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.
Inside Haiti’s “Hurricane Proof” Trailers.
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.
Any number of factors might be contributing to the headaches and eye irritation reported by INHAC staff and students. However, similar symptoms were experienced by those living in the FEMA trailers that were found by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have unsafe levels of formaldehyde. Lab tests conducted as part of our investigation in Haiti discovered levels of the carcinogen in the sixth-grade Clinton Foundation classroom in Léogâne at 250 parts per billion — two and a half times the level at which the CDC warned FEMA trailer residents that sensitive people, such as children, could face adverse health effects. Assay Technologies, the accredited lab that analyzed the air tests, identifies 100 parts per billion and more as the level at which “65–80 percent of the population will most likely exhibit some adverse health symptoms… when exposed continually over extended periods of time.”
Randy Maddalena, a scientist specializing in indoor pollutants at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, characterized the 250 parts per billion finding as “a very high level” of formaldehyde and warned that “it’s of concern,” particularly given the small sample size. An elevated level of formaldehyde in one of twelve trailers tested is comparable to the formaldehyde emissions problems detected in about 9 percent of similar Clayton mobile homes supplied by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. Maddalena explained that in “normal” buildings, you’ll see rates twelve to twenty-five times lower than 250 parts per billion, “and even that’s considered above regulatory thresholds.”
According to the CDC, formaldehyde exposure can exacerbate symptoms of asthma and has been linked to chronic lung disease. Studies have shown that children are particularly vulnerable to its respiratory effects. The chemical was recently added to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ “Report of Carcinogens,” based on studies linking exposure to formaldehyde with increased risk for rare types of cancer.
“You should get those kids outta there,” Maddalena said. The scientist emphasized that Haiti’s hot and humid climate could well be contributing to high emissions of the carcinogen in the classroom. Indeed, months before the launch of the Clinton trailer project, the nation’s climate was widely cited as a key problem with a trailer industry proposal to ship FEMA trailers to Haiti for shelter after the earthquake. The proposal was ultimately rejected by FEMA, following a critical letter from Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, who argued, “This country’s immediate response to help in this humanitarian crisis should not be blemished by later concerns over adverse health consequences precipitated by our efforts.”
Yet several months later, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Clayton Homes had been awarded a million-dollar contract to ship twenty trailers to Haiti, for use as classrooms for schoolchildren. The Clinton Foundation claims it went through a bidding process before awarding the contract to Clayton Homes, which was already embroiled in the FEMA trailer lawsuit. But despite repeated requests, the foundation has not provided The Nation with any documentation of this process.
There are hints that Clayton Homes aggressively pursued the contract. For example, a company press release dated August 6, 2010, notes, “When former President Bill Clinton was named to head the relief effort, Clayton’s Director of International Development, Paul Thomas, called the Clinton Foundation to see if there was a way to help.”
The chief of staff for the office of the UN Special Envoy, Garry Conille, emphasized that the foundation’s decision-making on the project took place in a context of great urgency, with the advent of the 2010 hurricane season, when 1.5 million people were living in tent camps. “Under the circumstances, with all these people exposed, with the first rains,” said Conille, “it would have been completely acceptable to go to a single source, but we didn’t.”
The Clinton Foundation’s chief operating officer, Laura Graham, said in a phone interview that the contract was awarded to Clayton on the basis of a “limited request for proposals” from nine companies. She added that the decision was informed by “recommendations from a panel including a lot of these experts that do this work for a living, and Clayton was recommended as the most cost-efficient, with the best product and with the strongest Haitian partner.” She clarified that she did not participate in the bidding process but said there were “representatives from the foundation as well as [the UN] Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA], the UN Special Envoy Office and the International Organization for Migration [IOM]… and there was a request for proposals run by them.”
According to Bradley Mellicker, IOM’s Port-au-Prince–based emergency preparedness and response officer, however, “the Clinton Foundation paid for the containers through a no-bid process.” Imogen Wall, former spokeswoman for OCHA in Haiti, responded by e-mail that OCHA never deals with procurement or project management.
The Nation made multiple attempts to reach Bill Clinton for comment. However, the former president, known for championing the role of nonprofits in global affairs (“Unlike the government, we don’t have to be quite as worried about a bad story in the newspapers,” he recently said in a speech), never responded. A Clayton Homes official referred all queries regarding the contract to the Clinton Foundation.
