Interview with Kam Williams
In the wake of the Haitian earthquake, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien rushed to the region to deliver the same sort of high-quality, eyewitness coverage that she has dependably broadcast in the past on location after location from such disasters area as the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Because of her seemingly effortless style and her People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People List looks, what tends to get lost about this intrepid, Emmy-winning reporter is that she’s also a Harvard grad with a keen intellect, a razor sharp wit, a great sense of humor and an ever-inquiring mind.
I’ve interviewed a bunch of bright people in my day and, trust me, Soledad might very well be the brightest. You’ll instantly see what I mean, if you ever have the pleasure of engaging her in conversation one-on-one. Until then, I hope that this revealing tete-a-tete about the Haiti relief effort effectively conveys the essence of her brilliant mind and very likable spirit.
Soledad is never one to shy away from a difficult or probing question, but is rather refreshingly frank and forthcoming in addressing in considerable depth whatever issue she’s asked to address. That’s the reason I sought her out in the first place to get the scoop on what’s really happening in Haiti.
Keep in mind that this interview was conducted soon after her return to the States, while she was cooking for and frequently distracted by a house full of rambunctious kids, and she even paused briefly from our conversation to pull one of her 5 year-old twin’s baby teeth, all without ever missing a beat.
Kam Williams: Hi, Soledad, thanks again for the time.
Soledad O’Brien: Hey, how’re you doing? I hope you don’t mind but the kids are running around so we might have some interruptions. The conversation’s definitely going to be like that from my end. That was Charlie [one of her 5 year-old twins] who answered the phone.
KW: Of course, I understand. The kids missed mommy while she was away, and now they come first.
KW: Well, I guess my first question is, how’s Haiti?
SO: Haiti’s a mess for a host of reasons: because it’s historically never been given a chance, because it currently has no real infrastructure, and because, of course, in the wake of the earthquake those factors combine to make for a country that’s going to have a very slow recovery. These conditions don’t exist in a vacuum but are correlated to how fast Haiti is going to be able to recover. There’s a reason why people aren’t getting food and other resources quickly, even when supplies have arrived to hand out, namely, that it’s really hard to get to folks in the absence of an infrastructure.
KW: I told my readers I’d be speaking with you, and they sent in a lot of questions. Larry Greenberg asks, do you think we should be having a dialog about making Haiti the 51st state or a commonwealth of the United States?
SO: No, I think what Haiti needs is to not be continually screwed by the forces around it, whether that be American forces, meaning political, not military forces, or French forces. The history of Haiti, as I’m sure you’re well aware, has been one of never giving Haiti a chance. What it really needs is an opportunity. I’m not sure that there would be an upside to the country becoming a state. Nor do I think America needs for Haiti to become a state. Haiti has a president and leadership elected by the people. It just needs some real infrastructure.
KW: You also covered the tsunami and Katrina. How do these disasters compare to each other?
SO: To me, the scope of Katrina was so much bigger than where I was in Thailand. In Thailand, after a couple of days everyone could kind of get their act together, except for in the affected area which they needed to continue working on rebuilding. By comparison, Katrina was just giant, space-wise. As for Haiti, the damage caused by the earthquake is even more widespread than Katrina, and they have much less infrastructure. I found the same sort of devastation I saw in Port-au-Prince, when we drove to Jacmel and beyond. Plus, the population density in is so much greater in Haiti where they build homes right on top of each other into these hills. So, there was a domino effect when they collapsed, especially because of the substandard construction work.
KW: I write for a Haitian publication, Heritage Konpa Magazine, whose publisher, Rene Davis, is from a place called Petit-Goave located 30 miles outside of Port-au-Prince. He emailed me to say that still nothing in the way of help has reached his hometown.
SO: Part of the problem is just the logistics. Some of those places you can’t reach simply because the roads are physically impassable. The other issue involves the challenge of delivering supplies to Haiti. Is the port open? How do you get shipments in? So, even right in Port-au-Prince, where you have such population density, you have a real problem just figuring out how to hand out stuff.
KW: Tony Noel wants to know, to what extent this is an international relief effort? Are there other countries contributing that might not be mentioned by the American mainstream press?
SO: Oh, yeah. Absolutely! What I found interesting from the getgo, when we went to the hospital in Jacmel, was that the first people I encountered were Cuban doctors. They already had a longstanding, joint project with Haiti, so they were the ones who immediately set up the outdoor, triage hospital. Those were Haitian and Cuban doctors. And at that hospital there were also medical teams from Costa Rica, Canada, Sri Lanka and the United States. It was truly an international response. No question. It was strange to be yelled at in so many different languages.
