The author is a staff correspondent for CBS News Radio.
The first thing to know as a reporter going into a disaster like the Haitian earthquake is to expect nothing when you get there.
Expect no water, food, land lines, cell lines, Internet, infrastructure, no place to stay, no help in getting information and, especially, no help in getting your story back home. That way you won’t be disappointed; and when the above statement is contradicted, you’ll be thrilled beyond belief.
I’d packed enough clothes and other supplies for a week — and had to leave them behind in Santo Domingo after being bumped from a charter plane to a helicopter that was so small it felt as if I were strapping on a backpack with a rotor. I could take only what I could carry everywhere. My equipment and personal items included the gear shown in the box on page 6.
Jumping right in
Peter King covers the story in Port-au-Prince near an orphanage that survived. Surrounding buildings did not. Usually I go into assignments knowing that I’ll be able to tell the story and get it back to CBS News in New York to be broadcast to the world, live or in a timely manner. This time, not so much.
My fears were not only the horrors that we’d started to see on TV but that I wouldn’t be able to get enough good information while there, and that whatever news I did find I wouldn’t be able to transmit back to New York.
It was no surprise when my BlackBerry and Verizon cell phone stopped working as we crossed the border; it was a relief to be able to contact New York on my sat phone.
I was stuck at the airport for a couple of hours after landing in Port-au-Prince, so after taking a few deep breaths, I began running around looking for people to interview. Not on tape — there was no way for me to feed tape back to New York — but on the sat phone, with a “tape room” operator in the CBS Broadcast Center recording every word.
I found a line of Americans hoping to fly out of the country and went down the line for about 10 minutes. That established a pattern for the coming days: kind of a quick-and-dirty, bare-bones way of getting it done, but it worked.
My first hours in Port-au-Prince took me to the remains of a Citibank building, where the TV side had set up shop. Somehow a small army of correspondents, producers and technicians had gotten there, along with a sometimes-tenuous satellite uplink that became the network’s lifeline to New York. There was one generator with enough power for the uplink, video editing equipment, lights and little else. That meant no laptop to edit on, and only the occasional charging of sat phones and camera batteries.
Right behind us was a group of people living on the streets, in an alley. Nearby was a tent city. In front of us was one of the main streets, filled with traffic and people aimlessly looking for help, food, water and shelter. It was a good starting point.
Knowing I would not be able to use my usual digital methods of newsgathering (laptop/flash recorder), I recorded ROSRs (radio on scene reports) into my MiniDisc recorder to feed to New York, in real time, on the TV uplink; but I periodically called New York to record my descriptions, live to tape, on the phone, knowing it might be hours before any of my recorded material would be transmitted.
And that’s pretty much how it worked through my entire stay. By this time, radio was getting plenty of taped material from my TV brothers and sisters, and my ROSRs gave their coverage a new dimension, spontaneous, unrehearsed and often emotional descriptions of what was around me, to compliment other correspondents’ reports, actuality and nat sound.
Getting the sat phone to connect often was a challenge, since there were so many competing signals from other media and emergency workers. Getting TV sat time to transmit recorded material was tougher, as TV was feeding back a huge volume of material for the “Evening News,” “Early Show” and “60 Minutes.”
With “Evening News” managing editor and anchor Katie Couric on scene, they were recording all “E-N” segments after the first attempt at a live broadcast went belly-up.
Larry Doyle, a longtime CBS News producer, has always been kind to radio and made sure I got time to feed, as did other producers; but I often had to be ready on a moment’s notice, which meant recording my voice tracks and editing them on the fly on my MiniDisc recorder, organizing extra cuts and nat sounds, then feeding the finished product down the line when TV had a break.
This was often how I’d used my MD recorder in my pre-flash recorder days; it served me well then, and it did again in Haiti.
As the days went on, the technology gap was slowly narrowed.
Several times, I used TV’s BGAN Internet link (something I knew nothing about until Haiti) to upload my stories to New York — slow but effective (thank you, Dennis Vera). Two more satellite uplinks arrived, along with truckloads of food, water and other equipment. One of those uplinks was set up in our “compound” at La Maison, a hotel near the airport.
The hotel package included a satellite high-speed Internet link that allowed me to send recorded material in a more timely manner. It also meant that I could use my Marantz PMD620 and put together pieces on my laptop. And that I could blog for our Web site. My written blog was good therapy, as I was learning to deal with the day-to-day horrors of what I’d seen.
Three days after I arrived my BlackBerry began working for e-mail, which made communication with the newsroom — and loved ones — much easier, and helped me feel less isolated. It also meant I could send back photographs to our Web site, as well as family, to let them see I was OK. Then T-Mobile cell phone service followed on my BlackBerry, which had been activated specially for the Haiti trip. Getting the story back to New York and on the air gradually became easier.