When he heard that the new classrooms in his community had been built by a FEMA formaldehyde litigation defendant, Santos Alexis, Léogâne’s stately mayor, said, “I hope these are not the same trailers that made people sick in the US. Otherwise I would be very critical; it would be chaos.” (They are indeed different trailers, according to an engineer at Clayton Homes, who said the new classrooms were constructed specifically for the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti project.)
“It would be humiliating to us, and we’ll take this as a black thing,” the mayor added, drawing a parallel between his community in Haiti, the world’s first black republic, and the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans affected by the US government’s mismanagement of the emergency response after Hurricane Katrina.
Demosthene Lubert’s disappointment is palpable as he sits in one of his new-smelling classrooms, perspiration dripping from his face. He had envisioned that the foundation of the former US president would rebuild INHAC, his school, as a modern institution with solar panel–powered lights and Wi-Fi. At a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in May, Dr. Paul Farmer, Clinton’s deputy UN special envoy, called for healthcare to be integrated into schools. At the very least, Lubert expected the Clinton Foundation, which is active in global health philanthropy and cholera prevention in Haiti, to help with school sanitation.
“I thought the grand foundation of Clinton was going to build us latrines and dig us wells for the children to wash their hands before meals and after using the toilet… especially as we’re at the mercy of cholera,” Lubert says with a sigh. Less than an hour north of Léogâne, in Carrefour, the number of cholera cases went from eighty-five per week at the end of April to 820 a week at the beginning of June, according to Sylvain Groulx, country director of Médecins Sans Frontières. The disease, which is preventable with proper sanitary conditions, has killed 5,500 people since the epidemic began last October.
The Clinton Foundation did not build so much as a latrine at the school, or at any of the three other schools where its trailers were installed. (INHAC and two of the other schools had a limited number of pre-existing outhouses, which the school directors saw as inadequate, while the fourth did not have a single outhouse, making it unusable, according to the school’s director.)
Conille, Clinton’s chief of staff at his UN office, acknowledged in a telephone interview that the trailer classrooms “would never meet the standards for school building” under Haitian or international regulations.
“Normally when you hear ‘Clin-ton,’ when people speak of ‘Clin-ton,’ the name ‘Clin-ton’ carries a lot of weight,” says Lubert. He trails off, looking suddenly uncertain. Clinton’s name echoes ambiguously through the swampy chemical air like a plea, a mantra or a brand.
June 1 marked the beginning of Haiti’s 2011 hurricane season, and meteorologists project that Haiti could face up to eighteen tropical storms with three to six of these developing to hurricane strength. Léogâne, where 95 percent of the downtown area was flooded by Hurricane Tomas last year, is relying on the Clinton Foundation’s trailers as Plan A in the municipality’s emergency response.
The foundation’s original proposal to the IHRC referred to the buildings it planned to construct in Léogâne as “hurricane-proof” shelters, and this past March, Clinton Foundation foreign policy director Ami Desai reiterated that claim in a phone interview. On the foundation website, the promotional write-up about the trailers is featured under the heading “Emergency Hurricane Shelter Project.”
Larry Tanner, a wind science specialist at Texas Tech University, was “suspicious” when he heard that trailers were to be used as hurricane shelters in Haiti. Tanner thought it unlikely that Clayton Homes had developed a mobile home that could safely be used as a hurricane shelter, saying in a telephone interview that he put the odds at “slim to none.” Mobile homes are considered by FEMA to be so unsafe in hurricanes that the agency unequivocally advises the public to evacuate them.
In an interview with The Nation, Clayton Homes engineer Mark Izzo said the Léogâne trailers could withstand winds of up to 140 miles per hour. The company arrived at this figure through calculations, he said, rather than testing.
But Tanner emphasizes that such structures must be rigorously tested for resistance to high winds and projectiles. Clayton Homes’s failure to test the trailers meant that they would not meet the international construction standard for hurricane shelter. “It certainly would not be accepted by FEMA either,” Tanner added. Moreover, the kind of anchoring systems used by the trailers in Léogâne — which rely on metal straps to attach the shelter to the ground — “fail routinely,” according to Tanner.