KW: After both 9/11 and Katrina, the Red Cross solicited donations but later admitted that it only distributed a small fraction of the funds raised during those ad campaigns. You were down there in Haiti. Laz Lyles asks, what’s the most effective way people can help?
SO: From my perspective, I would wait now. They have a lot of immediate money in. And people have started bringing in supplies. The initial first phase of the crisis is over. The rebuilding effort is going to take so much time that whether I wanted to send $1,000, or $5,000 or even $50,000, I’d hold on and wait to see what’s coming down the line, because that money is really going to be needed later. You might, for instance, be able to help rebuild a school, or some other project that nobody’s thinking about right now. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to help? But still, if you’re not going to send any money when the hoopla dies down, then send it now. Otherwise, wait to see what projects emerge, because the initial response has been tremendous, financially.
KW: Jimmy Bayan asks whether there’s any truth to the rumor that they’re taking Haitians survivors to Guantanamo Bay?
SO: No, I never heard that.
KW: How did it feel to be in the midst of the continuing crisis?
SO: It’s sort of the same feeling you get at any of these disasters. You don’t have a 500 lb. bag of rice to feed people who are really hungry, or a dump truck to remove cement from a spot where someone might be trapped. It’s frustrating, but I think I’ve sort of reconciled in my own head that my job is to bring notice to the world of these people’s plight. And if I try to get involved in rescuing, too, I’ll end up not doing either job very well. Although at one point, I helped out at an orphanage when an overwhelmed doctor pointed out a dehydrated baby that basically had about a couple of hours to live unless she got an IV. At that point, I was wishing that Dr. Sanjay Gupta was with me or somebody who could do it well, because I didn’t know how to put an IV in. And I knew that two doors over, there were another half-dozen kids in the same situation. She was so dehydrated, it was obvious that she wasn’t going to make it. And she hadn’t even been injured in the quake. She was just dehydrated. Babies who don’t have water will die. Dehydration kills them. After I got the IV in, I had never been so relieved in my life, because the risk had been so high. I kept thinking, “God, if this needle doesn’t get in, that’s it.” Fortunately, once we did get the IV running in her, she was fine. A lot of these infants would be just fine, if we could only get a bottle of formula to them.
KW: What about the reports of crime and violence? The U.S. news networks said there was sporadic looting and gang violence, and that 4,000 prisoners had escaped from prison and were crawling all over the streets. How much of that did you witness?
SO: There was a case where people broke into a candle store, stole the candles, and then set up shop selling candles on the street. That’s not the same as stealing a loaf of bread to keep from starving. There’s an incredible desperation there. One night, a couple hours after I left one of the orphanages, about 20 armed gunmen climbed over the wall, because they know that the orphanages have some food and supplies. I don’t think threatening children with a shotgun is okay by any means, but I can understand that they acted out of desperation.
KW: Did you ever feel threatened while you were in Haiti?
SO: I never felt unsafe. When I first arrived, literally 20 feet from our hotel on, there were about 20,000 people camped out on the Champ de Mars. Everyone was sitting calmly. That number must have swollen to 50,000 or more by the time I left. The plaza was just packed, but no one ever tried to climb into the hotel, where there was plenty of hot water and hot food. No one ever threatened me, or rushed me, or tried to grab my backpack, or attempted to break into our car to steal our cameras or gear, even 10 days in to the disaster. They were still all patiently waiting for food and water trucks to arrive. To me, that
was the real story.
KW: What do you attribute their patience to?
SO: In part, it’s cultural. In part, Haitians don’t have the same expectation of help coming that, say, Americans had after Katrina. [Distracted by Jackson, Charlie’s twin brother] Jackson! Don’t torture your sister! Go get a toy from the other room and bring it here. That bouncy thing, or your red car. Sorry. Haitians have experienced a lot of natural disasters and have almost a sense of resignation.
KW: Yale grad Tommy Russell asks what percent of Haiti’s political infrastructure is intact?
SO: I’m not sure. I never covered that story, although I know that CNN did a report on finding the government. But I never had a sense that the Haitian government was there. I was just in lots of places where people were trying to help, like this little town where a French medical team suddenly appeared, set up a tent and started taking x-rays and treating the wounded.
KW: I remember seeing a spokesperson for Doctor without Borders complaining on TV about how most of their planes were not being allowed to land. And that the U.S. military was in control of the airport and was focused more on bringing in 13,000 soldiers than on the medical supplies that were so urgently needed.
SO: I understand, but, they needed so many things, honestly: medical supplies, food, water, excavation machines, doctors, nurses, rescue personnel, engineers, etcetera. Part of the reason they couldn’t land all their planes is that there was simply no space to land. The planes were all stacked up. That’s why we went to choppers. Getting in and out by helicopters was just so much easier. So, Doctors without Borders complaint was right that they definitely need more medical professionals, but if you’re going to try to distribute, you also need infrastructure. Haiti’s just a very messed up place right now.
