Western Montana timber may help rebuild quake-shattered Haiti

Posted: March 21, 2012

Source: Missoulian

“When there’s a crisis,” retired University of Montana choral professor Gary Funk observed, “sometimes the universe conspires to bring good ideasout.”

That’s how the aftershocks of the 2010 Haiti earthquake may ripple across time and space to shake up western Montana’s timber industry. After two years of work, Funk and a group of Missoula friends have nearly hatched a plan to shelter thousands of homeless Haitians with Big Sky Country lumber.


The earthquake hit Jan. 10, 2010. Funk was in the Minneapolis airport when he saw the first images on TV. Aid poured in, but no one seemed to have a coherent idea how to spend it. Many charity efforts already appeared to be sinking into a black hole of incompetence or corruption.

Then he heard an NPR radio story about a Haitian surgeon whose clinic was wrecked in the quake. The concrete building still stood, but it was so unstable he was doing medical care on the sidewalk because no one would risk going inside.

The surgeon’s name was Patrick Jeudy. Funk got in touch with Opal Golden, who’d been supplying Jeudy with medical supplies from New York before the earthquake and had video footage of his clinic. She agreed to shoot more images of the aftermath on her next trip.

That spring, the UM Music Department switched its spring concert from a Mozart program to a “Requiem for Haiti.”

“We started the concert with his video,” Funk said. “And then we did a free-will offering at the back of the room and raised $1,400. That stirred more interest in what we could do.”

Another private fundraiser hosted by Van and Jean Wolverton of Alberton raised the total to $10,000. Jeudy was able to attend. The Missoulians put together a team of architects, engineers and builders who redesigned Jeudy’s clinic as an earthquake-proof wooden structure. Then Jeudy made a pivotal observation.

“I remember Patrick looking out the window (during his Montana visit) and saying, ‘If I only had 40 trees, I could build my hospital,’ ” Funk recalled. “We were driving through the Helena National Forest, and I was looking at all the beetle-kill and thinking, we’ve got enough dead standing trees to rebuild the whole country.”


Haiti governs about a third of the island of Hispaniola, sharing it with the Dominican Republic. Seen from space, the border is obvious. Hardly a tree stands on Haiti’s western portion of the island, while tropical foliage covers its neighbor.

French colonists in the 17th century turned the island into one of the Caribbean’s richest sugar and coffee producers, mainly based on slave labor. Slave revolts successfully kicked out the European overlords, but the country never developed a stable government or economy.

As the population grew from 3 million in 1940 to 9 million in 2000, subsistence farmers slashed acres of forest for crops. Most of the rest went to charcoal and firewood for cooking and heating. Today, just 2 percent of the country’s forest cover remains.

Hurricanes deliver Haiti’s biggest natural threat, followed by the floods and mudslides that race across the denuded soil after a hurricane hits. In the absence of wood, concrete became a favored building material.

And that left the country vulnerable to a magnitude-7 earthquake whose epicenter was just 10 miles away from the 3 million residents around the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Cinder-block buildings pancaked their occupants. The Haitian government officially puts the death toll at 316,000, although other surveys estimate a more reliable figure is between 46,000 and 158,000 people.

By comparison, a magnitude-7 earthquake in New Zealand that same year killed no one.

The crucial difference? The quality of the housing.


Gary Funk admits he knows sawdust about forestry. But as the saying goes, it’s amazing what you can do when you don’t know what you can’t do.

He started with a simple math problem. The earthquake put 1.2 million people into tent cities. The average Haitian family has seven people. That pencils down to a need for 180,000 new homes that won’t blow away in a hurricane or collapse in an earthquake.

In the fall of 2010, Funk attended one of Sen. Max Baucus’ economic development summits in Butte. Much of the conversation revolved around the struggling timber industry. During a break, he pitched his Wood for Haiti idea to Baucus staffer Chelsea Thomas. She asked for more details, so he wrote a nine-page letter outlining his plan.

“A month later, she called back and said, ‘Our Haiti group in the Baucus office loves your idea,’ ” Funk said. But there were lots of questions. Was the beetle-killed wood still usable? Would we risk transferring the beetles to Haiti? How much wood would be needed?

So Funk started looking for anwers, and help.

His first Google search for a timber expert turned up the name of Todd Morgan. Misreading the listing, Funk assumed Morgan was in New Jersey. So it was a pleasant surprise when Morgan asked him to walk across the street from the UM Music Department to his office in UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research in the Gallagher Building.

Morgan explained Montana has roughly 5 million acres of beetle-killed timber. With the state’s wood industry working about 30 percent under capacity, there was room to carve out lumber for Haitian homes. He also confirmed there was no risk of transferring the beetles to Haitian forests.

On a flight back from Massachusetts, Funk found himself sitting next to Colleen Mooney, who had founded a micro-credit bank for Haitian women entrepreneurs. She gave him the names and contacts he needed to start conversations in Haiti.

And then Google popped up the name Larry Anderson.

Anderson was a state aide for Rep. Denny Rehberg, attending a quarterly Forest Service meeting on timber production in Helena when he got a phone call. He’d just been telling the assembled foresters how Montana ought to look to the U.S. Southeast, where hurricanes and tornadoes had wrecked thousands of homes.

“I was saying that’s where the market will come for wood, but it didn’t go anywhere,” Anderson said. “Then Gary called.”

Anderson had served as a Missoula City Council member and on the Missoula County Commission before joining Rehberg’s staff. In addition to a strong understanding of the state’s timber industry, he was familiar with the bureaucratic frustrations of public projects.

