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MU professor returns from Haiti

Sunday, January 17, 2010 | 7:17 p.m. CST; updated 11:18 a.m. CST, Monday, January 25, 2010
Valerie Kaussen, center, poses in a photo taken in 2008 with members of the Solino Neighborhood Association, a group that provided training for teachers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Kaussen, a French professor at MU, was in Haiti when the Jan. 12 earthquake struck.

*ADDITION: Valerie Kaussen camped out with Neite Decimus near the presidential palace in the Champ de Mars. An earlier version of this article did not include this information.

** CORRECTION: Kaussen was in Haiti working with AVS, the Solino Neighborhood Association, and AVJ, the Jake Neighborhood Association. An earlier version of this article misstated the organizations with whom she was working.

COLUMBIA – At dawn Wednesday, less than 12 hours after an earthquake collapsed much of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, Valerie Kaussen set out for home north of the city.

The roads were blocked, so she joined an off-duty police officer for the 3-mile walk back.

Donating to Haiti

Valerie Kaussen recommends strongly the following three organizations, which have strong grassroots operations in Haiti and can effectively distribute aid directly to those most affected by the earthquake.

Partners in Health – Paul Farmer's health organization, which has established numerous clinics in Haiti.

 

Fonkoze - A micro lending organization in Haiti.

The Lambi Fund of Haiti - A micro lending organization in Haiti that focuses on medicine.

For more information on AVS and AVJ and to donate:

Honor and Respect Foundation

While it is too early to join in rebuilding efforts now, Kaussen recommends that people interested in joining future rebuilding efforts contact the Hands on Disaster Response, which has led previous efforts in Haiti.

Haiti is particularly in need of large tents and solar panels and lamps. If you are interested in donating any of these, contact Kaussen directly at kaussenv@missouri.edu.



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She passed numerous dead bodies along the way and found very few of the buildings still standing. 

Though she knew the route fairly well, she got lost several times on the way and had to ask for directions.

"I couldn't find any of my landmarks," said Kaussen, a French professor at MU who spent four days in the capital before returning to Columbia Saturday.

The night of the earthquake, she'd camped out with thousands of other people near the presidential palace in the Champ de Mars, such as the Haitian-American anthropologist Neite Decimus*, a public plaza in downtown Port-au-Prince.

When the earthquake struck at about 5 p.m. Tuesday, she was downtown on a tap-tap, one of the converted trucks that serve as shared taxis in Port-au-Prince.

"You don't feel an earthquake when you're driving," said Kaussen, a native Californian with previous earthquake experience.

She heard loud noises and saw people falling in the street, so she and the other passengers first thought it was a shootout.

Kaussen ran into a stranger's house to hide, but when she came out and saw buildings in rubble, she realized what had happened.

She tried to get home, but the streets were blocked, so her instincts and prior experience guided her to seek an open space at the Champ de Mars.

The cell phone tower for one of the two providers in Haiti had collapsed, but there was limited service immediately after the earthquake, and Kaussen spoke with her mother briefly to tell her she was safe. Within a few hours, cell phone contact was nearly impossible.

Police officers were in the street, directing people away from buildings. The minister of information and coordination conveyed the same message on the local radio, but no one at the Champ de Mars really knew what was happening.

There were aftershocks throughout the first night and into the next day, but the atmosphere was calm on the plaza, with prayers and singing, except when rumors of a tsunami caused a near stampede.

When she climbed through the rubble to get back to her house the next morning, Kaussen found it standing but unsafe for habitation. The majority of her neighbors' homes had collapsed, and she spent most of the day helping them as they removed relatives — barely living or dead — from the rubble.

The second day was when she started crying.

Kaussen, who specializes in Haitian literature and culture, was in the country working with AVS, the Solino Neighborhood Association, and AVJ, the Jake Neighborhood Association, linked community groups that provide free schools and work to meet other community needs. Honor and Respect Foundation, based in the US, has partnerships with both groups.**

She had been working with the program for two years. On this trip, she was helping to establish a library in a neighborhood called Solino, which she thinks was destroyed by the earthquake, and cyber cafes, to provide income and computer resources for community schools. Previously, she taught seminars and helped train teachers.

In the days immediately following the earthquake, Kaussen subsisted on Clif Bars and shared meals of rice and pasta with neighbors and friends. Her house had canned food, bags of rice and bottled water, which she contributed to her neighbors' collective store of food. But she was so traumatized, she had to force herself to eat.

There was no centralized communication from the government, but people in Port-au-Prince organized themselves, rationing food, water and other necessary supplies.

"They know what to do in a disaster like that," Kaussen said.

As has been widely documented, relief efforts have been slow to reach the population in Port-au-Prince.

Kaussen was particularly disappointed that the United Nations didn't do more to help. "In three days, I think I saw three U.N. trucks," she said.

She was stopped in the streets by Haitians who recognized her as a foreigner and appealed to her to share their needs with aid organizations.

Other cities that have been hit hard also are not receiving enough attention, she said, particularly Jacmel, Léogâne and Les Cayes.

Though Kaussen saw little violence in the days after the earthquake, she is worried that continued delays in aid could make the situation desperate.

"It's so important that the aid get there and that the American and international presence be visible, so they just have the hope and the knowledge that they're not forgotten," she said.

The sense of solidarity in the aftermath of the earthquake made it hard for Kaussen to leave, though she was anxious to be reunited with her husband, MU professor Carsten Strathausen, and their daughter in Columbia.

Commercial flights were canceled, but Kaussen was able to get on a plane chartered by the U.S. State Department and arrived in Miami Friday night and then Columbia Saturday night.

Kaussen already has plans to return in March to help with SODA's rebuilding efforts.

Her academic research focuses on recent literature and film, a recent project looked at representation of disaster.

The earthquake will have a major impact on her work.

"Everything has to be future oriented now," she said. "It's a clean slate."


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