Posted March 31st 2010 at 9:01 am by
in CoLab Philosophy, Haiti

Post-Disaster Planning

Reflecting on New Orleans / Engaging in Haiti.

At the end of February, I provided back-up support on two post-disaster projects.  In the evenings, I met with masters students who were putting together a three-part retrospective panel discussion on New Orleans – five years after Katrina.  In the afternoons, I helped my coworker Martha Bonilla prepare a small team of students and faculty for a trip to Haiti.

Soon after the earthquake, Paul Altidor (an MIT alum, consultant to the World Bank, and adviser the Haitian government) contacted Professor Phil Thompson and asked him to assist with a preliminary housing strategy for the Haitian Minister of Reconstruction.  Within a few weeks time, Professor Thompson assembled a team and secured funds for a field visit.

Sadly, I ended up missing parts one and two of the New Orleans retrospective.

When Martha Bonilla couldn’t get a visa in time for the trip, I was suddenly propelled into the arena of rapid response planning.

By the first week in March, I was in Port Au Prince.  By the second week in March, our team had submitted a twenty-page framework for housing reconstruction to Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.  Last week, we learned that President René Préval was incorporating our housing framework into his national strategy for reconstruction.  Today, the President will lay out this strategy before the international donors community at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Feeling the weight of the work.

I was a last minute addition to the Haiti team.  The night before I flew out, the normal emotions of anxiety and fear kept me awake into the night.  I was struggling with an old question:

“Am I really qualified to do this work?”

When I returned from Haiti, sleep-deprived and emotionally drained, I found myself asking another question:

“How can I possibly give any useful planning advice in this situation?”

I come at planning from a space of humility.  My transition from ‘low-ranking architect’ to ‘senior project manager’ to ‘program director’ to ‘consultant’ has been fraught with unease.  In situations where I’ve been asked to ‘advise’ or ‘recommend’, I’ve always felt a tension between wanting to be useful and feeling useless.  And at the end of every project, I find myself holding my breath, wondering how the scale will tip when the client reads the report.

Working in spaces of systemic failure.

There are the days when I crave right angles, dimensions, standardization, rationality, specialization, and specification – elements of my past life as an architect.  Yet I know, we know, that these tools are insufficient to address the world’s most complex problems.

While levees have fallen and buildings have collapsed, we know that the issues of reconstruction are not purely technical.  Infrastructure failure is a product of institutional failure.

One of our most important tasks at CoLab is to prepare students to be able to work effectively and yet humbly in places where concrete collapses, markets freeze, and governments are weak.

My favorite educational model: Learning by Doing.

There are some things you cannot teach in a classroom.  At CoLab, we put students on a plane, throw them into the fire, and guide them through the process of learning how to listen, see, analyze, advise, and act.  This is our value add.

Amy Stitely is the U.S. Green Hub Program Director at CoLab.   Amy was part of the March 2010 Haiti Housing Team with Paul Altidor, Becky Buell, Martha Bonilla, Aseem Inam, David Quinn, Kristal Peters, and Phil Thompson.  Our team was supported by Anya Brickman Raredon, Elijah Hutchinson, Chris Jones, Lily Song, and Oxfam International.

11 responses to “Post-Disaster Planning”

  1. Amy–

    Thanks for your thoughts and for a window into your recent meanderings. While I don’t have experience in disaster relief, I do know well the complexities of deep endemic challenges in the context of weak economic and political infrastructure– vast, mind-numbing and seemingly insurmountable in the big scale, heart breaking on a personal scale, though sometimes inspiring at that level too. As you know, I’ve turned mostly inwards this last decade, though as I make my way back into the “world” (this time, via the department of corrections), I’m faced with some old familiar feelings. Will forward your note to some knowledgeable friends. I for one take solace (and have great faith) when you are part of the “plan”…

    With love and admiration,


  2. Lots of people at MIT throw students “into the fire”, make the learning about the students and not the community fire they’re working in for a short time. Don’t you think you’re a perfect example of how efforts like MIT@Lawrence and CoLab encourage sustained engagement beyond a student’s semester experience? That you were able to draw upon a body of knowledge and experience from New Orleans even though you might not have participated in those projects directly?

    As a professional, I feel your pain on many levels. I get how hard it is to explain what we do, because we don’t fit into the mold of architect or engineer or doctor. But I think you’re too hard on yourself. I think this ambiguity leaves you room to be more flexible, more responsive, and more collaborative in your approaches to empowering change. You have become an amazing observer and listener because you have to, to be able to apply the most appropriate personal experience and skills to a problem. Your reports are probably more about Haiti and less about your architecture skills. Keep wanting to be useful, because I think it fuels you to listen in order to be reflective and critical in ways that benefit both your own growth AND the communities you serve.

