Earthquake Sets Back Progress In Haiti

Jacqueline Charles of The Miami Herald talks to Deborah Amos about Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti. The 7.0-magnitude quake hit just miles outside the capital Port-au-Prince, leaving the city and its surroundings severely damaged. Charles is on her way back to Haiti to cover the relief and recovery effort. She says the quake will have undone a lot of progress that the nation has made.

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DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

Another person who has extensive first hand experience in Haiti is Jacqueline Charles, who covers the country for The Miami Herald. We reached her in Miami as she prepares to catch a flight there. Good morning.

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Good morning.

AMOS: Jacque, have you been in contact with people in Haiti? Have you been able to reach people there?

CHARLES: Well, I have a stringer on the ground, and that's how we are communicating. We were able to file a story about Haiti because all communications as far as cell phones and landlines were down. And essentially, you know, what we're getting from him was just anecdotal. I mean, the biggest question right now is: What is the level of the causality, the calamity that we're looking at?

And so even as I'm preparing to fly in to Haiti, I have no idea other than the fact that we know that some major buildings have collapsed, including the United Nations headquarters, the top level of the presidential palace. But again, outside of that, we're still trying to gain a specimen in terms of, you know, the damage.

AMOS: Haiti is often hit during hurricane season, and so they do have some experience with disasters. How prepared are they to deal with this kind of devastation?

CHARLES: You know, I mean, that is the big question. I did a story, just a couple of months ago at the start of hurricane season, about how the country was preparing for hurricane season - the lessons learned from these four back- to-back storms that basically battered Haiti in 2008. So on the one hand, you know, you have a hurricane, the weather patterns change, it starts to rain, the wind picks up. You've got time to go on a radio and to warn individuals.

But from the conversations that I had had with people, what they're telling me is that they're driving, they're going about their everyday business, and suddenly the cars started to shake. And then when they look, that houses are starting to fall. And other people look up and they see that the mountains are crumbling. So, from what we are hearing, this completely took people by surprise. It came out of nowhere. Yes, the country's sits on fault lines. People have talked about the possibility of an earthquake because of the environmental situation of the country, because of the recent devastation with the storms. But how real, you know, was this - did they expect for this to hit here and now? No. So this is going to be a true test in terms of the disaster management, and not just for the Haitians, but also for the international community that's there on the ground.

AMOS: Well, even before the earthquake, this is a country that depends heavily on international aid. With all this damage, can the country accommodate a large influx? We're hearing from everywhere that people want to jump in and help - the U.S. government, the U.S. military - across the world. Can they distribute this efficiently? Can they put it to use?

CHARLES: Well, I think the question before we even talk about distribution, we're going to have to talk about whether or not the aid will even arrive. I mean, ironically, two hours before the storm hit I was on the telephone with some folks in New York because former President Bill Clinton, and now U.N. special envoy to Haiti, was preparing to meet with the donors and to ask them what's going on with this aid disbursement.

I think an estimated $512 million was pledged, and according to the work of the United Nations has done, they are saying that only about 12 percent of it has been dispersed. So again, every time Haiti goes through a natural disaster, we do see an outpouring of individuals wanting to do things, both internationally and on the ground, but the problems always come in terms of disbursement and also coordination.

Because that's the other issue that, you know, while you're going to have the world food program that's going to, you know, kick up their programs to get food there. Individuals like Wyclef Jean has already sent out, you know, emails to individuals to try and raise funds. How do we coordinate to ensure that people are not doing the same things and that you basically maximize the effort and reach as many individuals as possible?

AMOS: How stable is the government there?

CHARLES: The government is very stable. I mean I have to tell you, you know, I've been reporting on this country for years now and in the last couple of years, you know, yes, there was a problem with gangs, but those, you know, they were disarmed and in the last two or three years, the country has been enjoying relative stability.

I just recently wrote a story about how it was going to get its first international hotel franchise in a decade because investors were starting to feel confident, both Haitians and non-Haitians alike. They were preparing to go to elections on February 28th, prior to that everybody was warming up for Carnival. There's supposed to be a presidential election, you know, in November. Now I think that the focus is just going to really shift to how do you dig yourself up from underneath this rubble?

AMOS: Jacqueline Charles of the The Miami Herald, thanks very much for talking to us.

CHARLES: Thank you.

AMOS: I know you're heading to Haiti today, yourself, so stay safe.

CHARLES: All right. Thank you.

INSKEEP: And rather than building hotels, Haitians now have to focus on recovering victims from buildings that collapsed yesterday. Most people are having to dig through the rubble by hand to try to find family or friends. An Associated Press videographer in Port-Au-Prince says a hospital is wrecked.

AMOS: People are standing by to rush in aid from the United States and Mexico, but last night, the Port-Au-Prince Airport remained closed. It'll take time simply to know the extent of the damage and even longer to start to recover.

INSKEEP: And as darkness began to fall last night, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official took a moment to look up from the wreckage of a Haitian city. He said the sky was gray with dust.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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