Soledad O'Brien's Report From Haiti

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Haiti needs is to not be continually screwed by the forces around it, whether that be American forces, meaning political, not military forces, or French forces. The history of Haiti, as I’m sure you’re well aware, has been one of never giving Haiti a chance.

[Eye Witness To Tragedy]

In the wake of the Haitian earthquake, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien rushed to the region to deliver the same sort of high-quality, eyewitness coverage that she has dependably broadcast from various locations, including disaster zones such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

Because of her seemingly effortless style and her People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People List looks, what tends to get lost about this intrepid, Emmy-winning reporter is that she’s also a Harvard graduate with a keen intellect, a razor sharp wit, a great sense of humor and an ever-inquiring mind.

I’ve interviewed a bunch of bright people in my day and, trust me, Soledad might very well be the brightest. You’ll instantly see what I mean, if you ever have the pleasure of engaging her in conversation one-on-one. Until then, I hope that this revealing tete-a-tete about the Haiti relief effort effectively conveys the essence of her brilliant mind
and very likable spirit.

Soledad is never one to shy away from a difficult or probing question, but is rather refreshingly frank and forthcoming in addressing in considerable depth whatever issue she’s asked to address. That’s the reason I sought her out in the first place to get the scoop on what’s really happening in Haiti.

This interview was conducted soon after her return to the States, while she was cooking for and frequently distracted by a house full of rambunctious kids, and she even paused briefly from our conversation to pull one of her 5 year-old twin’s baby teeth, all without ever missing a beat.

BSN: How’s Haiti?
SO: Haiti’s a mess for a host of reasons: because it’s historically never been given a chance, because it currently has no real infrastructure, and because, of course, in the wake of the earthquake those factors combine to make for a country that’s going to have a very slow recovery. These conditions don’t exist in a vacuum but are
correlated to how fast Haiti is going to be able to recover. There’s a reason why people aren’t getting food and other resources quickly, even when supplies have arrived to hand out, namely, that it’s really hard to get to folks in the absence of an infrastructure.

BSN: I told my readers I’d be speaking with you, and they sent in a lot of questions. Larry Greenberg asks, do you think we should be having a dialog about making Haiti the 51st state or a commonwealth of the United States?
SO: No, I think what Haiti needs is to not be continually screwed by the forces around it, whether that be American forces, meaning political, not military forces, or French forces. The history of Haiti, as I’m sure you’re well aware, has been one of never giving Haiti a chance. What it really needs is an opportunity. I’m not sure
that there would be an upside to the country becoming a state. Nor do I think America needs for Haiti to become a state. Haiti has a president and leadership elected by the people. It just needs some real infrastructure.

BSN: You also covered the tsunami and Katrina. How do these disasters compare to each other?
SO: To me, the scope of Katrina was so much bigger than where I was in Thailand. In Thailand, after a couple of days everyone could kind of get their act together, except for in the affected area which they needed to continue working on rebuilding. By comparison, Katrina was just giant, space-wise. As for Haiti, the damage caused by the earthquake is even more widespread than Katrina, and they have much less infrastructure. I found the same sort of devastation I saw in Port-au-Prince, when we drove to Jacmel and beyond. Plus, the population density in is so much greater in Haiti where they build homes right on top of each other into these hills.
So, there was a domino effect when they collapsed, especially because of
the substandard construction work.

BSN: To what extent this is an international relief effort?
Are there other countries contributing that might not be mentioned by the American mainstream press?
SO: Oh, yeah. Absolutely! What I found interesting from the get-go, when we went to the hospital in Jacmel, was that the first people I encountered
were Cuban doctors. They already had a longstanding, joint project with Haiti, so they were the ones who immediately set up the outdoor, triage hospital. Those were
Haitian and Cuban doctors. And at that hospital there were also medical teams from Costa Rica, Canada, Sri Lanka and the United States. It was truly an
international response. No question. It was strange to be yelled at in so many different languages.

BSN: After both 9/11 and Katrina, the Red Cross solicited donations but later admitted that it only distributed a small fraction of the funds raised during those ad campaigns. You were down there in Haiti. What’s the  most effective way people can help?
SO: From my perspective, I would wait now. They have a lot of immediate money in. And people have started bringing in supplies. The initial first phase of the crisis is over. The rebuilding effort is going to take so much time that whether I wanted to send $1,000, or $5,000 or even $50,000, I’d hold on and wait to see what’s coming down the line, because that money is really going to be needed later. You might, for instance, be able to help rebuild a school, or some other project that nobody’s
thinking about right now. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to help? But still, if you’re not going to send any money when the hoopla dies down, then send it now.
Otherwise, wait to see what projects emerge, because the initial response has been tremendous, financially.

BSN: Any truth to the rumor that they’re taking Haitians survivors to Guantanamo Bay?
SO: No, I never heard that.

