Monday, July 31, 2006
Seeing red in Israel
"Does anybody know what's in this stuff?" That's the question my cameraman, Neil Hallsworth, asked as a red-colored chemical fell over us.
It's a flame retardant the Israelis drop from small planes trying to put out the fires started by incoming Hezbollah rockets.
"My face is burning," Neil went on to say.
"I'm sure it's nothing. They must drop this stuff on firefighters all the time," I said. Though the truth is, I have no idea what's in it.
We were standing next to a roaring fire started by a Katyusha rocket. So far, two have fallen around Kiryat Shmona, but it's still early in the afternoon. Yesterday, nearly a hundred rockets fell in this area.
Despite all the talk of a ceasefire, the exchange of rockets and shells continues along the border.
Given the pictures the world has been watching since yesterday, the horrific images of little children crushed by a falling building in southern Lebanon, it is possible that sometime this week diplomatic efforts will overtake events on the ground.
It is interesting how one event, one attack, one tragedy, can suddenly alter a situation.
In Israel, many people look at those pictures of children pulled from rubble on Sunday and say, "It's terrible, but Hezbollah is to blame, because they hide their rockets next to civilians."
In the Muslim world, that is certainly not what most people say when they see those pictures. And that sentiment certainly was not the dominant one on Arab TV yesterday, which played the pictures over and over.
Tonight, we will focus a lot on the deaths in Qana. Meantime, I'm interested in hearing from you. Did what happened yesterday in Qana somehow change the way you view this crisis? Or did it leave your views unchanged?
Oh yeah, and if any of you know what's actually in that flame retardant, I've got a red-colored cameraman who'd love to know.
Friday, July 28, 2006
Ancient hatreds hardening in Middle East
In the first days of fighting in the Middle East, some Arab leaders found themselves in the unusual position of criticizing an attack on Israel; suggesting that Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, the event that started this latest bloodshed, was ill-conceived, risky and wrong.
At that time, the loudest complaints about Israel's actions were coming from Syria and Iran, countries that have backed Hezbollah for years.
But look at how a little more than two weeks can change things.
The Israeli military has been battling Hezbollah nonstop and hammering Lebanon. And now, Middle East watchers say public complaints about Israel's actions are growing noticeably louder throughout the Arab world. The images of Lebanese killed, wounded and fleeing; the pictures of Hezbollah neighborhoods reduced to rubble; the mere thought of Israel attacking on the soil of an Arab country -- these things have triggered many deep-seated and long-lived hatreds.
Some of the Middle East experts I have talked to say this should not be mistaken for the beginning of a massive, pro-Hezbollah movement. Many Arabs, they say, especially those who must live alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon, do not like the group's radical politics and despise its militant methods. But few Arabs say that publicly.
It was explained to me this way: Ask any Arab if he or she supports Hezbollah right now and that person is likely to say "yes," but what they mean is that they are not about to be heard supporting Israel.
Some Arabs have always hated Israel and probably always will. Some Israelis, no doubt, would be happy to be rid of many Arabs. So my question is this: Does it make any difference, with the guns of war pounding, that their hatreds may be hardening even more?
What do you hear in these sounds?
Everyone's playing a strange guessing game in northern Israel these days. There are so many explosions in the air -- blasts from Israeli 155mm artillary guns and booms from exploding Hezbollah Katyusha rockets -- we all spend our days and nights trying to guess if the weapons are going out or coming in.
Our local translator and friend Alon has lived in the town of Kiryat Shmona most of his life. He has years of practice playing the game.
"Drive with the windows down so you can listen close," he says. "Outgoing sounds like a pop and incoming sounds more like a sucking sound."
I try, but can't tell the difference. Anderson says he can, but I'm not sure I believe him.
To spend any time here is to be used to the sound. A lot of the journalists covering the conflict here are staying at a local kibbutz that's literally surrounded by artillery batteries.
When we first arrived four days ago, we'd pause mid-sentence when the guns would fire; they're so frequent today that even though the windows rattle with each bang, no one even seems to notice. We're hoping it's all outgoing.
The game gets real when you see the damage these things inflict. We were driving to scout locations yesterday when we noticed black smoke rising from a building we passed, an emergency vehicle racing towards it. We followed and found two Katyusha rockets had just struck a laundry detergent manufacturing plant. We watched as the smoke turned to fire and as that fire consumed nearly half the building. There were no casualites, but don't tell that to the company's owner; he arrived on the scene, threw up his hands and literally screamed at the flames.
We're on the Israeli side of the border, so we don't see the damage Israel's 155mm rounds dish out, but they appear no less destructive, as shown in reports from CNN correspondents in southern Lebanon. These are large, powerful, sophisticated weapons with pinpoint accuracy. You feel it in your stomach if you're standing next to one when it fires. They are weapons designed to destroy.
Yesterday, this part of northern Israel saw some of its most intense fighting. It seems today is starting the same way. The sun was rising as we finished the show and the air cracked with artillery bangs. We think all of it was outgoing, but the guessing game begins with another day.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Hezbollah's submission remains elusive goal
So here we are: Two Wednesday's ago Israel started trying to bomb Hezbollah into submission. Of course, they don't say that's what they are doing, but words like weaken, degrade, disarm, disrupt, dismantle, take out the leaders, are all synonyms.
In two weeks, civilians on both sides have paid the price. Lebanese Internal Security Forces said 398 have been killed in Lebanon, including Hezbollah fighters; 50 people have been killed in Israel, including 19 civilians, according to the Israeli military. Today alone, Hezbollah fired 151 rockets at Israel, the highest number since this all began, and nine soldiers were killed battle, the highest number so far.
At first, Israeli leaders told us the battle was going well, that they would need a few days to finish the task. We are still told it it's going well, only now they say they'll need a few weeks.
Meantime, Israeli soldiers and officers have started dying in combat, fierce hand-to-hand combat in little villages like Maroun Al-Ras and Bint Jbeil. In an interview with an Arab newspaper, Hezbollah Chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah popped-up to mock Israel, saying Israel celebrates the capture of tiny Maroon Al-Ras as if it were the fall of Stalingrad.
