Ray Suarez: Returning to the Scene of the Quake in Haiti

BY Kurtis Lee  July 7, 2010 at 11:45 AM EDT


Haitian washes clothes in tent camp. Photo by Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images

When I left Haiti in February, just three weeks after the earthquake that took 250,000 lives, I knew I would have to come back.

The destruction had been so complete, the suffering so great, the dislocation so extensive, that I knew we were looking at the very beginning of Haiti’s story.

I also saw very little at the time that I would count as encouraging when trying to figure out how the ravaged capital, Port-au-Prince, would fare over the coming months. I knew the people, most of them, most of the time, would figure something out … how to get over for another day, how to find something to sell, for money or goods that could be used to buy something else that was needed, or sellable.

Patrick Delatour, the minister of tourism who quickly became the minister in charge of reconstruction, told me that resilience was born from being let down by government again and again. The people, Delatour said, had long since learned to depend on themselves and to avoid waiting for the government.

I saw that tough, adaptable nature on the streets, in hospitals, in public parks. I saw it everywhere I looked.

But courageous and resourceful people without leaders and a plan, without capital and materials, cannot rebuild a capital city of 3 million people. Day to day survival is one thing … a dozen government ministries in ruins, shattered electric, water and sewage, and solid waste sanitation services were all another.

Will there still be trash fires in the streets?

Will the powerful stench of improvised latrines for thousands of homeless people still sit like a blanket over the tent settlements, or declare its presence even blocks away when the wind changes?

Will the thousands of amputees have been fitted for prostheses, and be getting the therapy they need to get on with productive lives?

Will the tens of thousands of children out of school in a chronically undereducated country be learning their sums and their grammar?

From the reporting that’s been coming up from Haiti in the past several weeks, the answer seems to be a depressing one. In the face of almost incalculable need, not enough is getting done.

I’m sitting on an airplane over the Caribbean assuming the glum assessments are essentially correct, and that there’s more to the story than that.

Our NewsHour team will be visiting the places we told you about in the weeks after the quake. At the six-month mark, we thought it would be important to show you what’s working, and what’s not, and give you a glimpse into the lives of people who are working to put together what was already a deeply dysfunctional country, and make it even better than before the earth began to shake.

Whenever I am on a plane trip heading into a place of widespread suffering, I have to think hard about why I’m going and what I intend to accomplish, even more than 30 years into a life as a reporter. Not in the sense of the literal assignment … I mean, we planned on dates, I know which nights I’m going to be on the air and roughly what I’m trying to cover.

I mean, in a deeper sense: When you insinuate yourself into someone’s life with a notepad, a microphone, and a camera, you ought to be thinking hard about the what and the why.

Who are these people to me? Are they merely material, handy characters to help me tell my story? Why is it important that someone in Green Bay, Wis., or Aransas, Texas, know what an unemployed young man, or a little girl missing a foot in the ruined streets of Port-au-Prince is up against?

I think it’s pretty important that we keep that clear as we do our work … that a mother in a tent city in a public park in Haiti has to be treated with the same care and consideration as a U.S. senator or influential executive.

Otherwise, it becomes very easy to cross the line into exploitation.

I am hoping to find widespread evidence of the continuing interest of the international community in not simply leaving Haiti to its fate. Back in January, a worldwide donors’ convention pledged billions for Haiti, and promised to complete a daunting task: representatives of donor nations pledged to take guidance from Haitian leaders in coordinating relief spending, prevent corruption, and in the words of Bill Clinton, “Build back better.”

Lots of money has flowed south, along with thousands of pairs of compassionate and willing hands. Given the level of need I am hoping for the best, and given the long track record of the world and Haiti, I am working hard not to expect the worst.

It took a long time to shake what I had seen in Port-au-Prince and the border regions of the Dominican Republic. It would be a great experience to watch as the patience and suffering of the Haitian people was rewarded with help that was timely, necessary, efficient, decent, and compassionately delivered. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Haiti.