  3. PS I heart the videos! 😉

  4. Martha says:


    I love your post. I think you thoughts are essential feelings of any responsible urban planner. We are normally taking care of problems and huge ones. These problems affect not only space and buildings, and also the evolving relation between space, people and their future. I also think we work with different communities and different actors with particular interest. So, there is no blacks and whites, there are just cases, experiences and good intensions.



  5. Christina says:

    Amy, I love your post. Walking behind you in that video, is a strange experience. Thank you for always stepping up to the challenges that you are constantly presented with–the world needs you and more people like you!

  6. Elaine Gast says:

    Really interesting post, Amy. The videos really give us a view into your experience there. It’s amazing that within a short turnaround, your team was able to produce something that is being used as part of the plan for reconstruction. Learning by Doing seems to be working.

    We all have those feelings of “Am I really qualified for this work?” Whether it’s running an organization, raising a child, reconstructing a collapsed culture, or sitting by the bedside of someone who is dying. All we can do is show up, with heart, and listen. I think the listening, first, is where true leadership comes in.

    I love that you are able to show your humility and, at times, your vulnerability with grace.

    And for what it’s worth, I’d take planning advice from you any day.


  7. Amy Stitely says:

    Danielle, this is the first engagement in Haiti. We are still trying to feel out what the work will look like over the long-term. We developed the housing framework in a sprint that felt a lot like one-off consulting, which is not our normal modus operandi. Moving forward, I think we will try to develop deeper relationships with partners on the ground, but it’s hard to say at this moment. There is so much activity happening at so many different levels in the country, and the context is still new to us.

    As an org, CoLab has learned a lot from the work in Lawrence and in New Orleans. It takes real administrative and management commitment to maintain our relationships with partners as the doors continue to revolve year after year. Programs like NOLA fellows, MIT@Lawrence, Cartegena Practicum, and Mel King Fellows have given structure to our work and helped us hone our methods for student engagement.

    Personally, I found that my own student experience in New Orleans was helpful in prepping me to do the work in Haiti. However, I don’t want to oversimplify the matter by drawing too many parallels between the two places.

    Thank you friends for your supportive and encouraging comments. And thank you, Danielle, for teaching me how to make an iMovie.

  8. Dear Amy,

    First let me say that I am privileged to work with you at CoLab. Your reflection shows that you have a social conscious that guides your work and reflects your honesty and integrity as a professional.

    Regarding planning for sound decision-making at the higher level. There are many things that are out of the control of the professional (in this case the consultant). Things that inevitable must emerge from the interaction between people and plans.

    Finally, I believe your post has a common ground with Uyen’s post. Both of you are somehow dealing with the challenge of how to best inform decision-making at the higher level.


  9. Amy Stitely says:

    Rebecca, Your comments are so deeply thoughtful. I wanted to thank you for reminding me that yes! inspiration also rises from the context of weak economic and political infrastructure. In Haiti I was inspired by the spirit of entrepreneurship and self-determination that thrives in the capital city. There are so many independent vendors in the streets and in the camps, doing their best to “make a way when there is no way” (in the words of Beloved Community Center’s Joyce Johnson).

    In my mind, these Haitian vendors are closely related to the ones in Bazurto. They also share common characteristics with the small business owners on Broad Street and in Camden – two other places where people have generated their own means among their own local networks.

    One of CoLab’s guiding principles is called “shared wealth generation.” Nine months ago, I was having a really hard time grasping the concept. I’m starting to get it now, thanks to colab radio contributers who are lifting up tangible stories and real examples.

  10. Brian Rosa says:

    Hey Amy- reading this made me think about my work in recovery planning in New Orleans a few years ago, and the photo/oral history project I did there afterward . I had written down some notes when I returned to Cornell, and I figured this might be a good place to share. Thanks for this, I think you bring up a lot of good questions about planning education and responses to disaster.


    Was I a Disaster Tourist?

    One afternoon this March, I was driving around the Lower 9th Ward with my research partner Ben, trying to find some good photos to take. One of my assignments was to take some pictures of people, be it residents or volunteers, working on their homes. As I drove by a local church, I saw a large group of young black men and women sitting in front of a group of gutted houses. We, two young white men, pulled over our rented Dodge Kalibur and approached the group, I with my camera in hand.