Standing on the Israeli side of the border, staring at Maroon Al-Ras, Brigadier General Alon Friedman tells me he respects his enemy.
"Definitely," he says. "Hezbollah give us a good military challenge, as an army, as the enemy. They have a program, they have a concept which they are carrying out. But as I said earlier, our army has good means. We have studied this organization for a long time. We know where we are going and therefore we have the program which is succeeding."
But now into the third week of war, the Katyusha rockets keep coming, even though Brigadier General Friedman told me Hezbollah is being pushed back: "We are taking them out of their positions and this causes the fire to be less focused, less accurate. He has to move north and fires less deep into Israel, and slowly we are moving them to where we want them."
Too slowly for some here. Already, the armchair generals are questioning the wisdom of Israel's military tactics: Should there have been more air power? A wider bombing campaign? Should the ground forces have gone in sooner? Should they seize, hold, even occupy land?
Hard to tell. The only thing we do know is that when the world's top diplomats gathered in Rome today, where all eyes were on the possibility of a ceasefire, Israel was given more time to bomb Hezbollah ... into submission?
Getting personal with Katyusha rockets
We've spent the day so far along the Israel-Lebanon border. It's amazing how quickly you get used to the sounds of shelling.
A couple days ago, I couldn't tell the difference between incoming and outgoing fire. Now, it's obvious to my ear.
We came upon a Katyusha rocket that had struck along the side of the road. It had created a trench about 80 feet long that was still on fire when we got there. The rocket was half-buried in the ground.
It was a strange moment. There was no one else around. There were no fatalities. And no one was injured. I guess emergency personnel had more pressing matters to attend to.
We then went to the local police station and took a look at the bomb squad's arsenal of rockets they've recovered. Some of these Katushyas are filled with ball bearings that scatter on impact, as Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported last night. The launchers themselves are rather basic devices. I'm always amazed by the simple methods humanity has devised to kill one another.
In this border area, the mountains are literally on fire. Rockets have landed along the forested slopes and huge plumes of white smoke fill the sky.
Tonight on the program, we'll show you what these Katyushas look like up close and how Israeli authorities are trying to deal with the seemingly endless supply of them that Hezbollah has at its disposal.
See you tonight.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
The faces of Hezbollah
What makes a terrorist?
I don't mean why do people starting bombing, and shooting and fighting from the shadows. I mean, for the purposes of news organizations defining terrorism, what should the definition be?
The United States and others clearly call Hezbollah a terrorist group: The source of countless raids, bombings and attacks on Israel; the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, which left 241 people dead; and the architects of all those displays in which young men cover their faces, strap mock bombs to their chests, and parade before the cameras pledging to kill any and all soldiers and civilians alike who oppose their cause.
All this makes Hezbollah, especially for many westerners, the very definition of a terrorist group.
But some people describe another part of Hezbollah. They talk about a group that is beloved in southern Lebanon for running schools, hospitals, social services, even clearing snow in the winter for some communities that the official government of Lebanon does not serve. They say these things make Hezbollah something other than a terrorist group: A quasi-government; a nation within a nation.
All of this is done for Shiite Muslim families. The Shiites in Lebanon have long felt economically and politically deprived, and Hezbollah clearly gives many of them a feeling of both military and social strength.
So for one side, Hezbollah is a killing machine bent on seizing by terror what it wants from the world; for the other side, Hezbollah is a brave force, fighting for the rights of its people.
So what should the standard be? If you ran a newsroom, how would you define who is called a terrorist and who is not? What, for you, is Hezbollah?
This is not another Katrina
A lot of times I wake up and have no idea where I am. The blinds are drawn, the room is nondescript. It happened again just a few minutes ago. I lay there, looking at the ceiling, trying to remember. A few seconds passed, then the sirens sounded. Haifa. If there are sirens, I must be in Haifa.
It's easy to get confused. We've been traveling around a lot, trying to see this story from as many different angles as possible. We were in Beirut yesterday, then Haifa, and we're about to move again. We are heading back to the border with Lebanon to focus on Israeli military actions in southern Lebanon.
Yesterday, I had the chance to talk with a lot of the U.S. Marines and State Department officials running the ongoing evacuation of Americans from Beirut. Every day this past week, Marine and Air Force choppers have been landing at the U.S. embassy and ferrying Americans home. They've moved more than a thousand people by air, more than ten thousand by ship.
I know there was some criticism of the evacuation effort early on, with some Democrats comparing it to the response to Hurricane Katrina. But the truth is this week American forces have moved a huge number of people out, and they've done it under very difficult circumstances. Seeing the Marines and State Department people in action, up close, is inspiring. They are highly motivated and are working around the clock. They have been giving medical treatment to the sick, and I've watched them play with kids who are screaming with fear because of the deafening whirl of the helicopters.
Now, it seems like the U.S. military will begin ferrying in humanitarian supplies. Some will no doubt be critical, saying that the United States is not doing more to stop the violence. That is certainly an understandable position. But I just wanted to take a moment and recognize the efforts that individual Marines and sailors and State Department folks have been making.
We are quick to point out when our government fails; it's important to recognize when it works as well.
Monday, July 24, 2006
Trying to avoid becoming a target
A lot of you have asked us to discuss some of the logistical challenges of covering the fighting. The reality is that how and where to report this story is, at best, a case study of making decisions on the fly.
Here's a download of where we are so far today:
Over the weekend, Anderson and his team hoped to get to the Tyre area in southern Lebanon. As you know, this area was a site of intense Israeli targeting in recent days. So the calculus for us became: Even if we could get there safely, could we actually get back out? Another big issue: Could we actually get a broadcast signal out of the Tyre area?
Among broadcasters there is a concern about how our small convoys of cars full of equipment and personnel look from the air. There is a risk Israelis (eyes in the sky: drones, satellites) could mistake them for a Hezbollah convoy headed closer to the border and within striking distance of Israel. So simply being on the road with several vehicles is a risk.
