Destruction in Haiti Causes Array of Communications Difficulties
U.S. reporters working to get story out under most challenging conditions
By Marisa Guthrie -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/14/2010 3:44:34 PM
Fresh water is scarce. Cellular and satellite capability is spotty at best. News crews have to bring their own gasoline to power generators to keep their equipment running. Many are sustaining themselves on MREs (meals ready to eat). And sleep is catch as catch can. Meanwhile, continuing after-shocks have sent people out-of-doors away from structures when hunkering down for the night. NBC's Brian Williams, who arrived in Haiti Wednesday evening (Jan. 13), managed to get a couple of hours of sleep on the tarmac at Port-au-Prince airport.
He drew similarities between the conditions in Haiti and the early days of the Iraq war.
"It ranks with the very worst," he said during a phone interview from the airstrip in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. "Last night made me think of Baghdad. When I finally got to Baghdad we slept at the flight school at the airport. I slept under a portrait of Saddam Hussein. But we had a roof over our head there."
So far, at least it has not rained.
"Several of our people slept in baggage containers," he added, "And they reported that they were quite comfortable."
ABC News producers are looking for shelter to house their personnel.
"[We're] working on getting someplace, a house, an office, any structure that is still standing and looks like it's not in danger of falling down," says Kate O'Brian, senior VP of news at ABC News. "They may be sleeping on the floor there but at least they'll have a roof over their heads. Frankly I don't think anybody's actually slept."
Of course, just getting into Port-au-Prince has proved Herculean with air traffic control knocked out and the airport limited to military and relief flights and a few charters. Many news crews have flown into Santo Domingo in neighboring Dominican Republic and made the long drive into Haiti.
ABC News chartered a flight for Diane Sawyer and the World News crew. But when they arrived over Port-au-Prince airport on Thursday morning (Jan. 14), they were unable to land. Sawyer and medical correspondent Dr. Richard Besser were able to hop on a helicopter and made it to Port-au-Prince by Thursday afternoon. But the bottle-neck at the airport meant that ABC could not immediately get their crew and satellite in.
"Haiti is a challenging place to work out of under normal circumstances," observes Tony Maddox, executive VP at CNN International. "And clearly in a situation like this in which what small vestiges there are of social order breaks down completely, you don't know what you're stepping in to."
CNN had Anderson Cooper on the ground on Wednesday morning and has since deployed more personnel and hundreds of pounds of equipment including fly-aways (which are basically satellite trucks without wheels) and more portable broadband equipment.
"We're trying anything to get signals out," says Maddox.
But, notes Paul Friedman, senior VP at CBS News, "Satellite phones going in and out are the more mundane issues. The very serious issues are how do you feed and house your people.
"There are a lot of people who are just working flat-out without any sleep and in awful conditions with equipment that is never quite right. And it works out."
Friedman said CBS News would likely keep crews in Haiti through next week and then re-evaluate their coverage needs. ABC News will have a primetime special Earthquake Haiti: Race to Save a Country, tonight (Jan. 14) at 8.
The natural disaster dimensions of the tragedy have echoes of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, but so far Haiti has remained relatively safe. Nevertheless, news organizations are taking no chances and have security in place.
"It is something that we are always concerned about," says O'Brian. "It is it very much on our minds. We have provided some security to our folks. We hope that we don't need it. But it's better to have it just in case."
But no matter how hard-scrabble or unyielding conditions may be for news personnel there, it pales in comparison to what the victims of the earthquake are enduring.
"It is entirely not about us," says Williams. "It couldn't be less about us. We are simply the vehicles to get this story out."
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