KW: Where are people gravitating in Haiti, to the city or to the country?
SO: Initially, people basically moved right to open spaces because they were terrified and wanted to sleep outdoors. Then, as fuel became available and the buses began running again, you’d see them leave to live in the country, if they had relatives there. What’s complicating matters are the massive numbers of people. If you’re walking through a city with a half-million people living in tents, it’s very challenging, logistically.
KW: Mirah Riben, author of a couple books on adoption asks, what you think of the people rushing to adopt Haitian babies?
SO: I think anybody who is willing to adopt a child in any situation is amazing. That’s really a very selfless thing to do. However, I agree with those who say that adoption should not be rushed. The adoption process in Haiti normally takes several years, and it should. It would be terrible to risk an adoption by someone who should not be adopting a child. Still, what I find frustrating is that so many people see it as an either/or situation. You can do an airlift for kids who are dying, feed them, and return them without adopting them out. It doesn’t have to be either snatching babies out of their parents’ arms or leaving them there to die. There’s a middle ground in there, and what’s made me really angry is how the question has been posed as one or the other. Plus, there are plenty of orphanages that don’t offer kids for adoption, but just take care of kids for people who can’t afford to raise them. In a way, those kids are currently the most desperate, since they’re totally under the radar. You get a sense that their situation is very dire and that no one is keeping track of them. So, it sort of annoys me that there isn’t a sense of urgency about trying to save them, too.
KW: Mirah also feels that people inclined to adopt on impulse ought to be encouraged instead to donate money so the kids can be raised right there by relatives and grow up in Haiti in their own culture.
SO: Yeah, the impulse to adopt is coming from a great place. I felt the same way when I encountered a truck with about 25 babies lying in the back. I wanted to grab as many as I could hold and run for the border. They had diarrhea and started puking all over me. I can’t tell you how many of my personal friends have asked, “What do I have to do to help one of those babies?” Their thinking is, if they’re going to die, it’s worth trying to save them, no matter what’s involved. That’s a wonderful impulse. But I think there’s a vast middle ground between adoption and doing nothing. I’ve spoken to bureaucrats who say, “Well, you know, we don’t want to rush anything,” and I’ve responded, “But human beings are literally dying, and it really disturbs me that you’re waiting.” I had parents handing me their kids. They were like, “Please take this child and educate him.”
KW: This reminds me that Mirah was wondering whether you’re aware of the controversy suggesting that children are being taken out of the country before their relatives can be located.
SO: Absolutely! That’s not a controversy. It’s a fact. You should never want to adopt children out and give them a new set of parents before you’ve done your due diligence to find their biological parents. What I would suggest is that instead of adopting them out, you make sure they’re safe and fed. You just take care of them. We certainly have the resources to do it in Haiti, once the infrastructure is fixed.
KW: Marcia Evans asks, why isn’t anyone talking about the lack of support from Santo Domingo? She says that one Dominican hospital on the border only belatedly opened its doors to Haitian refugees.
SO: That’s not true. That hospital was open from the getgo. I was there. That hospital on the border was open very early on, and the Dominicans were flying in a lot of supplies. I saw Dominican trucks and Dominican soldiers, too. The Dominicans were not dragging their feet. They were triaging people and flying the more seriously injured to other hospitals that could take better care of them.
KW: Marcia further suggests that Dominicans might have racist feelings about their darker-skinned Haitian neighbors.
SO: Has there been a long mutual distrust and animosity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? The answer definitely is “Yes!” In fact, I interviewed the Dominican President about that. His take is that at one point Haiti and the Dominican Republic were at war with each other, and that the Dominican Republic won its freedom from Haiti. So, the history of those countries is of not getting along. But in terms of the earthquake, I haven’t seen anybody who’s said, “We’re not going to help.”
KW: We’re you afraid when that 6.0 aftershock hit?
SO: Yes, that was very scary. I grabbed my Blackberry and sneakers, and ran like hell out of my hotel room. It was the craziest thing to see the entire hotel empty out of people who were running for their lives. After all, we’d been spending our entire days examining the aftermath of what happens when entire buildings collapse on people. And who knew how structurally sound our hotel was?
KW: How did the kids feel about your being in Haiti and how were they affected by the disaster?
SO: They want to help. They want to adopt a baby, or a village. My daughter had a long conversation with me. She feels that we, meaning all of America, could make a difference, and make some real, structural changes in Haiti, not just short-term change that will only last six months.
KW: Wow! That’s wonderful! Well, thanks again for taking the time to share what you witnessed in Haiti with me and my readers.
SO: Thank you.