Plus, when we fire up our broadcast signals it is unclear what we look like to Israeli military monitoring stations. If there are a number of broadcasters firing up signals from the same remote place, the hope is that the Israelis would identify it as media signals, and not Hezbollah rocket electronics, and thus avoid being a target.
Other difficulties: With evacuations intensifying from south Lebanon and more and more bridges and roads getting hit, there is the very real chance our team could get stuck and unable to report and broadcast. It's a risk we did not want to take.
We concluded, for now anyway, this was a good time for Anderson to move out of Beirut and to another part of the region. Much of last night and early this morning were spent sorting out the best place for Anderson to be tonight.
At this writing, honestly, it's still a question mark.Update, 5:20 ET:
Looks like Anderson and team are going to broadcast from Haifa, Israel, tonight with series of packages and guests exploring Hezbollah, the large Christian population in Lebanon, and the most recent news from the frontlines.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Our very strange day with Hezbollah
Hezbollah invited us to come see them again; it's the second time in as many days. Yesterday, Anderson, photographer Neil Hallsworth and I drove to the southern suburbs of Beirut and waited at a predetermined meeting spot.
A few minutes passed, then an old, American-made sedan pulled up behind us. Two men jumped out of the car. Our fixer approached them and after an animated conversation, one of the Hezbollah men stuck his head in our car window and said in passable English, "We're very sorry to inconvenience you but there will be no tour today. There are Israeli drones overhead and it's not safe to be here. Please leave now." Those were easy orders to follow.
Today, we were told Hezbollah was again willing to take our team into their neighborhood. Meet them at the same spot, they said, at 11 a.m. and don't be late. We weren't. We waited. Then waited some more, and what follows is a log of a very strange day with Hezbollah.
10:40 a.m.: Our team of Anderson, Neil, producer Tommy Evans and I arrive at the site of a bridge that's been blown to pieces by Israeli bombs. It's the same spot we met our Hezbollah men yesterday. Next to the bridge there are two high-rise apartment buildings under construction. This is a poor neighborhood and new construction clearly doesn't come here often. The buildings are heavily damaged, though, and it seems unlikely they'll ever be completed.
10:50 a.m.: Our translator, Mira, is making a call to Hezbollah's office, making sure they know we've arrived. You don't have to spend much time in these neighborhoods to realize that you're an outsider ... and you're being watched. They tell us they know we're here.
11:05 a.m.: Hezbollah is late for our meeting. We're sitting still for 25 minutes in an area recently hit hard by Israeli jets, so it's no surprise the mood is tense. We're not talking much. A young couple passes by -- the boy is wearing jeans and short sleeves, the girl a head-scarf and a dress covering her body ankle to wrist. They nod politely and continue past us. They're holding hands. We're still waiting.
11:22 a.m.: A crowd of journalists is passing 200 yards behind us and we quickly realize we've been given bad information and that Hezbollah's tour has started without us. We turn our car around and try to catch up.
11:26 a.m.: It's not hard to spot 40 western journalists walking through a bombed-out area, and we've just now found the group. We also find out we missed some ground rules. We're pulling into a side street and two men dressed in black step out of a doorway with AK-47s. Neil has the camera on his shoulder and they immediately assume he's rolling. He's not, but they want to check the tape anyway. We show it to them and they let us pass. Hezbollah tour ground rule #1: Don't show the faces of anyone we don't want you to see or pictures of places you're not supposed to be. Now we know. We catch up to the group.
11:35 a.m.: We're standing on what used to be a residential street. It's now a mess of wires and rubble. Smoke is still rising off the debris. Bombs have smashed nearly a quarter mile of this area and there's virtually nothing left. There's a twisted tire from a children's bike here, some compact disks from someone's collection there. Anderson is doing a few stand-ups, but the Hezbollah representative leading the tour is telling us it's time to move on. We tell him we want to talk to some people who lived here, who witnessed what happened. "Not here," he says. "Maybe at our next stop."
12:05 p.m.: Our car is being led through back streets to a broken-down building with five ambulances parked in front. "These are the emergency workers who respond to casualty calls when Israel drops their bombs," the Hezbollah man says. "Take your pictures and talk to some of them if you'd like." We're growing tired of what is now obviously a dog-and-pony show, but we decide to play along, and approach one driver with a few questions. Anderson asks him what kind of casualties he's seeing, but before he can answer, the ambulance beside us turns on his siren and screeches out, followed by the next ambulance, then the next. It's a well coordinated and not-so-subtle piece of propaganda that might as well come with a soundtrack titled "Hezbollah Cares."
12:16 p.m.: We again ask the Hezbollah guy (he won't give us his name) when we can talk to some residents, but he brushes us off and tells us maybe at our next stop. He's now on his cell phone and it's not hard to imagine he's making sure all the props are in place before we move on. I wish I spoke Arabic. He opens our car door, slides in, and says he's riding with us. We're fine with it and offer him a bottle of water. "No thank you," he says in English. While we have his attention, Anderson asks him if we can talk to someone in Hezbollah's leadership. His answer is short: "Not while we're at war." He gets out of our car and onto the back of someone's motor scooter.
12:30 p.m.: We're now driving through a neighborhood that hasn't seen any bombing, but it's here we're told we can talk to some residents. Hezbollah guy takes us down to what amounts to a crude bomb shelter and tells us the people here live on this street but are afraid to sleep in their apartment. The concrete room is dimly lit and dank. Two people on plastic chairs are watching an Arabic news channel. One sits in the corner yelling angry epithets about Israel for the reporters. We wait for the media gaggle to leave, then introduce ourselves. They tell us they're a mother, her son and his wife. There's no way to know if it's true. The conversation follows a familiar pattern:
"Are you scared?"
"Will you fight?"
"To the death!"
"Do you hate Israel?"
"Of course, and its mother America!"
We thank them for their insights and move back up to the street.
12:44 p.m.: We're back on the street and on cue, a Hezbollah resistance song is now blaring from an apartment. A young man on the porch dressed in black is giving us the victory sign. I look behind me and there's our Hezbollah guide encouraging the young man to lift his hands higher so our camera can see.
