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The Shelters That Clinton Built | The Nation

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The Shelters That Clinton Built

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There are hints that Clayton Homes aggressively pursued the contract. For example, a company press release dated August 6, 2010, notes, "When former President Bill Clinton was named to head the relief effort, Clayton's Director of International Development, Paul Thomas, called the Clinton Foundation to see if there was a way to help."

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  • Paul Farmer
  • Isabel Macdonald
  • Thank you sign for Bill Clinton at the INHAC school, Leogane, Haiti

About the Author

Isabeau Doucet
Isabeau Doucet is a freelance journalist working in Port-au Prince, Haiti, where she has written for Haiti Liberte and...
Isabel Macdonald
Isabel Macdonald is a freelance journalist and former communications director of the media watch group Fairness and...

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The chief of staff for the office of the UN Special Envoy, Garry Conille, emphasized that the foundation's decision-making on the project took place in a context of great urgency, with the advent of the 2010 hurricane season, when 1.5 million people were living in tent camps. "Under the circumstances, with all these people exposed, with the first rains," said Conille, "it would have been completely acceptable to go to a single source, but we didn't."

The Clinton Foundation's chief operating officer, Laura Graham, said in a phone interview that the contract was awarded to Clayton on the basis of a "limited request for proposals" from nine companies. She added that the decision was informed by "recommendations from a panel including a lot of these experts that do this work for a living, and Clayton was recommended as the most cost-efficient, with the best product and with the strongest Haitian partner." She clarified that she did not participate in the bidding process but said there were "representatives from the foundation as well as [the UN] Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA], the UN Special Envoy Office and the International Organization for Migration [IOM]...and there was a request for proposals run by them."

According to Bradley Mellicker, IOM's Port-au-Prince–based emergency preparedness and response officer, however, "the Clinton Foundation paid for the containers through a no-bid process." Imogen Wall, former spokeswoman for OCHA in Haiti, responded by e-mail that OCHA never deals with procurement or project management.

The Nation made multiple attempts to reach Bill Clinton for comment. However, the former president, known for championing the role of nonprofits in global affairs ("Unlike the government, we don't have to be quite as worried about a bad story in the newspapers," he recently said in a speech), never responded. A Clayton Homes official referred all queries regarding the contract to the Clinton Foundation.

When he heard that the new classrooms in his community had been built by a FEMA formaldehyde litigation defendant, Santos Alexis, Léogâne's stately mayor, said, "I hope these are not the same trailers that made people sick in the US. Otherwise I would be very critical; it would be chaos." (They are indeed different trailers, according to an engineer at Clayton Homes, who said the new classrooms were constructed specifically for the Clinton Foundation's Haiti project.)

"It would be humiliating to us, and we'll take this as a black thing," the mayor added, drawing a parallel between his community in Haiti, the world's first black republic, and the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans affected by the US government's mismanagement of the emergency response after Hurricane Katrina.

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Demosthene Lubert's disappointment is palpable as he sits in one of his new-smelling classrooms, perspiration dripping from his face. He had envisioned that the foundation of the former US president would rebuild INHAC, his school, as a modern institution with solar panel–powered lights and Wi-Fi. At a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in May, Dr. Paul Farmer, Clinton's deputy UN special envoy, called for healthcare to be integrated into schools. At the very least, Lubert expected the Clinton Foundation, which is active in global health philanthropy and cholera prevention in Haiti, to help with school sanitation.

"I thought the grand foundation of Clinton was going to build us latrines and dig us wells for the children to wash their hands before meals and after using the toilet...especially as we're at the mercy of cholera," Lubert says with a sigh. Less than an hour north of Léogâne, in Carrefour, the number of cholera cases went from eighty-five per week at the end of April to 820 a week at the beginning of June, according to Sylvain Groulx, country director of Médecins Sans Frontières. The disease, which is preventable with proper sanitary conditions, has killed 5,500 people since the epidemic began last October.

The Clinton Foundation did not build so much as a latrine at the school, or at any of the three other schools where its trailers were installed. (INHAC and two of the other schools had a limited number of pre-existing outhouses, which the school directors saw as inadequate, while the fourth did not have a single outhouse, making it unusable, according to the school's director.)

Conille, Clinton's chief of staff at his UN office, acknowledged in a telephone interview that the trailer classrooms "would never meet the standards for school building" under Haitian or international regulations.

"Normally when you hear 'Clin-ton,' when people speak of 'Clin-ton,' the name 'Clin-ton' carries a lot of weight," says Lubert. He trails off, looking suddenly uncertain. Clinton's name echoes ambiguously through the swampy chemical air like a plea, a mantra or a brand.

June 1 marked the beginning of Haiti's 2011 hurricane season, and meteorologists project that Haiti could face up to eighteen tropical storms with three to six of these developing to hurricane strength. Léogâne, where 95 percent of the downtown area was flooded by Hurricane Tomas last year, is relying on the Clinton Foundation's trailers as Plan A in the municipality's emergency response.

The foundation's original proposal to the IHRC referred to the buildings it planned to construct in Léogâne as "hurricane-proof" shelters, and this past March, Clinton Foundation foreign policy director Ami Desai reiterated that claim in a phone interview. On the foundation website, the promotional write-up about the trailers is featured under the heading "Emergency Hurricane Shelter Project."

Larry Tanner, a wind science specialist at Texas Tech University, was "suspicious" when he heard that trailers were to be used as hurricane shelters in Haiti. Tanner thought it unlikely that Clayton Homes had developed a mobile home that could safely be used as a hurricane shelter, saying in a telephone interview that he put the odds at "slim to none." Mobile homes are considered by FEMA to be so unsafe in hurricanes that the agency unequivocally advises the public to evacuate them.

In an interview with The Nation, Clayton Homes engineer Mark Izzo said the Léogâne trailers could withstand winds of up to 140 miles per hour. The company arrived at this figure through calculations, he said, rather than testing.

But Tanner emphasizes that such structures must be rigorously tested for resistance to high winds and projectiles. Clayton Homes's failure to test the trailers meant that they would not meet the international construction standard for hurricane shelter. "It certainly would not be accepted by FEMA either," Tanner added. Moreover, the kind of anchoring systems used by the trailers in Léogâne—which rely on metal straps to attach the shelter to the ground—"fail routinely," according to Tanner.

Two weeks into Haiti's hurricane season, The Nation visited some of the Clinton shelters with Kit Miyamoto, a California-based structural engineer contracted by USAID and the Haitian government to assess the safety of buildings in Port-au-Prince. Standing in front of one of the trailers, Miyamoto looked doubtful when asked whether, in his professional view, these structures were, as the Clinton Foundation has repeatedly claimed, "hurricane-proof." In the world of engineering, buildings are rarely considered to be truly hurricane-proof, explained Miyamoto, who said he had never heard of a wooden trailer being used as a hurricane shelter, let alone being referred to as a hurricane-proof building. "To be hurricane-proof you a need a heavier structure with concrete or blocks," he explained.

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