Covering the Big Story : NPR Public Editor When the earthquake hit Haiti at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, no news organization was prepared to cover Haiti's biggest quake in two centuries. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at what NPR did when the quake news broke 53 minutes into the first hour of A...
NPR logo Covering the Big Story

Covering the Big Story

The magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, near its densely populated capital, at 4:53 p.m. eastern time on Tuesday.

That's 53 minutes into the first hour of NPR's All Things Considered. No time to plan; just scramble to get news on air of the biggest quake recorded in Haiti in two centuries.

At 7:50 p.m., ATC ran an interview with host Robert Siegel and Haiti's ambassador to the U.S., Robert Joseph. At 8:10 p.m., Siegel did a 10-minute interview with Rachel Wolff from World Vision, a international relief group based in the U.S. with 400 employees in Haiti. It aired at 8:45 p.m.

NPR's news blog, The Two-Way, posted a piece by 5:26 p.m. with a map and continued to follow the story providing numerous links to other coverage on the Internet. Newscasters filled in every 30 minutes with the latest reports.

That worked for the moment, but the bigger challenge for NPR lay ahead: Getting reporters on the ground in Haiti. Stu Seidel, deputy managing editor, handled the logistics and foreign desk editor Didi Schanche was put in charge of coordinating coverage. Phone lines were down in Haiti. Satellite phone connections were sporadic, and the Internet wasn't working. The airport was closed.

"Reports on damage and casualties are scarce, but reports are grim," wrote Seidel in an all-staff email at 10:08 p.m.

In Miami, Maeve McGoran, a senior editor, got on the phone trying to find charter flights to Haiti. Back at NPR, producer Gisele Grayson also worked the phones searching for flights.

Correspondent Greg Allen headed to the Miami airport to interview people on a plane arriving from Port-au-Prince. It had taken off shortly after the quake turned the capital into a rubble pile with thousands presumed dead. Allen did news spots and filed a piece for Morning Edition. About 75 percent of passengers didn't get on the plane because they were scared to fly, a man told Allen.

Meanwhile in Mexico City, correspondent Jason Beaubien booked a flight for 6:35 a.m. Wednesday to Miami and then on to Port-au-Prince. In Washington, photographer David Gilkey also found a flight to join him.

In Los Angeles, correspondent Carrie Kahn and producer Amy Walters got on a "red eye" to Miami that arrived early Wednesday morning. McGoran had found a plane to Haiti chartered by a university for doctors and booked two seats.

Before Kahn and Walters headed to Haiti, Seidel sent an email advising them to "take sleeping bags, first aid kits, packaged food and whatever else you might be able to take to a place where support services will be dreadful."

While Seidel was playing traffic cop Tuesday night, NPR's social media maven, Andy Carvin, began culling Twitter to find tweets from people in Haiti. He created a special Twitter list that allowed readers to follow what was happening second by second. Read more about how he verified that they were actually in Haiti. He also reached out through NPR's Facebook page to find sources that would later appear on the air. Here's one story that came from Facebook. And another from Twitter.

The Morning Edition staff scrambled to get nine stories on their show Wednesday, which goes live at 5 a.m. It included tape from two people who live in Haiti and could provide first-hand experience. One was gotten through Twitter.

On another floor, the small but ambitious staff of Tell Me More, which goes live at 9 a.m., tore apart its planned show. Producer Monika Evstatieva went to the Haitian Embassy in Washington, DC at 7:30 a.m. to try for another interview with the ambassador.

Tell Me More host Michel Martin started boning up on Haiti facts to prepare. "And we kept putting alternate stories in place as a backup just in case," she said. They did get the interview and another with a Catholic Relief Services spokesman who had workers missing in Haiti.

Meanwhile, the drive was on to get journalists into Haiti -- along with every other major news organization. Flights were booked, canceled and rebooked. Cars rented that wouldn't be picked up.

"Everything is tentative," said Seidel.

Kahn and Walters arrived in Miami and drove to Ft. Lauderdale to fly in with a medical relief charter. But once they got there, only one seat was available. Kahn went ahead with a satellite phone. Walters would follow lugging a sleeping bag, clothing and a much bulkier satellite phone that, all boxed up, weighs 40 pounds and costs $12,000.

Kahn arrived in time to do a "two-way" interview for ATC Wednesday night but had nowhere to stay.

Since the Haiti airport was shut down, Beaubien (carrying 6-pound satellite phone) and Gilkey (with NPR's latest satellite phone, weighing just 2.2 pounds) flew to Santa Domingo in the neighboring Dominican Republic and drove overland to Port-au-Prince.

Wednesday morning, NPR felt like a campaign operation with assignments handed out like marching orders: stories on military efforts, an anatomy of an earthquake, the U.S. Haitian community, Haiti's health needs, State Department efforts, European reactions, social media and President Obama, among others. More story assignments than could ever be done.

All day Wednesday, emails were flying with contact information for doctors, professors, Haitians and other Haiti experts. A producer suggested an interview with a photojournalist in Haiti who was willing to talk. An intern pursued it using Skype but upon reaching her was told the photojournalist was "too traumatized to do any interviews."

By Wednesday night, Kahn was the only NPR journalist in Haiti. She slept in a sleeping bag on the lawn of the La Ville Creole hotel, outside the capital, which had no available rooms that night.

On Thursday, Greg Allen, Amy Walters and correspondent Jackie Northam found seats on separate charter flights into Haiti. And Beaubien and Gilkey arrived by car from the Dominican Republic.

In Atlanta, health correspondent Joanne Silberner and photographer John Poole found seats on a government plane with medical disaster and mortuary teams. As they were about to land in Port-au-Prince, there was a near-miss with another plane, the emergency masks came down, and the plane was diverted to Turks and Caicos. [By Friday night, they still hadn't made it to Haiti.]

By Thursday evening, the La Ville Creole hotel had become NPR's temporary headquarters for the half-dozen staffers who had managed to get to Haiti.

McGoran delievered food and water to producer Tom Bullock in Ft. Lauderdale to take to Haiti. "Dried fruit, beef jerky, canned tuna, things that will keep," said McGoran. "I was going to bring him a portable generator to bring down but we all decided food was more important. So we will send the generator down with the next person going in."

Bullock flew in Friday on a plane that Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation was using to bring doctors to Haiti.

"This is a terrible, terrible story," said Seidel. "Even though all of us have a lot of experience, we are still making this up as we go along. What's in my head right now is who will be in the next group that I send in this weekend. This story is going to take a toll on the people we send there if we have them reporting constantly in a relentless way."

For the staff of NPR, there may be inconveniences, not to mention the expense, in the rush to get the story for millions of listeners and readers. But all that is trivial compared to what the people of Haiti have experienced in this latest of many natural disasters -- their worst of modern times.