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Haiti Shelter Building Boom

By Robyn Fieser

Surrounded by dozens of Haitian laborers in their faded shirts and straw hats, Herb Combs stands out. His pale-blue polo shirt matches his eyes. His beard is tidy. And his jeans and work boots look new. But the most eye-catching thing about him is his canvas backpack full of hammers.

Herb Combs

At the prefabrication yard he helped establish, Herb Combs points to $1.5 million worth of lumber, enough to build about 2,000 temporary shelters. Photo by Robyn Fieser/CRS

"For us in the United States, people look at this and say, 'Oh great, a new hammer,' " he says. "But for people here, this is a huge deal."

As Combs pulls a hammer from his bag, he scans the construction yard: His all-Haitian team of laborers and carpenters, 35 men and women, work among 15-foot-tall stacks of lumber, $1.5 million worth.

This is the nerve center for Catholic Relief Services' transition shelter program. Using construction stations, the team will turn all that lumber into the frames that will ultimately become temporary homes for as many as 8,000 families displaced by the January earthquake.

For Combs, a career carpenter who oversaw housing developments for one of the largest home builders in the United States, the Haiti project is one of the smallest he's worked on in recent years. It's also one of the most rewarding, and the most challenging.

"Most of my workers live in tents or under tarps. This work is not abstract, but it is for real flesh-and-blood people living in the camps and neighborhoods. It is very gratifying when we get the chance to put a roof over someone's head," says Combs.

From Bust to Boom

The scene is a drastic change for Combs from just 6 months ago. He had never been to Haiti. He rarely left the United States. And before he began to work for CRS, he didn't know that NGO stood for nongovernmental organization.

"It was pretty funny. At the beginning I just couldn't keep up with all the acronyms," says Combs. "One night I went home and looked up this one I kept hearing: NGO."

Combs, 53, spent much of his professional life managing multimillion-dollar housing projects in the United States. Then the economy hit the skids. The company went out of business. And Combs was wondering what to do next.

Then the earthquake struck and he got a call. CRS was looking for someone who could get things done.

The only time Combs remembers having heard much about Haiti was when there was political turmoil. During the weeks after the earthquake, though, he watched along with the rest of the world as the horror of the earthquake unfolded.

"The idea of going to Haiti intrigued me immediately," says Combs. "I thought I could come down and help build things. I figured it would be interesting and meaningful."

Herb Combs gives a worker a hammer

Herb Combs gives Haitian workers the hammers he helped collect from friends and family back home in Denver. Photo by Robyn Fieser/CRS

Combs, who arrived in March, helped find the space for the construction yard—a 120,000-square-foot empty lot close to the port and just down the street from CRS' wood supplier. He built a concrete wall to secure the place. Over the course of several weeks he found a supplier for the first batch of lumber (enough for 2,000 shelters) and had it shipped in from the United States.

From what was left on the shelves of local hardware stores, he scrounged together hand tools to get the teams started. Some workers brought their own—an old hammer here, a rusty screwdriver there. Power tools, which are rare in Haiti, have to be shipped in.

He hired about 35 people: a mix of carpenters and other tradesmen, and crews of cash-for-work laborers—many of them women—from a nearby camp for the displaced. They work in teams to carry and stack lumber, cut the boards, lay the frames for the shelters, and nail together the completed frames.

Although his team doesn't speak English and Combs has only picked up a little Creole, they share a common language.

A Universal Language

"The language of the trade is universal," he says. "I put a piece of wood on the table and show them how to cut it and they get it. A light goes on in their head and they understand."

While the team builds the housing frames, its members are also receiving instruction from a seasoned professional who earned a graduate degree in construction management after raising 3 children and working for more than 20 years as a carpenter.

"Herb is the master carpenter," says Christopher Frey, CRS engineering and construction manager in Haiti. "In the long run, the skills Herb is teaching them will stay with them and make them better at their work. If you want to talk about sustainable development, that's it, right there."

Combs is also giving his crews the tools, literally, to build their future. With the help of his wife, Kris, a nurse back home in Denver, Combs collects tools from friends and neighbors to give to his workers in Haiti. They call it "Hammers for Haiti."

He distributes the hammers, one backpack at a time, with obvious excitement because he knows they cost more money than most workers earn in a week.

"In the end, we share similar values," he says of his team. "They're here at 8:00 a.m., they work hard, they clean off at the end of the day. I try to treat people with respect."

Robyn Fieser is CRS' regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. She is based in the Dominican Republic.

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