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Destruction in Haiti Causes Array of Communications Difficulties

U.S. reporters working to get story out under most challenging conditions 1/14/2010 03:44:34 PM Eastern

The devastating earthquake in Haiti has spurred an enormous mobilization
of media personnel to the region. But the destruction has thrown up an array of
practical and communications difficulties in an already technically lagging
country.

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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