Posted on Tue, Jan. 19, 2010
last updated: January 19, 2010 08:34:48 AM
Carrying a pair of BlackBerries and an iPhone, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek made his way through one of the makeshift tent cities that dot this earthquake-ravaged city, talking with the newly homeless and shooting video he plans to show policymakers in Washington in an effort to draw the world's attention to Haiti's crushing needs.
Though protocol for lawmakers at disaster sites calls for an aerial tour and a perfunctory briefing with local dignitaries, Meek took the longer view.
He drove -- with no staffers -- into Haiti after flying to the Dominican Republic late Saturday and arrived in the capital city at 5:30 a.m., still wearing the gray suit he wore to a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. In his arms: a pair of work boots thrown hastily into a grocery sack.
The idea of seeing the damage firsthand took hold late Saturday, he said, after a briefing with disaster officials who assured him "everything would be fine." The images on his television set told a different story -- bodies piled up in the morgue, thousands sleeping under torn plastic sheeting in city parks.
"Nine out of 10 government officials want to tell you that everything is OK," he said. "But that's not what I was seeing."
Meek said he began shooting quick videos as a way of taking notes, but realized it could be a dynamic tool. "The visuals are going to be more powerful than 100 letters I could write," he said.
A man sitting in a chair at one of the camps, holding his bandaged knee aloft, told Meek he was pulled out from underneath his house.
"Where are you going after this?" Meek asked, gesturing to the park where entire families had set up camp, making dinner in cook pots, washing laundry in water drawn from a once-functioning fountain.
"He doesn't know," came the answer.
Then there was the man who was so intent on trying to dig his wife and daughter from the rubble of their home that the shovel handle he used was soaked with his own blood. "If anybody can survive this, the Haitian people can survive," Meek said.
He saw that resolve Sunday night. After a helicopter flight to view the damage with the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Meek went on a call with the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team, one of several working around the clock to pull survivors from the wreckage.
With Meek looking on, Miami-Dade rescuers pulled a 2-year-old girl from the rubble -- almost six days after the Jan. 12 quake. Meek's pictures and video of the event were telecast on CNN, NBC, CBS and Fox.
The Miami Democrat, who represents more Haitian-Americans than any other member of Congress, is no stranger to the country. He has been here at least 15 times. A number of Haitians recognized him and greeted him fondly, saying they remember his mother, former Rep. Carrie Meek.
But the visit came as Meek is being overshadowed in his bid for the U.S. Senate by a feisty Republican primary -- and he lost two campaign days, including an appearance at a Martin Luther King Day parade in St. Petersburg.
"We have a campaign staff that is doing a good job," he said. "But this has been my work for the last 15 years."
Meek hopes for a robust international response to Haiti -- "The U.S. can't do it alone" -- and said that although he believes disaster officials are "doing the best they can under the circumstances," there is room for improvement.
Meek suggested Haiti could take a lesson from Hurricane Andrew, in which "community health teams" were sent across the affected area to check on residents and tell them about the services that were available.