Destination: Haiti

It took chartered planes, buses, commercial flights, SUVs, motorbikes, helicopters, and some incredible luck to get in and out of Haiti—twice

It was sweltering when the Blackhawk landed on the narrow airstrip of the USS Carl Vinson, a United States air carrier floating thirty miles from the shores of Port-au-Prince. It was Friday, January 15, three days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake had rocked the Haitian capital, and I was among a small coterie of foreign journalists who secured a spot on a Navy helicopter. Three days earlier, I had been eating sushi in Mexico City, where I live and work as a freelance journalist, when I first read about the quake. Though I had never reported from Haiti, my first job out of college at The Miami Herald had piqued my interest in the country, and my instinct told me I should go.

In the naïve early hours after the disaster, I had booked a direct flight on Air France from Miami into Port-au-Prince. But by the next day, all commercial flights into Haiti were canceled. It was my first introduction into the logistical challenges of reporting from the site of a disaster—challenges that take on a particular pitch when you’re going in without a satellite phone or a big wad of cash.

I made my way to Florida anyway, and finagled a ride on the Blackhawk, which U.S. Southern Command was sending from Homestead Air Base to the Carl Vinson, the first vessel to come to Haiti’s assistance after the quake. The air carrier was serving as a launching pad for military planes shuttling in supplies from air bases, including Guantanamo Bay, to sites around Haiti. In one fell swoop, I had secured transportation and free room and board.

On January 17, I finally made my first sojourn into Port-au-Prince, boarding a supply sortie that dropped me off at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, named for Haiti’s revolutionary leader. After being warned by the Navy pilots to return by dusk, I wandered down the long tarmac, past Geraldo Rivera and camps of other TV reporters and recently landed aid teams, then through a door marked “UN Headquarters” and into the dimly lit airport building. A man in glasses and light-blue hospital scrubs asked me for earplugs and water. I handed over an extra pair of plugs and he introduced himself as Dominique Louis of the Naples, Fla.-based Green Children’s House, which had brought doctors and supplies to Haiti. Louis was bringing the water to the devastated general hospital where they were working, he told me. Did I want to see it?

We navigated through the airport’s powerless hallways to the main entrance, where we were blinded by the white light pouring through the doors and overcome by the crush of people and cars just beyond the gate. I had heard that getting in and out of the airport was nearly impossible, but for an American it was surprisingly easy. I pulled out my video camera as Louis led me to a white jeep that he said belonged to his aunt’s husband. Turning onto Toussaint Louverture Boulevard, we passed mounds of concrete, trash and debris, dilapidated store fronts, crushed cars. Corpses were splayed everywhere. Signs balanced on piles announced bodies waiting to be recovered—“U.S. Welcome We Need Help Dead Bodies,” one read. “This is a Haitian holocaust,” Louis told me.

The gate at the entrance to the Hospital d’ Universitat d’Haiti had collapsed, bent into a claw-shaped barrier, so there was only one route in and out of a building where thousands were dying. Howls of pain escaped into the courtyard, where about 1,000 people waited under the burning sun for medical attention, swatting flies away from open wounds. Later that day, members of the Army’s 82nd Airborne arrived to direct traffic.

As the day went on, Louis and I were separated. As the sun began to fall and he had not returned, I put on the helmet and rubber face mask the Navy had assigned to me and snapped onto the back of a motorbike, whizzing back to the airport past the sunken Presidential Palace, the hollowed Notre Dame Cathedral, and narrow streets full of people. Soon I was back on the helicopter, shooting through the sunset-streaked clouds, over Haiti’s southern coast, its smashed buildings and hungry people, until the land gave way to the blue of the Caribbean.

I returned to Port-au-Prince the next day, again riding in on a supply sortie. This time I hired a driver, and, unwittingly, a translator, and retraced my steps from the day before, also going to the destroyed suburb of Carrefour. We stopped at the Hotel Olaffson, where journalists were writing from the wraparound porch and paying as much as $100 a night to camp within its iron gates. On the way to the U.S. Embassy and back to the airport, we stopped often to photograph the dead.