12:50 p.m.: Anderson is doing a few more stand-ups about our story that's quickly become less about Hezbollah and more about their crude propaganda machine when the "family" emerges from the bunker behind us and joins their friends in the street. They're laughing, talking loudly, and gesturing with their hands, mocking anger. I really should learn Arabic. Anderson does another stand-up about the group now standing behind us.
12:55 p.m.: We pile into our van and are now driving out of the Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood. It feels like we've just left a haunted house: Slightly frightening at first, but ridiculous by the end.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
Aid trucks stuck at border
At the duty-free zone on the Syria-Lebanon border, the Dunkin' Donuts is deserted. No donuts, no muffins, no coffee -- not even a single employee.
I ask the Syrian cashier operating the shawarma/Turkish coffee shop nearby what happened.
"The food was all imported from Lebanon," he told me. "We don't even know what happened to the workers. We haven't seen or heard from then since the war began."
He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "That's life, madam, now stop wasting my time and order something."
The fact that roads linking Lebanon and Syria are either closed or too dangerous to navigate isn't just affecting this small Dunkin' Donuts stand. It's delaying crucial aid shipments into Lebanon from Syria.
The Red Crescent tells us more than 20 trucks filled with food are stuck at the border, waiting to drive in. Several truckloads of medicine made it through a few days ago, but food aid is still stuck at the border, with drivers twiddling their thumbs waiting for the go-ahead.
NGOs also tell us that medicine for long-term diseases normally imported into Syria from Lebanon could soon be in short supply. Will this short-term problem turn into a longer-term crisis? How long the fighting across the Syrian border drags on will determine that.
Friday, July 21, 2006
Call to prayer, silence, then 'boom'
There was a moment last night, as we were preparing for the program, when it was so peaceful and quiet that I could have been convinced the war had ended. We were on a balcony overlooking downtown Beirut; the first call to prayer was sounding.
We had been in Beirut for 20 hours and this was the first time I remember hearing the call. I am sure that's because it was the first time I was able to focus on it.
We flew in yesterday morning on a Marine chopper, landing on the embassy grounds. Within minutes, before we had even moved away from the landing pad, the helicopter lifted off with a group of evacuees inside. Many of the Americans on board were far too young to really understand what was happening. Little boys seemed torn between fear and the excitement of getting to dress up in a military helmet and life vest.
As we drove south from the embassy towards the center of the city, the cars in the northbound lane were bumper-to-bumper. Our driver explained that people were literally heading for the hills, the mountains in northern Lebanon, to wait out the war. It was the first time I'd heard someone wish the war would end soon and not sound like they believed it would.
Beirut really is lovely, quite possibly the most beautiful city in the Middle East, even with very apparent and still open scars from this conflict, and the conflicts that have come before. People here always seem to be whispering conspiracy theories; some think that once all the foreigners leave, the real shelling will begin. It's a frightening thought if you've seen pictures of what has already been done to the Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs.
On the balcony last night, the illusion of peace ended a few minutes after the call to prayer, as the silence was smashed by a massive explosion to the south.
The Arab street's resounding silence
The biggest mystery of this conflict so far is the reaction of the Arab street ... the Arab leaders. The silence resounding around the Middle East is deafening. For the first time, there is no phalanx of Arab leaders lined up to condemn Israel.
Rather, word is gradually being leaked in Israel that something different is afoot. A leading Israeli newspaper reports one moderate Arab leader with no relations to Israel sending the government a secret message to carry on, wipe-out Hezbollah for us once and for all. They are all mostly Sunni, and they would say that about the powerful Shiite resistance group tied to powerful Shiite Iran.
A senior western diplomat with intimate knowledge of the efforts to find a solution tells me that Lebanese and other Arab leaders privately are asking, "How could Hezbollah have incurred such Israeli wrath if it genuinely is a domestic movement?" In other words, they are worried about Iran. They are worried that an early ceasefire would not only make Hezbollah much stronger in Lebanon, but their patron --Iran -- much stronger in the Middle East.
They are also worried about the U.S. administration's hands-off policy giving the green light to Israel to go ahead and weaken what both call a terrorist organization. But it's a gamble with potentially dangerous consequences -- the mounting Lebanese casualties, the potential disaster that a full-scale ground invasion by Israel could turn the whole region into a raging cauldron. The United States is the only nation with the clout and credibility to stop this and help hammer out a real political solution to resolve this particular tinderbox.
Hezbollah may cry uncle ... Then again, it may not.
Paying for the bombs dropped on your head
It's an eery and ironic sight -- watching one ship after the other steaming in from the darkness and arriving in the port in Larnaca, Cyprus. Warships of great power unable to halt a conflict with their armies are instead helping the helpless to flee. Ferries and cruise ships usually signaling hordes of merry vacationers are packed to the gills with tired, sweaty, weary evacuees.
They pour out of the vessels by the hundreds, boarding buses taking them to the next ordeal -- getting through customs and processing by their own countries. Lining up behind their countries' flags, anxiously waiting to hear whether they'll catch a plane now or wait. The lucky stranded get a hotel; others a cot in a hall.
All seem grateful to be on safe ground, but fearful for their relatives still in Lebanon. "And strange that my tax dollars are being used to pay for the bombs being dropped on me," says one American.
Mideast solution requires 'long hard slog'
A senior American diplomat I talked with yesterday predicted that finding a solution to the Israel-Hezbollah conflict would be a "long hard slog" -- echoing Donald Rumsfeld's infamous words about Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already been working with her staff behind the scenes, speaking with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, as well as France and other European countries about a way forward. The key to ending hostilities in a way acceptable to both Israel and the United States will be the cooperation of Syria, one of Hezbollah's major sponsors, and acquiescence by Iran. The United States can't talk to Syria anymore, nor can it speak with Iran, so it will be up to other members of a "diplomatic coalition" to handle that part of the heavy lifting.
