Helping in Haiti

Léogâne, a coastal town about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince, was at the epicenter of the catastrophic earthquake that rocked Haiti last January.

Tens of thousands of the community’s 134,000 residents were killed during the quake and according to the United Nations, 90 percent of its buildings were destroyed. Survivors moved to the streets, filling up makeshift IDP (internally-displaced persons) camps.

people in silhouette in haiti

Photo Above: Hands On volunteers with local children near the beach at Léogâne, Haiti. Below: Brian Johnson, in the white hard hat, works with a demolition crew to bring down an unstable building damaged by the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Photo by Jasmine Lataillade. Inset: Johnson sitting in a damaged school with a Haitian girl who befriended his assessment team (Photos courtesy of Brian Johnson ’81).

When the quake struck, Brian Johnson ’81 was at home, 3,400 miles away in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. A few months earlier he had gotten laid off from the firm where he worked as an architect—a profession that’s been particularly hard-hit by the economic downturn.

brian johnson in a white hardhat

Brian Johnson volunteering in Haiti.

“I’d been interested in getting involved in international relief work for awhile,” says Johnson. With so many Haitians in dire need of help and shelter and extra time on his hands, he says, “My interest had risen up.”

He contacted Hands On Disaster Response (HODR, which recently changed its name to All Hands Volunteers), a U.S.-based nonprofit that provides volunteer assistance to survivors of natural disasters around the world. His offer to volunteer was quickly accepted, and he scrambled to get ready to travel to Léogâne, where HODR has focused its rebuilding efforts in Haiti.

While trying to obtain cell-phone service during his time in the country, Johnson managed to secure a donation of free service for all the HODR Léogâne volunteers—from a Bellevue-based company that is a major telecommunications supplier in Haiti. He credits this to the “power of a good idea,” he says. “If you have a good idea, it’s not all that hard to get people on board.”

He started a blog to document his two-month commitment. His entry about seeing the country for the first time, from the sky, says, “You begin to see tents and squatter camps everywhere, thousands of them, far from Port-au-Prince. People have traveled over the broken landscape for miles to find someplace to squat, someplace to live. There are splashes of blue and tan and purple tarps dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see. The plane descended over miles of destruction. I said ‘Holy shit’ under my breath as I looked out the window. The news can’t prepare you for the scale. I think the human mind has trouble getting around something like this. There was an older meaning of the word ‘sublime’: something so big you can’t encompass it in your mind, like, say, gazing out over the Grand Canyon. You see it. You can try to describe it. But it’s impossible to fully grasp the extent and scale. That’s how I felt flying in to Port-au-Prince. You have to see it to believe it, and even then you don’t believe it.”

His intention to keep up the blog got superseded by the daily demands of helping—helping clear tons of rubble, helping demolish unstable buildings, and with a team of architects and engineers, helping assess the damage and safety of hundreds of buildings left standing in the area.

Brian Johnson and Haitian school girl

Brian Johnson with a Haitian school girl.

One of these engineers, a Haitian-American, was instrumental in helping Johnson find employment after his return. In August, he began working for the Bothell office of SNC-Lavalin, a leading multinational engineering and construction firm. As the company’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design)-accredited architect, he is now participating in a working group to bring in more professionals with expertise in green building and the LEED rating system and process.

Johnson, who earned his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Washington, says his experience in Haiti “was really good medicine for me. I'm younger. I’m happier. I made a lot of new friends and I helped some people. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”