Two weeks into Haiti’s hurricane season, The Nation visited some of the Clinton shelters with Kit Miyamoto, a California-based structural engineer contracted by USAID and the Haitian government to assess the safety of buildings in Port-au-Prince. Standing in front of one of the trailers, Miyamoto looked doubtful when asked whether, in his professional view, these structures were, as the Clinton Foundation has repeatedly claimed, “hurricane-proof.” In the world of engineering, buildings are rarely considered to be truly hurricane-proof, explained Miyamoto, who said he had never heard of a wooden trailer being used as a hurricane shelter, let alone being referred to as a hurricane-proof building. “To be hurricane-proof you a need a heavier structure with concrete or blocks,” he explained.
Miyamoto emphasized that one of the most crucial elements for the public safety was how well the shelters’ limitations were explained to the community expected to use them. “Hopefully people do understand that these windows do need to be protected if a major hurricane is expected to be coming,” he said. Miyamoto said the likelihood is “really high” that the windows will break without storm shutters, and “once those window systems break,” he explained, making a toppling motion with his arms, “you cannot just be in there.” The roof will “pop off.”
When asked if the shelters had come with any storm shutters, Andre Hercule, director of Saint Thérèse de Darbonne elementary school, which has also received Clinton trailers, shook his head, then grabbed the nearest open trailer window and effortlessly slid it shut. Clicking it locked, he explained, “We’d close all the windows.” The school director remains confident after hearing Clinton speak at a news conference in August 2010 at his school that the trailers are hurricane-proof.
Léogâne’s Department of Civil Protection may also be operating on this assumption. At the Léogâne town hall, a derelict white paint-chipped building that looks stately in contrast to the seventeen-month-old tent camp nearby, DCP coordinator Philippe Joseph explained the municipality’s plans for community outreach in the event of a hurricane. “We’ll send scouts with megaphones and tell people to gather their papers and go to the Clinton Foundation shelters,” he said as he sketched a rough map, indicating the best routes to the dual-purpose school buildings from the geographic zones most vulnerable to storms.
Asked if he believed the trailers would offer adequate protection during a hurricane, Joseph seemed taken aback: Clinton had himself said that these were hurricane-proof shelters, he said.
In a jungly field on the outskirts of Léogâne, four of the twenty Clinton classrooms sit empty at another school, Coeur de Jesus. Because of the trailers’ leaky roofs, puddles form on the floor that need to be mopped up by the maintenance staff. As school director Antoine Beauvais explained, the new sixteen-by-forty-foot trailers were too bulky to fit in the cramped residential area where his school was previously located. But for lack of toilet facilities or running water provided by the foundation for the newly created remote campus, the school has been unable to use its new trailer classrooms.
When The Nation visited the site with Miyamoto, at least one strap on a trailer slated to be used as a hurricane shelter in the coming months was already loose. As Miyamoto moved the slack metal ribbon that is meant to ensure the trailer stays stable during a storm, the structural engineer remarked that these kinds of anchoring systems are liable to corrode. “You definitely want to look at it at least once a year,” he said grimly.
It’s unclear whether such maintenance will occur. Clayton Homes recently visited some of the schools after the International Organization for Migration, which works with the UN, raised concerns about the condition of the shelters. However, Conille said he did not know anything about plans the Clinton Foundation had made for the maintenance of the “hurricane shelters” in the longer term. The Haitian contractor who was initially hired to help install the shelters, Philippe Cinéas of AC Construction, said that neither he nor his staff were trained to service them. This raised concerns for Cinéas because, as he knew from experience, “in Haiti maintenance is always a problem.”
While Clinton Foundation COO Laura Graham claims that the foundation has always been “very accessible” to the school and municipal officials in Léogâne, neither the school directors nor the civil protection coordinator had any way of getting in touch with the foundation, they told The Nation, and had to resort to going through intermediaries.
Joseph, the DCP chief for Léogâne, faults the trailer project for being decided from afar and “from the top down,” like so much of Haiti relief. While the Clinton Foundation claims that it worked with local government to implement the shelter plan, Joseph disputes this. The foundation simply informed him that it was building four schools in his district, he says. “To me this is not a consultation,” the local official remarked. “To consult people you have to ask them what they need and how they think it could best be implemented.”
Joseph ascribes the new shelters’ “infernal” heat, humidity and other problems to this lack of on-the-ground consultation. He added, with regret, that people in desperate need of employment and shelters watched as “the Clinton Foundation came in with all its specialists and equipment, but they didn’t give any training.” He said that “if they use a local firm they will not only create jobs in a community that has been decapitalized by the quake but they will also take into account the environmental reality on the ground.”