The plan will be to give support to Lebanon's government to take control of the country and disarm Hezbollah -- no small task given the enhanced position of authority Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is seeking. In addition, the international community must band together to help rebuild Lebanon's shattered towns, cities and infrastructure. And there will be other aspects to a settlement -- an international force to help keep the peace, a buffer zone along the border with Israel and measures to keep arms out of the hands of Hezbollah fighters.
The diplomatic wheels will really start turning when Rice visits the region -- most likely next week on her way to the ASEAN conference in Kuala Lumpur. Rice may drop off a few diplomats so they can work on a deal while she's in southeast Asia. Then, she'll likely circle back on her return and pick up the negotiations. State Department officials say that Secretary Rice is fully prepared to engage in the sort of intense shuttle diplomacy that Middle East deal-making has demanded, but not to reaffirm the status quo.
The United States is determined to see that any negotiated settlement of this crisis substantially changes the situation on the ground. The White House is content, for the moment, to allow Israel to continue its bombardment in hopes it can further degrade Hezbollah's capabilities. But diplomats say they are very much aware of the rising international criticism of the violence, and every day they reassess how much patience they have for Israel's military campaign.
Meantime, people on both sides of the border continue to suffer.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
The value of a pistol in an Israeli border town
The town of Metula on the Israel-Lebanon border -- this is where we are staying to cover Israel's northern battlefront. It's a ghost town, deserted except for a few journalists.
The proprietor of our small hotel always has her pistol at hand, just in case, she says. But there's a heavy artillery unit just nearby and there are tanks firing against a guerrilla army which has Katyusha rockets and mortars. How was a pistol going to help?
We found out last night amid a sudden flurry of soldiers racing towards the border fence, machine guns firing, and a helicopter firing overhead -- a massive and sustained barrage of artillery hitting Hezbollah positions and buildings on the hills opposite the town.
They had heard that Hezbollah guerrillas had infiltrated this small town. Imagining being taken prisoner, held hostage or worse, we realized what the pistol was for. Though it must be said we still don't know whether anyone actually did slip through the border fence.
But the incident highlighted the problem here: A first world army set against a militia whose military is a moveable feast. All the expensive F16s, the one ton bombs and the brilliant fighter pilots cannot take out a man with a rocket launcher on his back.
Israel may be pounding south Beirut, but the real goal seems to be the creation of a Hezbollah-free buffer zone at the border. Fighter pilots at Ramat David Air Force Base told us the military would be part of the solution, but the rest of it would have to be political in nature. So it's not just a buffer zone Israel is after, it's a completely different relationship with Lebanon.
Israel wants to share a border, not a front.
Business as usual in northern Beirut
Anderson and his team are writing and editing their pieces for tonight. I just spoke with our senior producer Charlie Moore, who is in Beirut with Anderson. Charlie's briefing adds more details on their trip into Beirut.
In Larnaca, the U.S. Marine base they left from had a number of huge choppers and C-130 transports waiting on the tarmac. It's super hot in Cyprus. Marines catching-up on rest were sprawled in the islands of shade under the huge wings of the transports.
The chopper flight from Larnaca to Beirut took them over the Mediterranean for about 50 minutes. Marine gunners in the front and tail of the chopper were on watch for threats from the sea. They flew fast and low. As they approached land, the Marines became even more vigilant as they watched for ground-fire.
They were headed for the U.S. embassy, which is near the water in northern Beirut. The choppers had to come in fast and drop quickly onto the tarmac in the middle of the embassy compound. The embassy is heavily fortified.
Inside, groups of Americans were waiting their turns for chopper rides out. More groups were waiting outside the embassy walls for rides too. But the scene was calm. No chaos. No desperate throngs waiting to evacuate.
In the trip from the embassy to the CNN bureau in Beirut what Charlie and the team saw is not a city under siege. Charlie describes crowded streets, lots of cabs -- business as usual in this northern part of the city.
But we understand the situation looks worse the further south one goes. Karl Penhaul is reporting in southern Lebanon for CNN and will file a report from the region for tonight's "360."
Hitching a chopper ride to Beirut
Beirut. That's where I'm heading now.
After nearly a week of covering this conflict from all over northern Israel and Cyprus, I'm finally about to take off for Beirut. Literally.
My team and I tried over the weekend to cross into Lebanon from Jordan, but Syria wouldn't let us in. Now we're shooting a story about the U.S. air bridge that has been ferrying Americans out of Beirut since Sunday.
Brigadier General Carl Jensen is in charge of the operation. He's a no-nonsense Marine determined to get the Americans out as quickly as possible. So far, they've taken about 1500 Americans by air and sea. On Thursday, they hope to get about 3000 more.
My team and I are on a Marine Corps chopper. Ok, now we just took off. Within about a minute, we are over water and the rear hatch of the chopper is opened up. The sea is an extraordinary blue, and the air in the chopper rapidly cools off. The thud of the rotors is deafening, but it is great to be moving again after a few days in one place.
We plan to stay in Beirut once we land, and put together a story about what the Marines are doing and how the evacuations are going. I'm not sure how long I will be in Beirut, but after three nights in Cyprus, it is good to be getting another angle on the story.
Assuming everything goes as planned, we should land in about an hour. We will try to do our show from Beirut tonight, and then after that, who knows? This is a fast-moving story and we are trying to follow it wherever it goes.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
'Tell the world we do not support Hezbollah'
The lobby of the Damascus hotel we're staying in is buzzing with activity 24 hours a day. Suitcases piled on top of each other, people falling from exhaustion in the seating area -- many of them evacuees who've driven the dangerous road from Lebanon to Syria, fleeing the bombings.
Phone lines are bad here and cell phone coverage is unreliable. Our main link with the CNN news desk is e-mail, so I visit the hotel's business center several times a day, e-mailing my producers and writing scripts. One man came in yesterday and ... breathlessly ... asked one of the hotel employees for a room for him and his five family members.
"All full," she answered.
"Not even one room?" he asked.
A lady walked over to him: "I'm checking out in two hours she told him. You can have my room."
"No, he can't," replied the hotel employee. There are dozens on the waiting list ahead of him.