    “No pictures!,” one of the men yelled, almost in a state of panic. I approached one of workers, a young man with dreadlocks.

    “So where are you guys from,” he asked?

    “Please leave us alone,” another said.

    I was confused by their hostility, and Ben and I shared a concerned glance. It didn’t seem as if we were wanted there, and I considered heading back to the car. I sensed that something about me made them nervous, and the feeling was reciprocated. I tried to start a dialogue with the smaller group.

    “We’re students from Cornell, and we’re working on a project to document the rebuilding of the 9th Ward,” I explained. “ I just wanted to see if you guys would mind if I took a photo of your group, since you are working in these houses.”

    One of the men explained that they had finished for the day, so it didn’t make sense to take a photo of them working. They were from Howard University, part of a group of five hundred students who were volunteering with Common Ground over spring break.

    I told them that it was fine if they didn’t want their picture taken, but I would like to show them the project that we were working on. I walked back to the car, left my camera, and returned with some photocopies of “The Peoples’ Plan,” which was a result of our research in the October of 2006.

    Once I brought back the plan, some of the students flipped through and were visibly relieved. One of them, a graduate student, explained that people had been driving by all day, on tour buses and in cars, taking pictures of their group from within the vehicles.

    “It made us feel like we were animals in cages,” another remarked.

    There are a number of tour companies who offer post-Katrina tours of New Orleans; tourists pay up to $40 to drive around the city in an air-conditioned coach, with a “real New Orleanean” describing the destruction that was wrought by the hurricane. Other people would drive through on a self-guided tour, perhaps as a break from their Bourbon Street revelry.

    We discussed the implications of this type of tourism, and some of them remarked how it made them feel as young African Americans. They felt that the overwhelmingly black residents were being exploited, as were they. They came down to do meaningful work, and were left as the participants in a spectacle that they had not anticipated. No tourists had stepped out of their cars, and some speculated that no one saw them as a group of students. They were just black people working on their houses.

    At this point a Hummer rolled up, and out stepped two men. One man stepped out and asked the Howard students who we were. He introduced himself as Memo, and asked if we would like a picture of him at his house. This made me nervous, since I had made it a point to return my camera to the car and engage with the students. Since he offered, though, I went back and retrieved the camera. He posed standing on a pile of garbage in front of his house, which had just been gutted. He commented on the emotional pain he experienced seeing strangers removing his destroyed personal belongings from his home. After a short while, Ben and I said our goodbyes and drove away.

    We discussed our decision to stay and engage with the people who were so outwardly hostile towards us. We could not have blamed ourselves if we decided to leave, we agreed. However, it was a relief to understand why they found us threatening, and had we left we would have felt hurt and confused.

    Later that night, I reflected on the day’s events. Was I a disaster tourist as well? Were Ben and I different from the frat boys on spring break or the married couple from Middle America, ogling as they slowly cruised by the site of such immense tragedy? We had, in fact, spent most of our week on foot, and we had been interviewing residents about the rebuilding process. Still, I felt guilt about conducting a class project based on others’ hardships; I would get credit for this and move on to Real Estate Law or Land Use Planning.

    In the resident interviews that followed, Ben and I asked people of the Lower 9th Ward what they thought about “disaster tourism.” This was driven by our uneasiness with our positions as well as a feeling that there was something deeply unjust about this practice. Residents responded with a great deal of ambivalence. Some felt like unwilling participants in a reality TV show, others wondered if any of the profits of these tours would go towards the rebuilding process. Yet, many expressed reluctant support of such tourism: the city was still far from recovery, and the rest of the world needs to know about it. I had to reconsider, but not disavow, my visceral response of indignation.

    I hope my work does not appear voyeuristic, that it does not objectify a group of people that I greatly admire. My hope is that I have created an intimate and honest portrait of a small group of people who exemplify the greatest degree of care, resilience, and stalwart belief that their community will return to its former greatness. Some day, I hope the disaster tourists, like the FEMA trailers, will disappear from the landscape of New Orleans.

  11. Amy Stitely says:

    Brian, thanks for sharing your work and for commenting. You’ll remember that I discovered the field of “planning” at Provflux 2005 where I first met you. Really great to hear from you.

    If you look at the videos in this post you will notice that all the footage was recorded by my colleague Kristal Peters. I brought a camera to Haiti, but I was totally embarrassed and insecure about pulling it out – afraid of crossing the line into “disaster tourism.”

    But now that I am home, I am so thankful that Kristal documented the trip and let me post clips on colabradio. There are so many things in life that we cannot communicate in words.