In the proposal approved by the IHRC, the Clinton Foundation said that “up to 300 local workers would be employed to build the schools.” Cinéas said there were only five to eight people hired by his firm on a very temporary basis, and the foundation declined to comment on what additional jobs were created.
Farmer, the Clinton envoy, recently published a report on trends in Haiti’s dysfunctional aid system. He stressed the need for “accompaniment” to be the guiding principle of Haiti’s reconstruction, with Haitians “in the driver’s seat” and the international community listening to their priorities. Farmer also emphasized the importance of local procurement and job creation.
It is hard to imagine a better case study of the very opposite approach than the Clinton trailers. In response to questions about what due diligence the foundation did to ensure the safety of the trailers it purchased for use as hurricane shelters, the Clinton Foundation initially insisted that the most appropriate person to speak to was a Haitian employee of Clinton’s UN Office. When Graham, the foundation’s COO, finally agreed to talk about the project on the record, she denied that the foundation had been responsible for any due diligence regarding its own project, claiming that those responsible were a “panel of experts,” including one point person from the foundation, Greg Milne, and representatives of other organizations. (Milne referred all questions to the foundation’s press office.) The Clinton Foundation agreed to furnish documentation of who was on this panel but by press time had not done so.
Graham said that the staff of the Clinton Foundation — which has for more than a year publicized the “hurricane shelters” that “President Clinton” built in Léogâne — are “not experts” in hurricane shelter construction. She claimed the same “panel of experts” would have been responsible for due diligence to ensure air quality of the shelters whose secondary purpose was as classrooms.
Explaining Bill Clinton’s rationale for the trailers, which were installed at the tail end of the 2010 hurricane season, Conille said, “It was not meant to be sustainable. It was meant because we didn’t want to have dead people in September.” According to Conille, Clinton was deeply troubled by what would happen to the women and children in case of a serious storm — and as the former president felt that “no one” was doing anything about the issue, he took the lead himself. Moreover, Clinton didn’t want to have his new “hurricane shelters” sitting empty while schoolchildren had classes in tents, Conille added.
Yet according to Maddalena, given the high rate of formaldehyde found in one of the classrooms, and the children’s headaches, “they’d be better off studying outside under a tarp.”
Wall, the former OCHA spokeswoman, responded by e-mail, “We all knew that that project was misconceived from the start, a classic example of aid designed from a distance with no understanding of ground level realities or needs. It has had a predictably long and unhappy history from the start.”
Even Conille largely concurred, in a telephone interview, that there were many problems with the project, saying, “It made sense at that time, and I guess someone could argue it wasn’t the best idea in retrospect.”
For his part, Léogâne Mayor Santos Alexis says he is still waiting for Bill Clinton to follow through on his pledge to equip Léogâne with hurricane-proof school buildings. Asked about his view on the Clinton Foundation’s claims to having completed an “Emergency Hurricane Shelter Project” replete with new classrooms for his town, Alexis is defiant. “If those at the Clinton Foundation are sure it’s done then they should prove it, they should show it to us, because I know nothing about it,” he remarked coyly, gazing out from behind his shades. Seated at his desk in a crumbling municipal building, the mayor said he is still waiting for the real Clinton Foundation schools, “built with norms that protect people from hurricanes and flooding.”
Correction: This article originally quoted the IOM’s Bradley Mellicker stating, “That’s a lie,” in response to remarks from the Clinton Foundation’s COO Laura Graham describing the IOM’s role in the procurement process for the trailers. In fact, Mellicker’s statement was made in response to a claim by a different Clinton Foundation source that the IOM had led the procurement process. We regret the error.
While Mellicker failed to mention in his interview with The Nation that the IOM had played any role in the procurement, which he told The Nation had taken place “without any bids,” the IOM’s communications director Leonard Doyle, who declined to be interviewed for the article, has since clarified that the IOM assisted the Clinton Foundation in coming up with a list of potential contractors for the project. He explains, “While IOM was not involved in the development of the particular Leogane project, nor, in the identification of the contractor an IOM staff member seconded to the Office of the Special Envoy helped compile a list of potential contractors at one stage in the process.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations, with additional support from the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting.