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Flights with Two Local Groups Get Reporter to Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — I am writing this NEWS WATCH entry from an orphanage in devastated Port-au-Prince, during my second visit to the impoverished nation since the Jan. 12 earthquake.

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve made two trips to Haiti, including landing in a Cessna 402 in Port-au-Prince less than 20 hours after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

For that, I credit a local missionary contact and my editors, who agreed for me to make the trips.

Let me back up. After some time off, I was set to return to work at FLORIDA TODAY the day before the earthquake. I was recuperating from a short bout with the flu when my mother-in-law called with news of the earthquake. Knowing I had been to Haiti before on mission trips, she said she was sorry to have to give me the news.

I clicked on the TV and then called local missionary Joe Hurston for his reaction. Joe has lived and worked in Haiti for the better part of 30 years. Ninety seconds into the conversation came the words I was hoping for: “I have a plane. Do you want to go?”

I checked with my wife Jennifer, who gave her go-ahead. Then I started calling editors and reached Tom Clifford, delivery desk editor.

“Tom,” I said, “I’ve got a ride leaving in hours, and I can get great stories, photos, a blog — whatever you want.”

To be honest, there was no way I could promise that. I had no idea what was working in Haiti and what wasn’t.

(Editor’s note: “I knew full well John couldn’t promise immediate delivery of all that content, but also knew we had a unique opportunity to get a reporter in-country well ahead of other media, and that when he did file it would be compelling work.” — Tom Clifford)

A few phone calls later, I was on my way to Wal-Mart for third-world essentials. Having reported from the tsunami in Indonesia, the AIDS pandemic in Zambia, poverty in Mumbai, I knew I needed wet wipes, bug spray and Germ-x. We were set to fly out of Titusville, but the plane sprung a fuel leak. We drove two hours south to beg a friend of Joe’s to take us in his plane. Somehow it worked. By mid-afternoon Wednesday we were looking out for other incoming aircraft in the desolated Port-au-Prince airport.

Moments after landing I noticed how shell-shocked everyone there looked. People wandered around, not knowing what to do next. The drive to where we planned to stay was almost impossible. We gave up a quarter-mile from our destination and walked the rest of the way, over crumbled buildings, downed walls and razor wire.

Luckily, the orphanage where we arranged to stay had a rare luxury: working high-speed wireless Internet, Vonage phone service and even satellite television.

By the following morning I had plenty to write about:

* Orphans sleeping outdoors because their “homes” were damaged;
* A man I witnessed pulling one of his ducks from the rubble and then kissing it;
* Continuing tremors that sent people running to the middle of the street.

I started filing stories and photos. My editors helped me set up a Twitter account, and I was able to send out short real-time updates from across the devastated city.

Nothing I had seen in other third-world countries, including the tsunami in Indonesia, prepared me for what had become of downtown Port-au-Prince. It was unrecognizable. Landmarks were gone. Haitians stood atop pancaked buildings banging on rubble with sticks as they searched for survivors. Some were crying, others were reading the bible and thanking God they had survived.

I struggled with my emotions as we drove and walked past dozens and dozens of dead bodies lining the sidewalks, as well as the thousands and thousands of new homeless people setting up camp in tent cities.

Four days later, with a flight home secured, I returned to Florida knowing I would come back to Haiti. For this second trip, I traveled with a group of local doctors. Knowing what to expect, I came better prepared emotionally.

But I will leave Haiti for a second time with the same thoughts I left with the first time: “How can this city, this country ever recover? And how soon before I return?”