2.25.2010

IN-CLASS INTERVIEW: JESSE MCLEAN

February 10, 2010
Jen Chae


The devastation of the catastrophe was rough, but it is the aftermath that will last longer, said 22-year-old Toronto Star reporter Jesse McLean to a group of journalism students at Ryerson on Wednesday morning.
 “It [Haiti] is going to be a country that looks like post-World War I. There’s going to be people walking about in crutches everywhere,” said McLean, who was one of the first to cover the disaster scene in Haiti.
With the aid of a relief group called GlobalMedic, McLean left for Haiti on Jan.  13, 2010. He was sent on a seven-day trip to report on the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere on Jan. 12.
Upon arrival, McLean recalls looking out the window of a 26-seater rental van and witnessing the damage of infrastructure in the Haitian capital, Port au Prince, which affected an estimated 3 million people. 
 “The destruction is what you see in pictures, but everywhere,” said McLean. “It was not a fun experience at all. It was actually terrible.” 
McLean saw someone’s leg being sawed off with no use of antibiotics. He saw a man punching a child in the face and running with a box of tampons. His colleague saw someone shoot a child.
“I was in reporter mode. I wasn’t thinking when I saw these things,” said McLean regarding his emotions in a scene of disaster. “It’s surreal, you’re not really registering what you see. It wasn’t until I got home, it hit me.”
Although people had stopped crying after three or four days of the catastrophe, the smell of death never left, said McLean. He threw out two of his T-shirts because he could not get the smell out of them.
“There comes a time where rescuing people takes the back seat to taking care of the people who are rescued,” said McLean. “There are just too many people there. If you spent all your time rescuing, other people would die from infections.”
Vital infrastructure was destroyed in the earthquake including many notable landmark buildings, hospitals, transport facilities and communication systems. McLean had a hard time getting around the area. His rental car had no seatbelts and a broken door. There was no gas in the country; jugs of gasoline had to be bought from people off the streets. Roads were trashed; some people have taken over them to build homes and wild animals were walking around the streets. 
McLean said that aftershocks are still ruining buildings. He himself felt an aftershock while he was brushing his teeth; he thought he had vertigo, but ran out of his hotel room when he realized that the sink was spinning, too.
McLean said he saw some effective relief groups of certified doctors and paramedics, but also saw many “cowboys” who were not trained, skilled or certified to properly help the situation. He also said that some relief groups seemed competitive.
“Something would be working, then another relief group would come and say ‘We’re doing it that way’,” said McLean. “It [relief group] is a business, I can’t forget that, and I didn’t realize until I got there.”
The United Nations would step in and throw out boxes of food from trucks, said McLean. Haitian citizens, not knowing when the food is going to run out, would take food from children’s hands and even pull out knives, threatening each other for food.
“There’s no justice, no government left. The NGO’s are too beaurocratic to make anything happen.”
McLean said he was often swarmed by Haitians with their identification cards flashing at him. 
“Once they find out you’re Canadian, you’re begged and begged and you can’t do anything.” said Mclean. “You help them with what you can, but you have a job to do, too.”
But people were so willing to be interviewed. 
“They’re willing to share because they thought it could lead to something better,” said McLean. 
The story of Haiti may slowly escape the public’s eye, but Mclean believes that this incident is the worst of the decade and that stories will continue, even after 10 years. 
 “As a journalist, I want to go back,” said McLean. “The story’s not over, it won’t be over for a long time.” 
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