Ironically, the following day I had to leave to attend a funeral stateside. But I knew I wasn’t done with the story—and with the Port-au-Prince airport still closed, and hitchhiking on a military chopper no longer an option, I would have to make my way into Haiti on my own.

Ten days later I found myself in the Miami International Airport, waiting to board a commercial flight to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; from there, I rode on a packed bus to Port-au-Prince. For several hours people argued animatedly about the difference between God and the Spirit. A Haitian-American on his way to retrieve his younger brother snapped photos on his BlackBerry, sending me an e-mail as a “memento” of our trip. We crossed the border the as the sun went down. A short distance away, I began to notice the constant stream of people on the road, huddled around candlelight.

As the bus pulled into Petionville, on the hills north of Port-au-Prince, some Texas evangelists I had met on the ride invited me to stay with them at the home of a Haitian pastor. We piled into the pastor’s white Montero, driving carefully past people sleeping on the streets, too terrified of aftershocks to spend the night in their homes. That night Jose, a freelance photographer I had met on the bus, and I camped in the pastor’s large garden.

Getting more than one thing done a day in Haiti required an act of violence, the pastor’s wife said. Our drive the following day to retrieve food from Dominican mobile kitchens in an industrial park near the airport was complicated by military vehicles parked perpendicular in the street as soldiers distributed food; by markets that seemed to appear spontaneously; by potholes the size of swimming pools and by a general lack of traffic lights. At night, the city emptied out, the streets open and calm, but drivers were still reluctant to go far with electricity down, gasoline scarce, and a generalized fear of mayhem. With long lines of cars and pedestrians snaking into the streets, gas stations charged whatever they wanted. The pastor’s brother-in-law complained the $40 we had paid him to drive us barely purchased a quarter-tank of gas.

One night, after dinner at a colleague’s near Champs de Mars plaza, I decided I needed to hook up with the military again—this time, with the 82nd Airborne, which had units camped at the Universite Aristide in Tabarre neighborhood. The pastor’s brother-in-law refused to drive us, even for $100, but one of his neighbors, who was fluent in English and had been working as NBC’s chaffeur, graciously agreed to take us. Even with little traffic, the streets were made nearly impassable by neat rows of concrete rubble and the occasional rusted car chassis. As we turned onto Rue 15 February and into Tabarre, we passed a cemetery whose gate seemed to be aflame. Small fires leapt beyond the concrete wall. People were burning the dead, our driver told us.

The following morning, we accompanied the unit to a World Food Programme distribution site, where a thousand people, mostly women, gathered in an empty field to receive their rations of two weeks’ worth of rice. Watching the women drag the heavy sacks to the roadside, where motorbike taxis waited, I thought about the enormous challenge travel had presented for me an able-bodied American with some cash to spend. I thought, too, about the legions of new amputees I had seen at the hospital, and the loved ones who didn’t know how they would get them back to what was left of their homes, and about something Tyler Marshall, a communications director for International Medical Corps, had told me over a meal ready-to-eat at his makeshift office. “Mobility in a third world country is everything,” Marshall had said. “Without it, you’re screwed.”

Transportation into and around Port-au-Prince had become the central narrative of my two reporting trips to Haiti. Getting out proved far easier. I had learned from a colleague that the UN was running two flights a day from its peacekeeping compound in Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo. On Feb. 3, I miraculously secured the last seat on a morning flight. “You are lucky. The last is always lucky,” someone from the Korean armed forces said to me as I boarded. I spent a day in a Santo Domingo hotel, sleeping and watching American TV. The next day in Mexico City, as I rode from the airport in a taxi to my apartment on the north side of the city, the streets never seemed finer, the city never cleaner, normalcy and health and life prevailing.

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Emily Schmall is a freelance journalist living in Mexico City. Her reporting about the earthquake in Haiti can be found here.