This is what every hotel in Damascus looks like today. Lebanese, Saudis, Emiratis and others who had planned on spending a holiday or visiting family in Lebanon -- their summer plans drastically altered.
A Lebanese woman stopped me in the hallway. She and her two children made it out of Lebanon and were waiting for a flight to Dubai, where they live.
"You must tell the world we do not support Hezbollah. We do not support anyone. But my country is being destroyed by people using it as a battleground."
Her voice was trembling and her eyes teary.
And, relatively speaking, she is one of the lucky ones. The number of refugees without the money to buy basics, let alone pay for accomodation is swelling at the Syrian-Lebanese border. People are coping now, but for how long?
Terrorism groups helped by black market goods
Do you ever wonder who profits from the black market sale of cigarettes or Viagra? Well, those purchases could help finance Hezbollah, the terrorist organization engaged in a conflict with Israel.
"Anytime that you buy a good illegally on the black market, there is a possibility you are helping to fund groups like Hamas and Hezbollah," said terrorism financing expert Emily Hunt.
Hunt says tens of millions of dollars -- a conservative estimate -- is funneled to Hezbollah from the United States through various illegal operations.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 19 men with "racketeering to support a terrorist organization." For eight years, investigators say, the suspects sold contraband cigarettes, counterfeit rolling papers, even counterfeit Viagra.
Investigators say the suspects bought cigarettes in North Carolina, where taxes are lower, or in some cases at a New York Indian reservations, where there are no taxes. By doing so, they evaded tens of millions of dollars in cigarette taxes.
They then made huge profits by reselling the cigarettes in New York and Michigan at market prices. A portion of the profits, the indictment charges, was given to Hezbollah. Can you imagine? U.S. citizens unknowingly sending money to Hezbollah.
But some other Americans were well aware of what was going on. In some cases, buyers on the black market were charged a "resistance tax" -- a set amount over the going price -- and told the money would go to Hezbollah, investigators said.
Members of the group also allegedly solicited cash from customers to be given to orphans of Hezbollah suicide bombers. And the money trail doesn't stop there. Investigators say Hezbollah also received financing through sympathetic charities. After the donations were made, they were diverted to Hezbollah.
"Many of them are able to kind of fly under the radar simply because we don't have the resources. ... Law enforcement doesn't have the training or the time to really be delving into their backgrounds," Hunt said.
Looking for Lebanese and Israeli webcams
I'm working on a piece for "360" on people in Lebanon and Israel using high-tech ways to tell their stories to the rest of the world. Have you seen any great videos from the area? Is there anyone in Lebanon or Israel with a webcam who would like to be interviewed? Let us know in the comments section below or by sending us an e-mail using this form
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
U.S. response exasperating for some Americans
We spent the day in Cyprus tracking the latest efforts to get Americans out of Lebanon.
The U.S. government says it has evacuated more than 100 Americans, but their efforts are clearly lagging behind those of other countries. The French and Italians have gotten hundreds of their citizens out.
Some of the Americans who have made it out are clearly exasperated with the U.S. response. You see them checking into Larnaca's beachfront hotels tired, frustrated, and a little stunned at what they've been through.
I just finished interviewing one American woman with three young children. The kids were bouncing on the bed of their hotel room, oblivious to the nightmare they just escaped.
Their mother was lucky. She was able to get a spot on a Marine Corps chopper and has a ticket back to New York in a few hours.
"I don't know how they are going to get all those people out," she told me.
The United States has a number of ships en route and chopper flights will continue, but getting people out means crossing a logistical minefield.
Another ship may arrive with more evacuees tonight while we are on the air, but it's hard to predict exact arrival times.
We will bring you the latest tonight on the evacuations. We'll also check-in with CNN correspondents for the latest news from Lebanon, Israel, Syria and the rest of the region.
As for tomorrow, there's no telling where we will be. This is a fast-moving story and we are trying to bring it to you from as many angles as possible.
I'm curious to hear your perspective. Do you think what Israel is doing is legitimate? Should the United States push for a ceasefire? Or is the Bush administration's current approach appropriate?
Man seeks his fate in Lebanon
"It was a nightmare."
I heard that over and over again in the day I spent along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Hundreds of thousands of people have been streaming across the main crossing since this crisis began. Most are poor Syrian workers living in Lebanon. Many of them had no money for a car; they walked, carrying whatever they could, from Lebanon into Syria.
I met Lebanese families who described the bombs dropping close to their homes. One man helped four injured people to the hospital and then grabbed his family and took off for Syria.
The officials here -- a country not so easy to enter to begin with -- have relaxed the rules. Diplomats, tourists and everyone in between spent hours crossing into Syria.
They come with a sense of suffocating uncertainty. When will they go home? Will Syria become part of this escalating crisis, the very place they have fled to in order to escape the violence?
Hotels are overflowing with guests, some spending the nights on the lobby floor. It all happened so quickly, and many are only now coming to grips with what they saw.
The road into Lebanon at the crossing we were at was understandably empty. But a few cars did go in. One Lebanese man I met was living in Saudi Arabia. After he saw the news, he rushed back to Lebanon.
I asked why, and he said, "My family. My country. My everything is in Lebanon. Now I must be in Lebanon. If I die anywhere, it should be in Lebanon."
Who should pay for evacuations from Lebanon?
A fascinating argument is ramping up fast here in Washington about the thousands of Americans still in Lebanon, but trying to escape the fighting. Simply put: Should they pay for their own evacuation by the U.S. government or should all of us pay for it through our tax dollars?
Air or boatlifts of Americans from wartorn nations are not new. Heck, many Americans have been helped out of all sorts of tricky foreign situations by the military or the State Department. But those who want these particular Americans in Lebanon to help foot the bill for their rescue make the following points.
1) They knew they were living in a dicey area to begin with. Yes, Lebanon has shown significant progress toward being a more peaceful, stable country in recent years, but the southern end of the nation is and has been essentially in the control of an internationally recognized terrorist group, Hezbollah. When you move to or visit such a place, these critics say, you are willingly putting yourself at some degree of risk and that's your burden ... no one else's.
2) This conflict, while fast-moving, has been intensifying for days. These "stranded" Americans should have got out while the getting was good.
On the other side, there are those who make their own strong points.
1) This conflict hasn't just been fast moving; it has developed at a lightning pace, going from a dispute over a pair of kidnappings into what resembles all out war in less than a week. It is unfair, they argue, for American civilians to be expected to foresee how bad it would get so quickly.
2) We encourage Americans to invest in foreign nations, to help spread the ideals of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights all over the globe. We can't then turn around and say, "Now, you're on your own," when times get tough. In addition, if people start fearing a big bill is going to land in their mailbox after an evacuation, might that not encourage other Americans in future disputes to wait even later before seeking help?
This issue of having people pay for their own rescues has come up in many different ways with all kinds of rescues: Hikers plucked from mountainsides where they've become rimrocked, motorists rescued from blizzard-swept roads, boaters pulled from stormy seas.
So who should pay for pulling Americans out of Lebanon: Those Americans? Or you?
Monday, July 17, 2006
Cyprus becomes staging ground for evacuees
We just landed in Cyprus. We decided to come here after spending much of the day in Haifa, Israel, literally following Hezbollah rocket attacks. We've come here because this is the staging ground for the evacuation of foreigners trapped in Lebanon.
France and Italy already have begun evacuating their people to Cyprus. America is expected to follow soon. There are approximately 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, but no one knows how many want to leave.
I'm currently finishing up the story we shot earlier today in Haifa. That piece will be on the program tonight in addition to extensive coverage from our correspondents in Lebanon, Israel, and all across the region.
Not let into Lebanon
Since Anderson and producer Tommy Evans last blogged, the team has been making its way to Cyprus.
You may not be aware of some of the specific challenges of traveling in the Middle East. If you have a number of Israeli stamps in your passport, then it is all but certain you won't be allowed into certain Arab countries. (Many reporters request that Israel not stamp their passports to avoid this. Generally, Israel accommodates.)
As it happens, Anderson and his team were barred from entering Lebanon over the weekend because -- we are guessing -- we had already been broadcasting from Israel and suspicions about "who is reporting what about whom" tend to arise.
At the same time, the story has moved forward to include evacuations -- those trapped in Lebanon who want out. With the Beirut airport bombed-out, direct airlifts are not possible. Thousand of Arabs are streaming into neighboring Syria.
That brings me back to, "Why Cyprus for the show tonight?"
Cyprus is the Mediterranean island country geographically in the middle of all of this -- a short flight or a 4-hour boat ride from the war zone. Almost overnight, it has become the central staging area for evacuees to get transported out of the region. Anderson will anchor the show from there tonight.
This is their lives
I had just put down my lunch plate from the hotel buffet when the first siren went off. I never took a bite, and I am just realizing, I never paid either.
We scrambled out onto the hotel restaurant's balcony, where we could see most of Haifa spread out down the hill below us.
The scary thing about rocket strikes is that even with the siren sounding you can't see them coming. No streak of fire across the sky. Not a lot of sound. That is, not until the thump when it hits.
This time, the thump was very close, and soon, a plume of thick white smoke started to rise. Within a few minutes, we jumped into our van and tore down the hill.
The site was pure chaos -- filled with police, EMTs, onlookers, and of course, the throng of world press. Bullhorns were blasting and photographers snapped endlessly at the blast-splattered building.
Then, just as we felt we had a grasp of the scene around us, the siren sounded again. The crowd went from pushing and shoving in the street to huddling together under any cover we could find.
I found myself squeezed in a boarded-up shop doorway with a cop and a photographer. A second dull thud and a second sprint to the van. By then, we were all drenched in sweat. Summer in Israel really isn't body armor weather.
This strike felt very different. The first rocket hit an unoccupied office building. This one hit a more residential neighborhood.
I watched as the apartment building slowly started to catch fire. I saw a man holding a woman in the alley behind me. She was shaking violently in his arms as he tried to console her.
I've never blogged before, so forgive me if this rambles. But as we rushed off to feed tape and throw the rest of our gear in the van to make the next flight to the next story, I am still thinking of that couple, people for whom this war isn't dramatic pictures and adrenaline.
When the crowds leave the neighborhood, this tale won't be just another story running on tonight's news. For the countless innocent people in Israel and Lebanon, this is their lives.
Rocket hits with a crushing thud
It's been a busy morning in Haifa. I'm in a van right now, coming back from the scene of a rocket attack.
We were actually covering an earlier rocket attack when the sirens went off yet again. We all had to run for cover. It's an odd sensation -- waiting for a rocket to hit. At a certain point, the sirens stop and you hear the impact. A crushing thud.
This one was probably a mile or so away. We ran to our van and got to the blast site a few minutes later. The rocket hit a small apartment building in a residential neighborhood.
When we arrived, rescuers were removing an elderly lady from the rubble of the apartment building. She seemed stunned and scared. Someone lifted her onto a gurney and she was taken to the hospital.
There are casualties on both sides of this conflict, of course. Lebanese authorities say more than 150 Lebanese have been killed, several hundred wounded.
How much longer will this go on? That's a question a lot of people here are asking.
Sitting here in this van, trying to catch my breath after running to yet another blast site, nothing seems certain. Both sides acknowledge there is likely not a military solution to this conflict, but political solutions seem far off.
Israel may find it hard to come up with new Hezbollah targets they can successfully hit in Lebanon, so perhaps the bloodshed will lessen as the week goes on. But as long as Hezbollah is willing and able to lob shells deep into Israel, it is likely the attacks on both sides of the border will continue.
Tonight, expect extensive coverage from the region. While I'm in Haifa now, we may head elsewhere for tonight's broadcast.
Already, Neil Hallsworth, my cameraman, is digitizing the footage we've shot. We'll start editing the rocket story in a few minutes while driving in the van.
That's it for now. I'll try to blog later today, depending on where we end up.
Friday, July 14, 2006
No ice cream in this Israeli town
Nahariyah is empty. The streets would normally be packed with tourists and residents dining in outdoor cafes or eating ice cream while out for a stroll.
