Reprinted from The Nation. This article was reported in
partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute,
with additional support from the Canadian Centre for
Investigative Reporting .
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
The project was announced by Clinton as
his foundation's first contribution to the Interim Haiti
Recovery Commission (IHRC), 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 Cinéas, 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% of the
population will most likely exhibit some adverse health
symptoms... when exposed continually over extended periods of
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% of similar Clayton mobile homes supplied by FEMA after
Hurricane Katrina. Maddalena explained that in "normal"
buildings, you'll see rates 12 to 25 times lower than 250 parts
per billion, "and even that's considered above regulatory
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 20 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
There are hints that Clayton Homes
aggressively pursued the contract. For example, a company press
release dated Aug. 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."
When asked to comment on that claim,
Bradley Mellicker, IOM's Port-au-Prince–based emergency
preparedness and response officer, said, "That's a lie. 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
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 east of Léogâne, in
Carrefour, the number of cholera cases went from 85 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.
Jun. 1 marked the beginning of Haiti's 2011
hurricane season, and meteorologists project that Haiti could
face up to 18 tropical storms with three to six of these
developing to hurricane strength. Léogâne, where 95% 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
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, André 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
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 17-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 20 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 16-by-40-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 IOM, 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
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
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."