In the Field in Haiti

Publicist's Note: Kirk Wolfinger is a producer working with NOVA on a new documentary on the science behind predicting earthquakes.

Filming in Haiti was a chaotic success. This disaster is the entry point for a much bigger story that we hope to tell: can we ever predict an earthquake? The work of the researchers that we interviewed down there is just a start--scientists believe this is possible, but we aren't there yet.

 As soon as we hit the ground in Haiti, all that we planned in advance for this shoot flew out the window. We did everything on the run and made decisions as we went. It is a war zone limited--thank God--to only a few weapons. Right now, there are no rules in Haiti. Money and the black-market rule. At the airport, stacks upon stacks of food, water, tents, and other aide sit on the tarmac while people line the street with sacks three blocks away, merely hoping for some rice.


On the first day, I did a preliminary interview with earthquake scientists Paul Mann and Richard Koehler in the hub of the airport. For now, these men are scientists on the run. So we ran with them, to capture their work. We crammed six people into a five-passenger helicopter, much to the chagrin of the pilot, and flew over the Haitian countryside, searching the surface of the land for evidence of earthquake fault lines.

The second the helicopter skids hit the ground, with the blades still turning, what seemed like an uninhabited stretch of country sprung to life. We were surrounded by anywhere from 50 to 150 friendly, but hungry, people.

We followed Paul and Richard and their new Haitian entourage as they scoured the landscape for signs of eruptions in the earth.

The next day Eric Calais, a geophysicist at Purdue University who has conducted research in the area for years, took his team on a search, measuring benchmark locations with GPS systems, calculating stress changes and trying to explain their findings.

Eric took us through the belly of the beast, Port-au-Prince.


Eric is a real hero. He loves his Haitian counterparts and makes sure they get credit for their work. Right now they're working out of the Bureau of Mines, since the Ministry of Geology was flattened in the quake.

The bureau took in about 100 people after they lost their homes and we captured that on film.

I was able to ride with Eric and we did a running interview. Eric is very knowledgeable, and he also cares about people, not just his experiment. When we researched his first benchmark, on top of a police station, there were 2,000 people surrounding the place, waiting for food. I got out of the car to take a few shots and was nearly relieved of my camera, but was able to hold onto it.

Eric decided we better move onto his next station--another police station located a half hour away. The next station was crowded but accessible. Eric took his reading, which indicated the whole area had shifted. He set up his GPS and computer and will return in a couple of weeks to get more accurate data and to see if the shift is continuing. We could only see the beginning of Eric's process, but his first reading showed a significant movement.

Richard and Paul left Haiti.   Eric will continue doing his work for another couple weeks.

After our interviews, I paid our driver to take us into the heart of Port-au-Prince to get some images of the devastation. We had about an hour of daylight before curfew and we made the most of it. We were able to finally get out of a moving vehicle and get some solid, calm images of the destruction. I won't even try to describe it. It makes every problem I've ever had evaporate into silliness.


Unless I was hallucinating (and there were times that was likely), the footage will portray nonstop action and drama. Everything in Haiti is upside down. Our only refuge was the airport, but even there we weren't able to rest for long. We got kicked out twice, first by the Canadian army then by the U.S. army.

Where is all the charity money? I tried to interview a refugee at the bureau of mines and nearly got mobbed by several men who, while they appreciated that they had a place to sleep, couldn't understand why they couldn't get any food. I emptied all our PowerBars and trail mix, but I wasn't making any friends. This country will need decades to recover and I give it a 50-50 shot at best.

Now think about the fact that Istanbul, Turkey is one tremor away from a similar fate.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Kirk Wolfinger

NOVApbs Twitter Feed

    Other posts by this Contributor