On my way to Haiti

I have been unable to post much of anything since our trip to Haiti in the middle of December…and now I write only to say I am on my way back to Haiti. I wrote the following early this morning and sent it as an e-mail to family and friends.

The Earthquake

The earthquake hit Haiti on Monday afternoon. Earlier that morning I was giving a presentation at an all-girls Catholic high school just outside of Los Angeles. After showing footage from Uganda, I spoke about Haiti. As I spoke, I became very emotional…and on the verge of tears. Then, hours later, a friend from ABC News called to say that moments ago a massive earthquake struck Haiti.

As the hours rolled on, the tragedy intensified. The initial news reports and images were horrifying. By Tuesday, the world was beginning to understand the extent of the damage and the horrific loss of life. Port-au-Prince had been leveled, completely destroyed…and perhaps 100,000 people were crushed in collapsed buildings.

I had planned to return to Haiti in the middle of February to do some additional filming. But the impulse to return immediately was strong. We scrambled to catch a flight to Haiti on Monday night. But we heard that the airport was damaged and closed.

On Tuesday, I was glued to news reports. And my heart became overwhelmed with sadness. I felt I had to return. But how? And was it necessary? Would it do any good?

As I was falling asleep Tuesday night, Danny came to my mind. Back in the late 1990’s, I was in Albany, New York making a film about a saintly priest who cared for ex-convicts who were drug addicts. Danny was in the priest’s rehab center. He was just out of prison. His recovery was very raw and fragile. Some felt he would slip back into his old ways. I interviewed him on camera, and he was mesmerizing. He said that he used to think that anyone who would steal from their mother in order to get money for a fix was “a piece of shit.” Then he looked straight into the camera and said, “Well, I stole from my mother.”

It was a sincere and powerful revelation. I asked Danny if he had ever asked his mother for forgiveness. He had not. I learned his mother lived about an hour away, in a trailer park, where she cared for her very ill second husband. I suggested to Danny that we visit her. The priest felt Danny was too new in his recovery to leave the center. But he gave us permission anyway. We filmed Danny hugging his mother and saying he was sorry. You could see the love in her eyes. It was a truly wonderful moment. We then took Danny down to Harlem and he told us on camera standing in front of a tenement crack house how he used to shoot up dope in the building. He spoke about the rats and the naked people…and those who died.

Danny’s recovery stuck. He has been clean and sober for more than 11 years. He stayed in occasional contact with me over the years, once actually visiting in person when he was in LA. He said how important that day with me was in his life.

As I laid in bed that Tuesday, unable to sleep because of all the haunting images on the news from Haiti, I remembered that Danny had been working for years at a company that chartered private jets. First thing Wednesday morning, I e-mailed Danny. Within minutes he responded, saying he would see what he could do. A few hours later, Danny wrote to say it was not looking good. While the single runway at the airport in Port-au-Prince was open, the control tower was badly damaged and not functioning. All commercial flights were canceled, and only humanitarian flights could land. Danny said some pilots did not want to fly into Haiti and the others were booked solid by high-priced news organizations from around the world. Moreover, the flights were very expensive, at least $8,000.

I called Danny and told him I had to get to Haiti and asked him to really try hard to find me something. He promised he would. Around three o’clock Danny called. He found a small, six-seated jet that could depart from Miami on Friday at noon. I asked how much it would cost. He said $12,000. I gulped. During the day my friend Karl from Holy Family Catholic Church in South Pasadena called to say he could raise some funds for my return flight to Haiti if I found a plane. Karl’s church is very active in supporting Fr. Tom Hagan, a wonderful priest who has been in Port-au-Prince for sixteen years. He operates schools for 8,000 kids in Cité Soleil, the oldest and largest slum in Port-au-Prince. It is a dark and dangerous place where violence and disease are rampant. We filmed Fr. Tom in that slum in December. We fell in love with him, and the desperately grim slum has haunted me since my return from Haiti just before Christmas. I guessed Karl might be able to raise a few grand, but $12,000 was out of the question.

Then Danny said something that took the wind out of my sails. He said all the pilot could do is land in Port-au-Prince, drop us off on the runway and then return to Miami. That sounded reasonable. Then I said, “And he will come back for us in five days.” Danny said, “No.” It quickly dawned on me that the 12 grand was for a one-way flight. Danny explained we would be charged $3,000 an hour. It was a nearly a two hour flight and so with the plane’s trip back to Miami, we had to pay for four hours, including a little time for the pilot to clear customs in Miami.

Hopes for returning were quickly fading. How would I get back from Haiti? Even if commercial flights were resumed, the crush of people trying to get out of Haiti would create a mad scramble for every available seat.

