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UPDATE In response to the original article that appeared on thenation.com and CCIR Investigates, a Clinton Foundation representative in a July 12th AP article agreed to look into and fix any “structural deficiencies” with their trailers in Haiti. For more on this read Isabel Macdonald’s updated blog on the Investigative Fund site.
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with additional support from the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting. A version of this story first appeared on thenation.com.
by Isabel Macdonald and Isabeau Doucet
July 11, 2011
When Demosthene Lubert heard that Bill Clinton’s foundation was going to rebuild his collapsed school at the epicenter of Haiti’s January 12, 2010, earthquake, in the coastal city of Léogâne, the academic director thought he was “in paradise.”
The project was announced by Clinton as his foundation’s first contribution to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which the former president co-chairs. The foundation described the project as “hurricane-proof…emergency shelters that can also serve as schools…to ensure the safety of vulnerable populations in high risk areas during the hurricane season,” while also providing Haitian schoolchildren “a decent place to learn” and creating local jobs. The facilities, according to the foundation, would be equipped with power generators, restrooms, water and sanitary storage. They became one of the IHRC’s first projects.
However, when Nation reporters visited the “hurricane-proof” shelters in June, six to eight months after they’d been installed, we found them to consist of twenty imported prefab trailers beset by a host of problems, from mold to sweltering heat to shoddy construction. Most disturbing, they were manufactured by the same company, Clayton Homes, that is being sued in the United States for providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with formaldehyde-laced trailers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Air samples collected from twelve Haiti trailers detected worrying levels of this carcinogen in one, according to laboratory results obtained as part of a joint investigation by The Nation and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.
Clayton Homes is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company run by Warren Buffett, one of the “notable” private–sector members of the Clinton Global Initiative, according to the initiative’s website. (“Members” are typically required to pay $20,000 a year to the charity, but foundation officials would not disclose whether Buffett had made such a donation.) Buffett was also a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter during the 2008 presidential race, and he co-hosted a fundraiser that brought in at least $1 million for her campaign.
By mid-June, two of the four schools where the Clinton Foundation classrooms were installed had prematurely ended classes for the summer because the temperature in the trailers frequently exceeded 100 degrees, and one had yet to open for lack of water and sanitation facilities.
As Judith Seide, a student in Lubert’s sixth-grade class, explained to The Nation, she and her classmates regularly suffer from painful headaches in their new Clinton Foundation classroom. Every day, she said, her “head hurts and I feel it spinning and have to stop moving, otherwise I’d fall.” Her vision goes dark, as is the case with her classmate Judel, who sometimes can’t open his eyes because, said Seide, “he’s allergic to the heat.” Their teacher regularly relocates the class outside into the shade of the trailer because the swelter inside is insufferable.
Sitting in the sixth-grade classroom, student Mondialie Cineas, who dreams of becoming a nurse, said that three times a week the teacher gives her and her classmates painkillers so that they can make it through the school day. “At noon, the class gets so hot, kids get headaches,” the 12-year-old said, wiping beads of sweat from her brow. She is worried because “the kids feel sick, can’t work, can’t advance to succeed.”
Word about the students’ headaches has made it all the way to the Léogâne mayor’s office, but like the students, their teachers and parents, Mayor Santos Alexis chalked it up to the intense heat inside the trailers.
But headaches were not the only health problems students, staff and parents at the Institut Haitiano-Caribbean (INHAC) told us they’ve suffered from since the inauguration of the classrooms. Innocent Sylvain, a shy janitor who looks much older than his 41 years, spends more time than anyone in the new trailer classrooms, with the inglorious task of mopping up the water that leaks through the doors and windows each time it rains. He has felt a burning sensation in his eyes ever since he began working long hours in the trailers. One of his eyes is completely bloodshot, and he said, “They itch and burn.” He’d previously been sensitive to eye irritation, but he says he’s had worse “problems since the month of January”—when the schoolrooms opened their doors.