Despite such loss and human tragedy, he quickly adds, spirits remain high.
Would you prefer to live in a tent while retaining your job and savings, or in a temporary housing structure with nothing? Luckily, that's a question most of us don't have to answer.
But for Haitian UW-Madison student Gergens Polynice, who saw these high-quality tents firsthand on a recent trip, the answer is obvious -- contrary to what staff at most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) think, temporary housing is not the solution.
"The big thing for me is that everybody is in the mindset of restoring Haiti to what it was, and I think that is the biggest mistake," he says. "They are spending millions of dollars for temporary housing, but Haiti needs a long-term sustainable approach."
Polynice, a graduate student in Latin America, Caribbean and Iberian Studies, will pursue a Ph.D. in Developmental Studies at UW-Madison next fall. He has a lot of ideas about "transforming vs. restoring." Since 90% of schools in Haiti are private, he suggests using funds to provide free education for five years so people can have a job later. As for infrastructure, he says companies could invest in alternative energy like wind turbines and solar power. He also thinks Haiti could save money and create jobs by producing its own cement for new buildings rather than importing it.
These are just some of Polynice's ideas. His main proposal could create about 1,000 jobs, clean up the environment and decrease imports to Haiti. Plastic materials imported into Haiti end up in landfills with no proper way of recycling them or transforming them into raw materials. Once collected, this plastic could be cleaned and sent back to the beginning of the production process as raw materials.
"I would buy a couple of these machines and give people a uniform so they are looking nice," Polynice says. "This is just one example that doesn't require a lot of money to do."
Polynice has offered to donate five acres of his own land in Haiti, worth about $30,000, to a project to create jobs, such as a UW clinic. Shortly after, a Harvard doctor asked if he would consider using the land for temporary housing.
"At first I was going to say heck no, but I proposed that they can have part of the land for temporary housing if they make a commitment to creating some jobs with the other part," he says. "Moving people doesn't do anything if they don't have a job, education and everything else."
The doctor, who is still negotiating with Polynice, has connections to the United Nations, which, along with the International Monetary Fund, is the group Polynice would ultimately like to work with.
Polynice hopes to influence a small square mile. On behalf of UW pediatrician Ann Behrmann, who worked in Haiti, Polynice brought two suitcases of supplies to doctors, such as calculators, pen lights and hand sanitizer.
"I was so surprised that with the millions of dollars sent over there, these doctors were missing these things," he says. "Even by affecting two or three people, we can make a difference in their lives."
Polynice continues to give. He donated $500, as part of a 4-1 commitment with UW business school students, for micro-loans. He gave money to Haitians to replace lost things as long as they intend to give the money back. Polynice will return to Haiti this month to continue the finance project with the student fund, which now has over $2,000.
"It's just a drop in the bucket," he says. "But by not just giving it away, it makes the person more accountable."
Polynice talks about it matter-of-factly, but he knows the situation was anything but matter-of-fact. "The most surprising thing to see was how multi-story buildings had just pancaked on top of themselves," he recalls.
But despite such loss and human tragedy, he quickly adds, spirits remain high. "Everybody is going about their business," Polynice says. "It's like 'Hey, we have to go on.'"