Profile by Todd Johnson
“Is The Grio on the ground yet in Haiti?” read the text message from my dad, less than 24 hours after a 7.0-magnitude quake had shaken Haiti to its core. As a big fan of current events, my dad always wanted me to be on the frontline of any breaking news story. So when his question came, I wasn’t surprised. But he was surprised to learn that I was headed there soon.
The assignment to cover the earthquake came quickly. I work as a digital journalist, otherwise known as a one-man band, for The Grio, a video-centric news site for an African-American audience based in New York. I had been in Midtown, interviewing a local Haitian man trying to reach his grandmother in Port-au-Prince, when I noticed a half-dozen missed calls. I called back my editor, who asked if I had a passport and was willing to go to Haiti. I didn’t hesitate.
“I’m down,” was all I could think to say. But what did I know about covering natural disasters or tragedies? Not much. Fresh out of graduate school and less than five months on the job, I was still getting my feet wet. After reporting in Haiti, I consider them soaked.
Overwhelmed does not begin to describe my mental state as I boarded a chartered plane at JFK airport that Wednesday night. I was traveling with a freelancer, Marlie Hall, a MacBook, Sony mini-DV camera, and a BlackBerry that would soon lose service. If it hadn’t been for the excitement rushing through my body and the pressure of the responsibility associated with this type of reporting, I don’t know how long I would have lasted.
I landed in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, after 1 a.m. on Thursday. After sleeping a few hours at a hotel, I journeyed to another airport, La Isabela International, to fly to Port-au-Prince with another NBC News team. We were unsuccessful because the airport was not allowing planes to land; even some humanitarian aid groups were turned away. On Friday, I was unable to join an NBC vehicle convoy headed to Haiti because it was full. So Marlie and I stayed in Santo Domingo and spent the day reporting at a nearby hospital that was treating Haitian patients injured in the earthquake. The next day, after nearly 12 hours on the road, I finally made it to Port-au-Prince around 1:30 p.m.
I was greeted by the choppy sounds of military helicopters and planes. There wasn’t much time to stop and think; we left the airport as soon as we arrived. Across the street, a new community had formed.
As I would later say in a reported piece, what I saw was a “tragedy of tents.” Not because everyone was helpless, but because I saw so much of people’s strengths reduced to uncertainty. And communities like these, made up of people, open space and countless tent homes, had taken over the city.
Witnessing nearly an entire city’s population walking the streets looking for family, friends and food is a hard scene to take in. If people weren’t moving, they were sitting down or settling anywhere they could: alleys, tops of buildings, sidewalks, corners and broken-down cars.
What stays with me most are the small stories. I met Pierre, a 22-year-old student searching for his younger brother. Knowing his other relatives were safe, he walked through the streets asking friends and journalists like myself if we had seen “Junior.” I don’t know the first thing about finding a lost loved one, but I know what I saw in Pierre’s eyes: unwavering optimism. Though all the signs pointed to him not finding his brother, Pierre clung to the hope that he would. That’s as simple as it gets. And there is a lesson in humility that comes with meeting someone barely younger than you, who is under the impression that you’re the one teaching a lesson. In reality, it was the opposite—I was learning from Pierre.
I remember an older man, maybe in his early 70s, walking along Delmas 33 Road. He stood atop what used to be a health center and held a small shovel, attempting to pick up the rubble. Barely able to keep his balance, he worked as if he had the strength of 10 men and women. Maybe someone he knew was trapped under the building, or maybe he felt compelled to help clean the streets. These are the stories people back home need to hear.
Too often we learn of devastation and assume those who survived must be “devastated.” While this is true to an extent, it is important to realize that good can come of these situations. Sometimes, this is a tough sell. Haiti will undoubtedly take a long time to recover, but we should pause before we assume there is only one layer to tragedy, devastation breeding desperation. That’s not the whole story.
I traveled to Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, where an American school had collapsed. The building had become a refuge for dozens of families with nowhere else to go. There, I met a woman, Jeanne Ker, who lived through Hurricane Katrina and was visiting her mom when the earthquake hit. Though Jeanne was not injured, her mother was lying on the floor in a blanket, awaiting medical attention. Jeanne, unwilling to leave her mom, was prepared to stay in Haiti much longer than originally planned. Talk about strength.
For five days, I did what I always wanted to do: shoot, report, write and edit original content. I did not go to Haiti to chase the big network stories or provide the latest statistics on the growing death toll. I went there to try to tell the small stories well, so the big stories could be better understood.