Haitians Rely On Old-School Communication In Earthquake Aftermath

Handwritten letters and radio serve as primary means of communication in impoverished nation.

While the world tweets, texts and blogs about the aftermath of last Tuesday’s 7.0 earthquake in Haiti, the massive destruction of the island’s infrastructure has left many Haitians scrambling to communicate with and find loved ones.

Cell phone service has been spotty on the impoverished Caribbean island nation, and even those lucky enough to still have mobile phones that work are having trouble finding a way to charge the devices due to the massive power outages.

“What’s really interesting is how people have cell phones but no electricity in their homes, so they carry their chargers around and plug it in whenever they find an outlet,” Scott Sundick, a surgeon from New Jersey who has been in Haiti helping the sick and wounded for the past week, told MTV News. “As far as finding families, we are getting kids here onto whom the Navy has written family members’ phone numbers, if the parents are dead or alive [on their bodies].”

Complicating matters is that the children with numbers and names scrawled on their bodies or on pieces of paper taped to their torsos have been airlifted to a hospital in Cap Haïtien, which is hundreds of miles from the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince.

Social media has been the go-to story of the Haitian disaster, with tens of millions raised for relief through texts to Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti foundation and the Red Cross. But for many Haitians, it’s a previous era’s most rudimentary technology that is helping them track down missing relatives on the island.

“A lot of people are contacting us to find out where someone is and we are relaying messages over the air to Haiti,” said Dr. Jean-Claude Gilles, director of programming at Brooklyn, New York’s Creole-language radio station Radyo Pa Nou . By contacting sister stations in other cities in Haiti not as impacted by the quake, Pa Nou has acted as a kind of telegraph service for families trying to reunite. “We read the names over the air and give out the phone number and the names of family members.”

Just days after the quake struck, Jeffrey Joseph, the vice president and general manager of the station, told MTV News that the station had received hundreds of calls from New York families looking to locate relatives on the island, with around a 20 percent success rate of actually finding those family members.

In some cases, the way those connections happen hearkens back to not just a pre-Internet era, but a pre-television one. According to Joseph, after his station relays names to Haiti, someone on the other end will order volunteers to physically bike or walk into the street in search of the names they’ve been given.

“They ride to the neighborhood or, if they know someone that’s closer to that neighborhood, they’ll contact someone from there,” he explained. “If they give us [back] a long list of 20 to 30 people, we’ll say [on our airwaves], ‘The Joseph family calling about your two sons, they’re alive.’ And then we’ll go from there, on and on.”

Alison Smith, a Tulane University medical student who has been blogging about the crisis in Haiti for MTV News said on Wednesday, “People on the ground are not communicating. One of our volunteers, a Haitian-American, Terry Pierre-Lewis, realized today that people here cannot get word back to their families that they are OK. He is going around trying to collect numbers and will call families when he gets back to the U.S. in a few days.”

Smith said with several major cell phone towers still down, many people are not able to communicate with family. “We have had many people showing up at the hospital with pictures, begging us to know if we have seen their loved ones. Even many of the Haitians who came here from the U.S. to find their friends and loved ones cannot find them because of the lack of communication and transportation.”

According to CNN, hand-delivered messages are just one of the old-school methods being employed by Haitians who find themselves without Internet and phone service and, in some cases, the ability to even walk down the street and talk to neighbors due to the mounds of rubble around the city. Some of the island’s natives are turning to primitive amateur radio (often called ham radio) to send signals to the U.S. with requests for information on missing relatives. Only one-third of the people in Haiti have access to mobile phones, compared to 90 percent of Americans. Additionally, only 11 percent of Haitians have access to the Internet in non-emergency situations.

Though the communication situation has improved some in the days since the initial quake — a 23-year-old woman was rescued on Monday after sending text messages from beneath the ruins of a school building — radio stations in Port-au-Prince are providing much-needed news updates for those on the ground with no access to computers and cell phones; cell service was returned to much of the country several days after the quake.

And while much of the country’s already shaky infrastructure was damaged in the quake, some organizations have tapped into Haiti’s one unshakable natural resource to help speed communications: the sun. In addition to solar-powered ovens and water purification systems that have been flown in, organizations such as the Dutch company Intivation have been shipping sun-powered cell phones to Haiti which can operate without any electricity. Additionally, the One Laptop per Child organization is preparing to ship free, solar-powered XO laptops to the island that will allow children to browse the Internet wirelessly and run educational programs.

Head here to learn more about what you can do to help with earthquake-relief efforts in Haiti, and for more information, see Think MTV. Join George Clooney and Wyclef Jean for MTV’s “Hope for Haiti” telethon, airing commercial-free Friday, January 22, at 8 p.m. ET.

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.