Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

At a Haitian Factory, Working Through the Grief

For once, business as usual is a good thing in Haiti. Following the earthquake, almost all shops and businesses remained closed in the nation's capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. But, just outside the capital, in Mariani, which was part of the quake's epicenter, Hawtan Leathers never stopped operations, says owner Daniel A. Gallagher Jr.

"Even the next day after the earthquake you had 10 people here to make sure our product was secure," says Gallagher, who looks like the actor Denis Leary. "It was at a critical stage," he says, explaining that the company would have lost $250,000 worth of goat and sheep skins if the curing process had been interrupted. But perhaps the biggest losers would have been the 100 employees at the tannery, as well as countless other individuals throughout Haiti who sustain themselves by supplying goatskins to Gallagher.

"This tannery is important to a lot of people in Haiti," Gallagher says, "Not just the ones who work here. It supports a lot of families." As of Thursday, people were continuing to supply the company with skins, he says. "I was told yesterday they were killing the animals," Gallagher says. "They need the food." And Gallagher needs the skins. The factory is a thriving business in Haiti, with annual revenues of more than $3.5 million. It supplied much of the leather for the work gloves used in the cleanup after Katrina.

Keeping such operations up and running is critical to the country's economy and its overall well-being. Just as those who work with orphans stress that the best thing for the children is to get them back to school and a regular routine, adults would benefit by returning to work. Not only would work give them a sense of purpose and control over one thing in their chaotic lives right now, but it would also enable them to feed their families. By Monday, nearly a week after the quake, some markets had opened and some stores and banks, as well as gasoline stations, were open and running, though on a much reduced scale.

At the Hawtan tannery, a small but dedicated skeleton crew kept the plant operating without skipping a beat. "This [earthquake] happened on Tuesday; I came here at 6 a.m. on Wednesday," says Frederic Dormevil, a leather technician and an all-around go-to guy at the factory. Dormevil arrived for his regular 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, despite tremendous turmoil in his immediate family. "My brother's foot is broken," he says. "My brother's house is completely broken and his son died."

Other workers, like Sylvio Previlon, a plant foreman, took minimal time off to mourn their dead and find places to live. "My house fell down completely," Previlon says of his single-story home in the Carrefour district adjacent to Port-au-Prince proper. He is all right, but homeless. His 25-year-old daughter, Sherline Previlon, was not so lucky. She was attending the local university in Port-au-Prince and has yet to be found. Previlon believes her body is somewhere amid the leveled university building. Despite his grief, Previlon arrived back at work on the first Monday after the quake. "When I'm here I feel better," Previlon says. "When I'm at home I face more problems. I can't stop thinking of my daughter."

The factory serves as a safe haven for the workers, who also eat there en masse at the free lunch Gallagher provides to his 100 employees every day. There's a new cook, so everybody is happy. Wednesday's menu included chicken, rice and green beans with a Haitian spice. Gallagher says he fired the old cook because after the quake she returned to work only to pillage the kitchen. Gallagher asked her to give back a bag of rice she had taken so he could feed the workers but she refused. "It's all right if you steal, but only take a little," Gallagher says philosophically.

Aside from looking after his workers and their needs, Gallagher also extended an invitation to the U.S. military to use a vacant five-acre field near his factory as a landing area for medical evacuations or food and water distribution. He has yet to hear back from anyone. But given that the earthquake epicenter was in the Carrefour-Mariani area, Gallagher maintains there are a lot of people who would benefit by having help made available to them directly where they live and not in the center of Port-au-Prince.

Read more in the new book TIME Earthquake Haiti: Tragedy and Hope and support TIME Haitian relief efforts