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.