So here was the situation I faced. I had to raise $12,000 very, very quickly. If I was successful, I would land in Haiti Friday afternoon. I would have no place to stay, no ground transportation and would only be able to eat and drink whatever food or water we could carry with us. We would, most likely, have to walk wherever we went. We would be essentially on the streets with the tens of thousands of homeless Haitians. Dead bodies were already piling up in the streets. We would be walking into a true nightmare, a living hell. With no real plan on how to get out.

Yet, I was willing to go. Actually wanted to go.

I wrote some people an e-mail, telling them I had found a charter, but it cost $12,000 just to get to Haiti. I said I was leaving the entire thing in the Lord’s hands. If the money came by Thursday morning, I would book the charter and trust all would work out, including a flight back to Miami.

Within two hours, two people wrote. One pledged $12,000, another $1,000.

I talked to Jeremy. We decided to walk through the door that was opening for us.

I left work at 6:30pm and as I walked to my car, a line from one of my films dashed across my mind: “Christ is not looking for our spare change, Christ want our lives.” I thought about the deeper meaning of those words.

When I got home, I was horrified by the fresh video come from the networks. The damage and extent of the catastrophe was suddenly stunningly clear. And just as suddenly, I was confronted with the reality that in less than 24 hours I would be in the middle of the chaos, in the middle of all that death and destruction. Jeremy and I spoke on the phone for awhile, talking about some practical matters. How much could we carry? We figured we would pretty much just wear the same clothes for five days. How would we get around? We tried to imagine ourselves in the situation we knew existed in Port-au-Prince. We figured we could last for five days on little sleep and little food and water.

But getting out was a problem. Could we simply trust we would find a seat on a plane? A friend from ABC News called. They were looking for someone in LA who was born in Haiti and still had family still living in Port-au-Prince. I gave him the number of a wonderfully eloquent Haitian who traveled with us on our first trip. I then mentioned the charter flight, that we had a six-seat plane. My friend saw an opening to get a correspondent and cameraman to Haiti. There were no charters available, yet I had a plane. He said that if ABC needed to get someone there on Friday, ABC News would cover the cost of the flight. Which would give me the money to book a return flight.

By Thursday morning, another person had donated $1,000 for this trip. That was good news as we still had to pay nearly $1,000 for the round trip flight to Miami on American airlines.

As I sat alone last night sipping some wine and watching CNN, I became scared. I did not want to see what I would see. I began to cry. I woke up at 4am and my headed was spinning with details of all that had to be done before the flight at 9pm. And then I thought about the reality we would be facing.

I was so upset by what I had filmed in Cité Soleil in December. But want distressed me the most was filming woman and little girls squatting in the rotting garbage in order to defecate and urinate. And now, in all likelihood, I would be doing the same thing.

I wanted to get up and call the whole thing off. And just return in a few weeks and film some collapsed buildings.

But on Thursday night another dear friend told me I actually had a responsibility to return. How could I truly tell the story of the suffering in Haiti if I could not see, smell, feel and touch the scope of the disaster. I had to truly be connected with the people, to be one with them in there hour of need.

And so, in three hours, at 9am today, I will talk with Danny and finalize all the plans for a round trip charter flights to Haiti.

We will spend a lot of money. Perhaps it would be better spent by giving it to Catholic Relief Services. I do not know. But I think millions upon millions of dollars will flow into the many wonderful relief agencies. But I also believe the poor of Cité Soleil, whose lives where already unthinkably hard before the earthquake, will be at the end of a very, very long line of people waiting for international aid. Three million people have been impacted by this earthquake. I believe the film we will produce, with powerful footage from before the earthquake and with footage from the immediately after the earthquake will be so intense, so compelling that it will raise a ton of money for people like Fr. Tom, who have been quietly working in the shadows for years, doing what they can for the truly neediest of Port-au-Prince, truly living the self-emptying love Christ asks from all of us.

One last thing. Yesterday I exchanged numerous e-mails with my friend Tom Roberts, from National Catholic Reporter. Tom has a great interest in Haiti and spent nearly a month there late last year. Tom said that if I could get a satellite phone, I could call him from Haiti and deliver live updates on the situation which he would post on the NCR website. So, if Jeremy can find a satellite phone in the little time we have today…we will be broadcasting from Haiti.

Also, it is a good time to remind people of the Santa Chiara Fund. This is a separate account within the San Damiano Foundation. Money donated to the fund is given directly to people and ministries most in need of financial support. The money is dispensed at my discretion. We used some of it in Uganda, buying medicine for sick kids. Any funds donated to the Santa Chiara fund will be given to Fr. Tom and others serving in Cité Soleil. You can make a check out to the San Damiano Foundation, and on the memo line of the check write: Santa Chiara Fund/HAITI.

I am scared…but writing this has helped me see God’s hand in this trip. Please keep Jeremy and I…and all the people of Haiti…in your prayers.

Peace and blessings,



1 Response to “On my way to Haiti”

  1. 1 Kevin McManus January 15, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Gerry – try these guys for a satellite phone:


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