Haiti: One reporter’s journey

Staff writer Péralte C. Paul, who just returned from a five-day assignment covering the Haitian earthquake, had more than one mission as he reported from the disaster. The other was to attempt to track down relatives who lived on the island when the quake struck.

-- -- --

The van drove us into Port-au-Prince. What had been television images less than 48 hours earlier now became flesh and blood: the sights, sounds and smells of misery and suffering.

As I took it all in, I could only think I’m glad both my parents are dead so they don’t have to witness what’s happening to their country. This would’ve killed them.


It is the big story of the moment.

But, honestly, when editors at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked whether I’d be willing to go to Haiti to file stories after the earthquake, my first inclination was to say “no.” Looking at the television images of the devastation, I knew I didn’t want to see that up close. I didn’t want to smell it.

Not again.

I’d been to Haiti before, the last time in 1998 with my father to visit relatives.

I never forgot what I saw then in the capital city of more than 3 million people. To me, the never-ending traffic jams and honking car horns seemed normal for a metropolis. After all, I was born in New York City. But I never forgot the unpaved streets, crowing roosters, braying goats and pigs and the outhouses.

It was the first and only country I’d ever visited where I had to register with the American Embassy. “Just in case there’s a coup. They need to know where you are,” my father said in a matter-of-fact tone.

As we drove in Thursday, I wondered how much had changed in 12 years. I also thought about how much both my parents and relatives of their generation talked about how much they loved this land and its people, despite all the issues it faced. They never gave up on it.

If the destruction I saw was any indication of what was sure to be an ungodly death toll, I knew this wouldn’t just be the big story of the moment for me. This was going to hit me personally like no other in nearly 16 years as a reporter.

I’d reported some stories related to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast. Over the course of my career, I’d seen some horrible scenes, chronicled some grisly murders and the like.

Despite my empathy for the victims in those cases, I could always compartmentalize those events. Those realities never affected me personally.

But here were the tent cities. Doctors saying they’d have to perform amputations without anesthesia because they’d run out. The man I saw die on the street just as he was being carried by friends to a hospital in Port-au-Prince’s Delmas neighborhood.

Perhaps as many as 200,000 dead.

All major government buildings collapsed. I wondered where the government was. Where was President René Préval?

Though most of my relatives on both sides of my family left Haiti long ago for new lives in Canada, France, Spain and the United States — my parents emigrated in the early 1960s — I still have a smattering of uncles and aunts and distant cousins who stayed. I had called relatives in Florida, New York and New Jersey to let them know I was going and collected all the family phone numbers, addresses or e-mails I could.

But finding them — or not — would parallel the challenges that I had in reporting. E-mail worked sometimes as did text messages. In the past, some of my cousins would e-mail me from their schools or cyber cafés, but there was no way of knowing now whether they had access to those places. And the likelihood of that possibility lessened in my mind with each pancaked building I saw.

Phone service was another nightmare. So was getting from one place to another.

We couldn’t land in Port-au-Prince. We flew into the Dominican Republic and drove over. In the Dominican, I could call and sometimes text. In Haiti, I could barely get any calls out, but I could send text messages more often than not.

I dialed one number after another when I could get reception. Each time: a busy signal or a recording saying all circuits were busy and try again later.

Days later, I’d learn some cousins were fine. Their house — which is where I stayed the last time I was in Port-au-Prince — was destroyed.

Another cousin in Jacmel remains missing, but her two kids are confirmed dead.

Still another cousin and her husband, who’d come to Haiti the week before for a six-month stay, are unaccounted for. And there’s still no word about my remaining maternal uncle and his family or where they are.

I can only hope that they lived, and if they didn’t, that they didn’t suffer.

As I walked around the streets and talked with people, I kept asking whether they believed there would come a day when, if Haiti made international news, it wouldn’t be for a government coup or natural disaster or for the distinction of being the poorest country in the Americas.

I asked if they thought progress could ever be made.

Some, like Stanley Duval, who drove us around Port-au-Prince and neighboring Pétion-Ville, felt that things wouldn’t change. He spoke with resignation, saying Haitians would do what they could but there would always be an anticipation of the next setback, man-made or otherwise.

And though a magnitude-7.0 earthquake is enough to devastate any place, many more saw it as an opportunity.

René Coty, an operation manager with CARE Haiti, said the country had been through many things and has always managed to survive.

He suggested the tragedy just might be the catalyst for Haitians to get together and rebuild, figuratively and spiritually. He said this was an opportunity for those of us of Haitian descent but born elsewhere to bring our resources and talents, too.

With the world’s attention and so much global aid coming in, this was an opportunity for everyone to contribute of themselves.

I’m not a doctor, I told him, or a nurse. I don’t manage group homes for people in need like my sisters. I’m just a reporter.

“You can show our reporters how you investigate, how you keep governments in check and watch where the money goes,” Coty said. “Everyone has something they can give of themselves.”

I think so, too. I promised him that I wouldn’t let another 12 years go by.


Haitian quake reverberates in Atlanta

Hard to give away food

‘Not sure that the country [Haiti] can overcome this’