Reuters' Felix Salmon makes the case in full that I scratched at a couple of days ago in his Friday blog post "Don't give money to Haiti." He leans on The Smoking Gun's investigation into Wylclef Jean's charity, Yele ("Internal Revenue Service records show the group has a lackluster history of accounting for its finances, and that the organization has paid the performer and his business partner at least $410,000 for rent, production services, and Jean's appearance at a benefit concert") and the mind-boggling fact that the Red Cross still hasn't spent half a billion dollars in donations that were earmarked for tsunami relief to argue against earmarked donations.
"Not to put too fine a point on it," Salmon writes, "but that’s money which could be spent in Haiti, if it weren’t for the fact that it was earmarked."
His suggested solution is one that has begun to look more and more reasonable to me: give give give to Medicins Sans Frontieres. The group has erected makeshift hospitals and treated thousands in the immediate aftermath, but the need is going to continue. There have been too many people partially crushed this week for there not to be a massive round of amputations. Wound care and veritable battlefield surgery are of more urgent import even than emergency shelter or, especially, the rent on Wyclef's recording studio.
Here's the link to my story in the Columbia Journalism Review. The takeaway:
If foreign reporters knew Haiti at all, it was via the removed perspective of the war correspondent—as a witness to horrors that he or she would never know first-hand. This experience was perhaps best sketched by Bob Shacochis, the journalist and novelist, who describes arriving there as a reporter in the opening to his 1995 Harper’s cover story, “The Immaculate Invasion.”
He describes the frenzied, cash-greased path into Haiti from the Dominican Republic, which still casts a dark and menacing countenance of its own (my road trip from the Haiti border to Santo Domingo last summer required passage through a dozen separate military checkpoints over some 150 highway miles). Upon reaching Haiti’s besieged capital, Shacochis describes a Port-au-Prince ripe for physical collapse: “Vast areas of the cityscape seem constructed out of shortcuts and makeshift solutions, erected by the homeless for the homeless, creating the smoldering architectural temperament of a dream constantly solicited and constantly deferred …”
The contrast was the Hotel Montana, the palace atop a succession of winding roads in the comparatively tony suburb of Pétionville, home to many NGO workers and international personnel. The Montana served as four-star bivouac for privileged visitors: politicians, successful émigrés, and, of course, journalists.
Gad, Haiti. Why’d it have to be you? Again?
The chicken at top was one I photographed at an outdoor café in Port-au-Prince in August. Better times.
I’ve been marinating all day in coverage of the Haiti quake, in part because an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review’s site asked whether I had any thoughts on it. Some of what I’m going to send him in the morning, pending a final read-through, regards the Hotel Montana. The four-star hotel in Pétionville is a pile of rubble, countering any assumption that only the poor took the brunt of this one. Below I’ve posted a short Flip video of the Haitian singer Belo at a concert I attended with my friend Jonathan in August. There was a fashion show; there was music; there was rum. People were smartly dressed. It was damn fine scene. Now it’s a grave for something like 200 unaccounted-for French nationals (and presumably hotel staff, though I’ve seen no mention of them in the stories I’ve read today).
I dug up an old Harper’s story by Bob Shacochis on his trip through the Montana when he covered the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994:
I stand in the illuminated lobby of the Montana Hotel, space-warped into an après-beach party, gawking at the throng of media celebs, the Eddie Bauer tropical-fashion show, the crush of machos at the bar in shorts and network caps, looking as if they’ve spent their day playing softball. On the patio, CNN is feeding a satellite; in the lounge, a big-screen TV broadcasts the Michigan-Colorado game. …
Reservations for dinner are made. The embargo’s impact on fine dining in Pétionville is zero. Souvenance, the restaurant of choice for the capital’s aristocracy of crisis (the politicians and millionaires, the well-heeled gangsters, the diplomats and journalists), is booked up, so we settle for the gastronomic artistry of the chef at La Plantation, where the clientele can fill their glasses with the best French wines to toast the continuing – and, in some cases, karmically inexplicable – miracle of their survival.
Other points from today:
People want to give to the relief effort, and have asked me the best way to do so. The short answer is, pick a relief agency whose overall mission you believe in and donate to it. Most first-responder agencies and other relief agencies don’t use donations on a one-to-one basis anyway; your money will go to fund all their efforts, wherever they may be. I’m partial to Heifer International and Oxfam myself, but you can’t go wrong with the Red Cross or Medicins Sans Frontieres. If you’re determined to donate strictly to this effort, go to Wyclef Jean’s Yele.
Pat Robertson is a ghoul. Shepard Smith remains the best thing Fox News has going for it.
CNN's Ross Levitt has the disaster coverage version of the dreaded "What I ate for breakfast" Twitter feed. Here's a sample. Seriously, it's painful.
@susancandiotti has landed in #Haiti. I'm still waiting 4 a plane 2 land hre in Santo Domingo that will take me thr. A lot of waiting. about 13 hours ago from UberTwitter
The maintenance guy at the Santo Domingo airport makes a mean cup of joe. #alwaysafoodie Still haven't left for #haiti. about 13 hours ago from UberTwitter
My #Haiti ride--I think. http://tweetphoto.com/8642512 about 13 hours ago from UberTwitter
Ok, seriously this time. I'm about to take off for #Haiti...I think. #fb about 13 hours ago from UberTwitter
Preliminary numbers of the dead have ranged from a few thousand to half a million. Take those with a humongous grain of salt for now. I doubt seriously anyone had an ironclad notion of how many people were living in Port-au-Prince even before this damnable nightmare. What I’m wondering now is whether any of the newly homeless will be offered refugee asylum in other countries, and whether the government’s literal, physical collapse will affect that. Documentation and identification were already pretty thin there. You have to wonder if part of Bill Clinton’s urgency at the United Nations today had to do with the fact that there’s a country of 9 million people within a few hundred miles of Florida that nearly literally has no government. Sheer proximity has to be a concern for the State Department as much as just about anything else.
