gallery.

Basically what I’m saying here is that Jason and I have a photo show.  You should look at the print photos.  It is at the First Unitarian Society (900 Mount Curve Ave. Minneapolis, MN 55403).  It runs until February 15th.  We have an artists reception from 12:30 – 5:00 on January 25th where we will make copious amounts of hot cocoa and be available to talk about art and travel or hear how pretentious we are.

Hopefully, I’ll have some of the images up in the photo gallery on this page soon.  You know, once I finish printing invitations and all that other stuff.