Haiti – getting there

Joel Battistoni of Stevenson comforts Boyce Fish, of Dayton OH after the team moved 6 courpses into the morgue that they were asked to help establish at the Hotel Montana. CLICK IMAGE FOR SLIDESHOW

I think our new editor at The Oregonian Peter Bhatia summed up things pretty well as to why our newspaper would send reporters to Haiti …

The effort to get Kimberly and Bruce to Haiti was well-rewarded by their great work. But why send them in the first place, in a time of tight budgets? Simple: When big news breaks and there is a local angle and context for us to pursue (as clearly there was time and time again in Haiti) we still have the resources and the ambition to go. The latter is what really matters. With all we have endured, this is still a big-time staff with big-time talent. If there are stories that meet the test of local relevance, we’ll still go get them. – Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian

In the days and weeks since the earthquake, much has been made of who should go to Haiti and who should not. Our mission was simple. We were there to tell the stories that related to our readership. There were plenty and much more talented photographers there covering the big picture. While it was tempting to photograph the aftermath like the NYT, LA Times and Miami Herald … it was just not our place to do so. While there will be no pulitzer for the Oregonian – nobody else was there telling the stories related to our community. Thats what we were there to do. I also think we did it in a responsible way. We were able to bring every bit of water and food that we would need while in country. At no point did we use a resource that was intended for locals or aid workers.

Oregonian writer Kimberly Wilson and I headed out the door without much of a plan. We had one way tickets to Florida and the rest was up to us.

There was a small chance that we would be able to hitch a ride to Port-au-Prince with a local NGO, Medical Teams International, that had chartered a flight. That fell apart when the doctors were actually forced to leave behind some of their bags due to the lack of space. Definitely no room for a couple reporters. We were now stuck in Ft. Lauderdale with no plan.

After another full day in Florida, we ended up buying tickets to the Dominican Republic. While on the plane, the gentleman behind me was talking about renting a helicopter to fly into Haiti. I of course asked if we could hitch a ride. He said “no problem, assuming there is room.” During the flight we continued our conversation. Turns out he and a group of folks from Ohio were headed there to find a man that was missing at the Hotel Montana after the quake.

Small world … turns out the guy they were going to look for was from Washougal, Washington (near Portland). The missing person, Walt Ratterman, is a member of a small NGO called Knightsbridge International and the man sitting behind me, Dr. Laws, is the president of the organization.

So, we ended up joining with them and reporting on their efforts to search for Walt Ratterman.

Dr. Laws secured our group a large tour bus to use for 5 days. We just had one stop to make before making the 8 hour drive into Haiti. The bus pulled up to a grocery store and Dr. Laws nearly emptied to shelves of bottled water — about 800 gallons of drinking water. It was loaded into the luggage area of the bus where it would not be seen. We would all agree not to talk about our cargo to anyone. Not even people on the ground we trusted. We would be driving through Port-au-Prince in a very large green tour bus loaded with very valuable water. It would be a huge security problem if anyone knew what we had.

The water was going to be delivered to the rescue workers at the Hotel Montana. The group not only wanted the searchers to be comfortable so they would continue the search, but Dr. Laws also saw it as an opportunity to “buy” his way onto the hotel compound. The gates were locked, but the water opened them. He was right. Within hours or delivering the water, Dr. Laws and his crew were sitting at planning meetings and were now in charge of establishing a morgue at the site.

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