BSN: How did it feel to be in the midst of the continuing crisis?
SO: It’s sort of the same feeling you get at any of these disasters. You don’t have a 500 pound bag of rice to feed people who are really hungry, or a dump truck to remove cement from a spot where someone might be trapped. It’s frustrating, but I think I’ve sort of reconciled in my own head that my job is to bring notice to the world of these people’s plight. And if I try to get involved in rescuing, too, I’ll end up not doing either job very well. Although at one point, I helped out at an orphanage when an overwhelmed doctor pointed out a dehydrated baby that basically had about a couple of hours to live unless she got an IV. At that point, I was wishing that Dr. Sanjay Gupta was with me or somebody who could do it well, because I didn’t know how to put an IV in.

And I knew that two doors over, there were another half-dozen kids in the same situation. She was so dehydrated, it was obvious that she wasn’t going to make it. And she hadn’t even been injured in the quake. She was just dehydrated. Babies who don’t have water will die. Dehydration kills them. After I got the IV in, I had never been so relieved in my life, because the risk had been so high. I kept thinking, “God, if this needle doesn’t get in, that’s it.” Fortunately, once we did get the IV running in her, she was fine. A lot of these infants would be just fine, if we could only get a bottle of formula to them.

BSN: I remember seeing a spokesperson for Doctor without Borders complaining on TV about how most of their planes were not being allowed to land. And that the U.S.
military was in control of the airport and was focused more on bringing in 13,000 soldiers than on the medical supplies that were so urgently needed.
SO: I understand, but, they needed so many things, honestly: medical supplies, food, water, excavation machines, doctors, nurses, rescue
personnel, engineers, etcetera. Part of the reason they couldn’t land all their planes is that there was simply no space to land. The planes were all stacked up. That’s why we went to choppers. Getting in and out by helicopters was just so much easier. So, Doctors without Borders complaint was right that they definitely need more medical professionals, but if you’re going to try to distribute, you also need infrastructure. Haiti’s just a very messed up place right now.

BSN: Mirah Riben, author of a couple books on adoption asks, what you think of the people rushing to adopt Haitian babies?
SO: I think anybody who is willing to adopt a child in any situation is amazing. That’s really a very selfless thing to do. However, I agree with those who say that
adoption should not be rushed. The adoption process in Haiti normally takes several years, and it should. It would be terrible to risk an adoption by someone who should
not be adopting a child. Still, what I find frustrating is that so many people see it as an either or situation. You can do an airlift for kids who are dying, feed them, and return them without adopting them out. It doesn’t have to be either snatching babies out of their parents’ arms or leaving them there to die. There’s a middle ground in there, and what’s made me really angry is how the question has been posed as one or the other. Plus, there are plenty of orphanages that don’t offer
kids for adoption, but just take care of kids for people who can’t afford to raise them. In a way, those kids are currently the most desperate, since they’re totally
under the radar. You get a sense that their situation is very dire and that no one is keeping track of them.

So, it sort of annoys me that there isn’t a sense of urgency about trying to save them, too.

BSN: ...wondering whether you’re aware of the controversy suggesting that children are being taken out of the country before their relatives
can be located.
SO: Absolutely! That’s not a controversy. It’s a fact. You should never want to adopt children out and give them a new set of parents before you’ve done your due
diligence to find their biological parents. What I would suggest is that instead of adopting them out, you make sure they’re safe and fed. You just
take care of them. We certainly have the resources to do it in Haiti, once the infrastructure is fixed.

BSN: Marcia Evans asks, why isn't anyone talking about the lack of support from Santo Domingo? She says that one Dominican hospital on the border
only belatedly opened its doors to Haitian refugees.
SO: That’s not true. That hospital was open from the get go. I was there. That hospital on the border was open very early on, and the Dominicans
were flying in a lot of supplies. I saw Dominican trucks and Dominican soldiers, too. The Dominicans were not dragging their feet. They were triaging people and
flying the more seriously injured to other hospitals that could take better care of them.

BSN: Marcia further suggests that Dominicans might have racist feelings about their darker-skinned Haitian neighbors.
SO: Has there been a long mutual distrust and animosity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? The answer definitely is “Yes!” In fact, I
interviewed the Dominican President about that. His take is that at one point Haiti and the Dominican Republic were at war with each other, and that the Dominican
Republic won its freedom from Haiti. So, the history of those countries is of not getting along. But in terms of the earthquake, I haven’t seen anybody
who’s said, “We’re not going to help.”

BSN: We’re you afraid when that 6.0 aftershock hit?
SO: Yes, that was very scary. I grabbed my Blackberry and sneakers, and ran like hell out of my hotel room. It was the craziest thing to see the
entire hotel empty
out of people who were running for their lives. After all, we’d been spending our entire days examining the aftermath of what happens when entire buildings collapse on people. And who knew how structurally sound our hotel was?

To see some of O'Brien's reporting please see:

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