Last, I’ve got terrific admiration and affection for this guy right now. I took this picture in his old bedroom; I don’t know what has become of it, since his Facebook status today said, “House is wrecked.” But he’s kicking all kinds of ass right now, and in conditions no one should have to face. Buy him a drink, top-shelf, next time you see him. Another line from the Shacochis story:
“At ease, Captain Barton glares into space, spits, cusses. He deserves a measure of sympathy. He grew up mostly in Kentucky, graduated from Officers Candidate School, and went to Fort Bragg, but no matter how much money taxpayers spend, you can’t prepare an American soldier for a mission like Haiti, or a Kentucky boy for a place like Limbé.”
It’s a curious thing when you know the lasting image from a day in one of the world’s truly overwhelming cities will be one of the last you saw.
I mean, we went from the hotel down a slalom of thisclose pedestrians and past a shocking flipbook of commerce and chaos. We met with, broke bread with, overlooked ravines with, visited a cockfighting arena with and visited the home of a Haitian national who was deported from South Florida to Port-au-Prince 11 years ago after his rap sheet got too big for the States to hold. We dropped in on a small business in which women weave recycled litter into purses and wallets and sandals for sale here, in the States and online. And we took the long way home, past the citadel that is the U.S. embassy and the U.N. outposts and one of the longest, craziest lines of traffic I’ve ever seen, dodging motorcycles, entrepreneurs, hello-down-there! potholes, crossing dry creekbeds with a goat foraging on one side of the bridge and a hog on the other …
Then a quarter-mile from home, we hit a damn dog. Poor thing was a variation on what I’ve come to call the Haitian national dog: a rangy long-tailed tawny dog that plumps itself to 24 pounds on the garbage it scavenges ahead of the chickens. The dog wandered into the street right in front of us, sauntered through our lane, decided better of getting hit in the oncoming lane, and backed its way under our tire. It screamed, wretchedly. Men on the sidewalk winced, then yelled at us to pull forward. The dog cried as it limped away, its back right leg now a useless gray looseness. As we had braked, we had dragged it.
It was a fuck-all rotten way to end an otherwise fine day of reporting. But it reminds me of a line from Tim Cahill’s “Road Fever” (which I’ll address more fully later): “There are no old dogs on the Pan-American Highway.” Petionville either.
I was happy hours later to dance to Cat Empire with a dog named Tarzan on some U.N. workers’ patio.
Some Sundays you wake up at noon, sweating like Patrick Ewing at the free-throw line, wondering things like, Why is my head full of snot? Why is it so hot in here? Is my camera really broken? Why is my shirt covered in wine stains? Has the 1997 Geo Tracker that broke down and nearly stranded me on the streets of greater Port-au-Prince at 4 a.m. had its headlights scooped out and tires pinched by hoodlums? What the hell happened last night?
Point-by-point sometimes is easiest. My head’s full of ecoplasmic mucous because I’m fighting off whatever microflora have crept into my system despite drinking nothing that doesn’t do a stint in a bottle first – though noshing a 2 a.m. cup of conch from a street vendor carrying a giant silver pot and brandishing some kind of gut-nuke hot sauce was probably not the most prudent course of action. It’s hot in here because it’s noon in the tropics and the jalousies let the A/C bleed out and the sunlight stream in. My camera, it turns out, is not permanently busted; rather, it decided the connectors between the body and the lens needed cleaning – that’s Error 99 on the Canon 30-D, in case it befalls you. Three people separately guessed that it succumbed to voodoo. Its fagging out on me prevented the thorough photo-documentation of a farewell shindig at the razorwire-trimmed compound of the French Red Cross here in town. There convened a cross-strata of the headiest local foreigners: NGO staffers, diplomats, consular functionaries, cell phone company sorts, entrepreneurs, journalists. For some reason there wasn’t a corkscrew to be found in this French-run manse, so someone opened a bottle of red by stab-ramming the cork into the neck of the bottle, and as he filled my cup, the wine gouting out along the blade, my white shirt soon looked like Leatherface’s apron. This is why I wake up looking like I got my nose bloodied the night before. C’est la vie.
Mentally I checked out of the party once I realized that I was hands-down the least interesting person there and that the playing of “Informer” wasn’t a mistake or foray into ironic 90s-nostalgia but an actual harbinger of the other anachronistic abortions that would be popping up on the iPod. It was time to go clubbing. Of course, clubbing turned into drinking and dancing, and dancing turned into flailing like a fawn on slick rocks compared with the locals, then led to bouncing across the street to a Haitian-mook bar called Barak where I proceeded to gulp lager with an ebullient Irishman, which convened into a near-disastrous mechanical collapse on the part of Katz’ car that involved swift bilingual mechanical fiddling, a pointless battery swap and at least 10 neighborhood dudes poking, pulling, suggesting, testing and generally swarming the vehicle on the dimly lit street while a kid of about 11 implored me, in melodious English, “Hey, chief, why don’t you just give me some money?” We wound up hitching a ride home in the SUV of a Red Cross worker who had joined us at the bar and who suggested us, prudently, to pay one of the guys 500 gourdes (about $12.50 American) for their time.
The vehicle survived the night. Mechanics swapped out some insulated tentacle from the starting system and we were back on the road Sunday morning. “What a fucked-up night,” I told Katz. “The capper on the evening is that everything broke.”
“If you like that,” he replied, “you’ll love living here.” With those words, I introduce you to a prescient video of our drive around Petionville on Saturday: