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Last updated: 12 February, 2010 - Published 16:32 GMT
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Haiti: A month of coverage

Haiti's National Palace collapsed

Being an insomniac helps in monitoring and keeping up with world news overnight.

But when the devastation is on your patch, it's enough to shock you out of your bed and into Bush House (the home of the BBC's World Service) in record time.

And so began a month of coverage and help for Haiti with the BBC's small Caribbean Service at the centre of the activity.

The extent of the earthquake in Haiti became clear during the first calls being made to Haiti (no answers), the Dominican Republic (correspondent heading to the airport at 2 in the morning), and neighbouring territories (Jamaica's nearest coast had felt some mild tremors but that was it).

Wider impact

Also, as we watched the news agency pictures unfold on the international news channels, the full extent became clear.

This wasn't a story about Haiti's poor taking a battering once again because of poor infrastructure.

As the agency cameramen moved into the capital, the raw footage showed the collapse of the National Palace, the loss of key government buildings, police stations, and, crucially, the local headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping team.

During the course of the morning, the Caribbean Service was called upon to give background information on Haiti to many parts of BBC television, local and international, BBC radio, World Service and UK-based services, and the BBC's online services.

woman covered in dust
News organisations provided the background as facts and people emerged from the rubble

Given that our tiny team was down by two members of staff, this often meant one doing the Caribbean material and one providing material for the rest of the BBC.

We also spent large parts of the day trying to contact our man in Port-au-Prince who also files for a major news agency.

While we couldn't get through to him by phone (most phones were out in Haiti), we could see his contributions on the wire service and it was clear he was, at least, alive.

By day two, there were extended programmes to cover the full extent of the devastation as the picture became clearer.

Even Washington found the Caribbean service.

The Chief National Security Council Spokesman found our programming for the Caribbean through the BBC's Washington Bureau, for several interviews and US early efforts to help the people of Haiti.

But days two and three after the quake then threw up one of the biggest but most rewarding challenges for many of us - how to pull together a lifeline programme for Haiti in no time at all.

Creole programming

For what became the creole lifeline programme, everyone pulled out the stops.

Initially, the World Service Transmission team worked out fairly quickly that remaining shortwave frequencies for Cuba could be easily directed at Haii next door.

The question became what to put on the frequency which would be of use to Haitians when most of their radio stations were clearly off-air.

Although creole is the language of choice in Haiti, we knew that French would be understood enough to broadcast existing programming at the BBC.

So the BBC's French for Africa Service, which was broadcasting material on Haiti, was slipped into the shortwave stream by 15 January.

By that date, also, World Service Director Peter Horrocks also opened up the option of creating a programme from scratch in creole.

At that point, it became a discussion between editorial teams from the Caribbean service, the wider Americas region, World Service newsroom, and the technical and marketing experts.

Few meetings, lots of co-operation, and we were good to go.

A production team for the creole programme, with the working title of 'Connecting Haiti' ('Connexion Haiti') was pulled together within hours - producers from World Service newsroom, a creole-speaker from BBC Caribbean, resources from the BBC Miami, and creole presenters from the Haitian community in Miami.

Visas were applied for, flights were booked, and initial programmes were on air by the weekend of 20 January.

As we'd agreed at meetings in London and later with the creole team in Miami, this was not a news programme but vital information for Haitians seeking the location of a temporary hospital, water supplies, food drops, and other key information.

The weekend of 20 January was a flurry of technical and editorial to-ing and fro-ing between Miami and London.

But, it worked and the BBC continued to both cover the aftermath of the quake as well as serve the people of Haiti through this new service.

Mucking in

woman with pots
A month on, the story now moves to survival and rebuilding

Looking back on my notebooks (yes, there were several) during those initial days covering the quake, I see names of people I'll probably never meet or talk to again.

Producers who promised and delivered in providing a welcome at their Port-au-Prince hotel for our correspondent who had lost his home.

Aid workers who provided mobile phone interviews while crossing the Dominican Republic border.

BBC correspondents whom you usuallly only hear or see on air with phone numbers from Haitians they'd met who simply anted a message delivered to their relatives outside of Haiti to indicate they were still alive.

All of these examples of people going beyond the call of duty for Haiti.

But, when the story AND the needs of the Haitian people could be both served by a large and often complicated news organisation like the BBC, there is a sense of gratitude that public service broadcasting can be more than the daily news agenda.

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