The Forest Service wasn’t well-positioned to deliver the amount of wood Funk needed. But Anderson knew people in the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, like State Forester Bob Harrington. And Harrington was just launching a “Jump-Start” program to speed up the harvest of beetle-killed trees on state lands.

Anderson had another insight. In Wood for Haiti, the emphasis needed to be on people, not lumber. He framed a three-pronged pitch: There are 1.2 million Haitians living in tents. Montana has a depressed timber industry. And its forests are ravaged by pine-bark beetles.

“This project affects all of those at the same time,” Anderson said. “The idea was we’d send the wood and small construction teams to Haiti. There’s a need for 180,000 homes. This project could create 40,000 jobs there. But we realized every part of the project has to involve Haiti in every step of the planning and design.”


Two Christmases ago, Funk was winding up a gift exchange when he got to talking with neighbor Jules Radcliff. The Californian-turned-Montanan had a lot of connections in Los Angeles, including the phone number of a vice president of Disney Corp. who moonlighted with the United Nations peacekeeping program.

That call connected Funk to David Harland, who’s in charge of peacekeeping for the United Nations. Harland passed the Wood for Haiti idea on to Garry Conille, the prime minister of Haiti.

Now Funk was getting calls from people like Ricardo Sanchez, former president Bill Clinton’s senior adviser to the United Nations. Clinton and former president George Bush were co-chairing the international relief fund for Haiti. They all wanted to know more about Wood for Haiti.

That relief fund has about $9.9 billion donated for Haitian reconstruction, including $1.15 billion from the United States. It was managed by an international commission, but that commission’s charter expired in September. So now the money was in the hands of the Haitian government.

By this point, Wood for Haiti had a nine-member board representing nearly a million Haitians. Funk said the local buy-in was essential.

“We’ve built considerable political traction,” Funk said. The Haitian secretary of labor arranged a land donation to build a center for homeless children. The heads of the national police force and national bank are on board.

Ironically, all that traction had a downside: mission creep. A 600-child orphanage was a little beyond the scope of Wood for Haiti. So was the request to design an electrical grid and plumbing infrastructure for the houses and a seedling nursery to launch a reforestation program.

“When you have nothing, you ask for everything,” Anderson said. “They were talking about putting up 25,000 homes on 2,500 acres. We figured we could build 30 houses and a community center. Anything more would go beyond our ability to handle. But we figured if we can get that first one done, we’ll have a model we can replicate.”

And the big goal remains out there: 180,000 Haitian homes, 850 million board feet of Montana lumber, a budget of $1.5 billion. By comparison, Forest Service Region 1, which includes all of Montana and Idaho, cuts about 250 million board feet a year. And the entire United States built 540,000 homes in 2010.


Along with mission creep, the Wood for Haiti project faced another challenge. As Funk put it, too many projects were doing things “to” Haitians or “for” Haitians. This effort had to be “with” Haitians.

The problem stemmed from the fact that nearly 10,000 non-governmental organizations have set up shop in Haiti. Maybe half of them actually have sanction from the Haitian government. They’ve littered the landscape with projects that got started without local support, or built on land without title, or otherwise wound up as expensive failures.

“We heard one story about a group that built a whole community in the middle of nowhere,” Anderson said. “But there were no jobs involved, so nobody wanted to go there. The whole thing was abandoned.”

Working with Missoula architect Dennis Lippert, engineers Tom Beaudette and Mark Blotkamp, and contractor Michael Greathouse, the Wood for Haiti crew produced some model designs. The simplest was a 400-square-foot wood frame house with an outdoor kitchen. Next was a 576-square-foot house, and the third was an 800-square-foot building for extended families. They also drafted a community center building that could be used as a school, church or other group function.

All these were run past Jeudy’s architects in Haiti to ensure the style and features met Haitian needs. They were also adapted so a team of five Montana craftsmen could work with a Haitian building crew, teaching them the necessary carpentry and construction skills so each crew member could then teach others.


Now, after two years, Wood for Haiti can almost hammer the first nail into the first stud.

The process goes like this: Montanans must raise about $300,000 to buy enough lumber, finishings and plane tickets to build a prototype house and community center. Many of the studs, windows, brackets, blueprints and other materials are already in hand.

“We have to establish our credibility – prove we can do it,” Funk said. “We’re starting a grassroots movement in Montana. This initial part has to be self-funded.”

A website, www.woodforhaiti.org, is set up to accept donations. Group members are also talking with school districts about placing donation boxes. UM management professor Carol Bruneau’s marketing class volunteered to take on Wood for Haiti’s outreach needs.

Next would come the 30 homes plus a community center. This would cost about $3 million. This money would come from one of several Haitian reconstruction funds. A coalition of Haitian organizations has already earmarked property for the project.

Assuming that works, Wood for Haiti moves to the big time. The Haitian groups have picked out a 2,500-acre site where 25,000 homes could be built. This is where the project becomes a multi-year, billion-dollar, economy-driving force of nature.

Lots of things could change in the process. Anderson said it may not be economical to ship wood directly from Montana to Haiti. A better way might be to buy lumber on the Gulf Coast, ship that to the island and backfill the domestic inventory with Montana trees.

North American wood might not withstand the bugs, humidity and temperatures of the Caribbean. That could necessitate treating the lumber in Haiti, which Anderson saw as another economic development opportunity.

“There’s potential for all kinds of trade,” Anderson said. “It’s a way to rebuild the economy, and start building a community of craftsmen. But at the ground level, we’re just a couple of hairy-legged country kids from Montana with an idea.”