I stuck to the pattern I’d established: Wake up at 5 a.m. to take care of morning drive newscasts and affiliate two-ways. Hitch a ride with one of our TV crews, a driver and interpreter, to go get stories (as TV started to pull out I had my own driver and interpreter/fixer). Call in to New York every time I saw something of interest, get tape, go back to our filing center, and send back nat sound, actuality, more ROSRs and wraps for the afternoon and for the next morning.
The days were long and tiring, but as my former co-worker Bill Deane used to say, it was a “good” tired. And thank God that every time I connected with New York, our editors got me into the tape rooms quickly and asked me fantastic questions about what I was seeing.
About that list of equipment: The only things I’d brought with me that turned out to be useless were my Verizon air card and Verizon cell phone, which were not equipped for use in Haiti. Everything else was used.
The things I saw.
I could talk about it for hours. Bodies, mass graves, mass destruction, looks of despair from people looking for help and wondering why they weren’t getting it — and especially the children.
Peter’s Haiti Kit Sennheiser shotgun mic
Mini-to-mini patch cord
XLR male-to-male and female-to-female couplers
20 AA batteries
Marantz PMD620 flash recorder
Sony MDR-W08 in-ear headphones
Sony MZ-B100 MiniDisc recorder
Hand-held Iridium satellite phone, charger and car adapter
Verizon cell phone
I-Go charger with car adapter
Toothbrush and toothpaste
HP/Compaq Laptop computer with Verizon air card
Mouse and mouse pad
2 magazines (New Yorker and Aviation Week)
1 paperback book (Richard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool”)
Food bars and cheese sticks
1 LL Bean windbreaker/rain slicker
1 reporter notebook
1 CBS News Radio baseball hat
The clothes on my back One little boy came up to me and asked, in his tiny voice, “Aqua?” Water. Children and grownups alike scavenging for food, water, clothing, anything to help them make it through the day, or night. It will all stay with me forever. Emotionally, this is the toughest story I’ve ever covered.
I think the media, and in particular CBS, learned many lessons from Hurricane Katrina, the mother of American disasters.
The first was how important it is to support the “troops” out in the field. Not once did any of my managers ask “How long can you stay?” or “Can’t you file more material?” Instead, it was “How are you holding up?” “What do you need?” and “We’re working on getting you out of there.”
An exit plan is good, and while I was nowhere near ready to leave when I first heard they were working on it, I was relieved when I knew I’d be leaving. (My friend Tom Benson tells me that when he got to Vietnam, the first thing the Army told him was when he’d be going home.) London reporter Vicki Barker arrived a few hours before my departure.
Management support hasn’t stopped with my return home. They‘ve encouraged me to take some time to breathe, to let them know if I need more time and to call our Employee Assistance Program for help if I needed a mental health counselor.
In fact, that’s what I did when I came back from Katrina; and at some point, I’m expecting to call the therapist who helped me then. One of the biggest lessons: Never be afraid to ask for help. Doing so is a sign of strength, not weakness.
While I was in Haiti, many of our affiliate hosts asked me, “How are the reporters holding up?” My first reaction was to be incredulous. “Why should anyone care about us? We’re not the ones who lost everything.” And I said that on air a few times during affiliate two-ways.
But with hindsight, I’m grateful that people cared enough to ask, especially since we saw some horrific things that will stay with us for life.
In truth the CBS troops had it fairly easy. We had a place to stay, with beds or tents, security, power, water, toilets and yes, even a bar. We had a steady pipeline of food, water and other supplies trucked in thanks to Ana Real, a CBS News producer sent to Santo Domingo from New York. She was our supply master, travel agent and, especially, the comforting shoulder we needed when we left Haiti to overnight in the Dominican Republic on the way home.
When I got home, Lisa, the love of my life, was waiting for me at Orlando International Airport.
She’s been there and done that, having covered Bosnia, Katrina and Iraq during her long reporting career. Though I’d been in Haiti only for eight days, she knew that the impact would last a lifetime.
She flew in from her home near Boston, saying, “How could I not be there?” A week later, I flew to Boston for a long weekend and she cooked a “thanksgiving” dinner, thankful that I was home safely. I don’t think any November Thanksgiving has been more meaningful.
During my last days in Port-au-Prince, I got an e-mail from management asking for advice for the morning host of a CBS Radio station in Tampa who wanted to do his show from Haiti. He asked about logistics, what kind of help he could expect, that kind of thing. My reply: “Tell him to bring everything he’ll need. It’s like going to Gilligan’s Island without the Professor to make a telephone out of a coconut.”
That may sound flippant given the horrific nature of this story; but I’m guessing it rings true for every reporter who was in Haiti during those first days.
But guess what? I want to go back. There’s so much more to tell.
Peter King is based in Orlando. Contact[email protected]