But we've seen nary a soul since we arrived here several hours ago. Occasionally, a voice echoes down the deserted streets or man speaks through a loudspeaker telling people to seek the safety of bomb shelters.
After a little searching, we were able to find a spot from which we could broadcast tonight's show.
We're now driving toward an Israeli artillery battery. We didn't have time to get Israeli-issued ID cards, so we are not sure they will let us videotape anything when we get there, but we'll see.
Driving on these mountain roads is an eerie experience. It's pitch dark and the roads are very windy. A Katyusha rocket hit nearby about five minutes ago. It made a loud pop, but we didn't see where it landed. The driver of our SUV stopped on the side of the road, but we decided to just keep going forward.
We have flak vests with us, and I have a digital video camera in my lap, but I must admit the rocket's loud pop was startling. It definitely got our attention.
Israeli woman: Just 'some problems' up north
Our team just landed a few hours ago. When you fly into Tel Aviv, you have to ask passport officials not to stamp your passport with an entry visa. A stamp makes it much more difficult to travel elsewhere in the region.
We are planning to go into Lebanon tomorrow, but right now, we're driving north toward the Lebanese border. I'm writing this on my blackberry as we race to the border town of Nahariya. Around 200 rockets have hit northern Israel so far. Nahariya has taken direct hits.
During the short time we were in Tel Aviv, things seemed normal. At the airport, several Israelis came up us to say they were annoyed that their relatives had canceled plans to vacation in Israel.
"Tell them Tel Aviv is fine," one woman said to me. "It's just up north where there are some problems."
"Some problems" is something of an understatement, but it's telling, I think. This is a land used to war, used to struggle. The people here find themselves fighting on two fronts and military reserves have been mobilized, but life goes on.
I remember in the mid-90s, when I was in Jerusalem, and a suspicious package had been left at a bus stop. The street was quickly cordoned off. The bomb squad appeared and blew up the package.
All the pedestrians on the street applauded, and immediately, life on the street resumed.
"What else can you do?" a man said to me. "What else can you do?"Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors live from Israel, tonight, 10 p.m. ET.
Finding a way into the Middle East
We made a call mid-day yesterday for Anderson to miss last night's show and fly overnight to the Middle East. With some airports and bridges in the region bombed, our choices for point of entry were limited. Getting "in" for us presented some of the same challenges the U.S military faces in creating a plan for the 25,000 Americans who live in Lebanon to get "out."
So where precisely will Anderson anchor from tonight? At the moment, it's totally unclear. He and his crew will move their satellite uplink to the best possible place to tell the story tonight.
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Too distraught to speak
The train tracks were my first stop in Mumbai after arriving on a flight from my home-base, New Delhi. I wanted to see what the damaged train cars looked like, even though the bombs had been detonated hours before.
I climbed onto a concrete wall and balanced as I walked closer to where the bombs went off. A train that was a target of the attack was left sitting on the railway. As I got closer, climbing over the trash and mud and rats, I could see the ripped-apart first-class cabin of the train. The metal was mangled and bent back. In fact, you could see right through the car.
On the tracks and gravel below, there were pieces of torn clothing, but it was hard to tell what may have been left after the blast and chaos that followed and what was simply trash left on the railway. There are cars that are separated as "men only" and "women only." It was explained to me that this is done because the cars get so crowded that there are concerns about molestation of women riding the train.
I spent the entire night doing live shots near one of the government-run hospitals where many of the victims of the train attack were taken. In between interviews, I was able to do some reporting on what was happening in the hospital. One of the things that struck me was how many people from the surrounding community were out distributing tea, water, fruit and bread to the volunteers and family members stuck late into the evening (or all night long) waiting for word on loved ones.
These attacks struck at rush hour in the evening, and as many people stayed up through the night (as the monsoon rains intermittently fell) they began to question what exactly would happen "the next day." Early on, I was greeted by some heart-wrenching scenes as family members came from the hospital with bad news. I met one older man who was in tears, so distraught he couldn't even speak. Family members had to tell me what had happened. He had spent the entire evening looking for his 28-year-old son, only to identify him later in the morgue.
The personal stories of those affected in these attacks are the hardest to hear. It makes you wonder how anyone could inflict harm on civilians. At a medical ward set up in one hospital for victims of the attack, many people looked dazed and some sat bandaged. The toughest scene was in the intensive care unit, where a victim of the attack was on a ventilator, his body shaking involuntarily as doctors tried to nurse him back to life.
I also saw scenes of progress and determination. At one train station not far from one of the blasts, we saw commuters pushing to get on trains, determined not to let these terrorist attacks change their plans.
What good is an unaffordable drug?
Since becoming a doctor, I've been increasingly troubled by how hard it is to get treatment to those who need it most. Sure, there are a lot of uninsured people -- everyone knows that -- but that isn't nearly the whole story. Simply put, even for those who have insurance, medical care is expensive. The co-pays can be very costly, and if you have any sort of chronic illness, you may pay more for medicine than for rent.
Even though I'm well-acquainted with the expensive nature of healthcare, I was stunned when I read a report recently by a pharmacy benefit manager, Express Scripts. It showed that cancer drugs prescription costs went up 16 percent last year. All other prescriptions went up by an average of three percent. We are talking about cancer, where unfortunately the only parameter of success is life or death, and it is getting increasingly expensive to live. As things stand now, it costs around $1600 per month for many cancer medications.
Of course, those are all just numbers and may not mean a whole lot to some people. However, a little girl that I met a couple of years ago may shed some light on the issue.
Ally Krowski is 6 years old. This impossibly cute girl developed some really bad back pain one day. Within a few weeks, she couldn't even walk. The diagnosis: Ewing's Sarcoma. There was a tumor pushing on her spine and her doctors were not optimistic that she would walk again or even survive. For Ally, the story ended up being a good one. She was flown to MD Anderson Cancer Center and received an experimental drug that saved her life. I still remember her mother crying tears of joy when she realized Ally would live.
Unfortunately, that life saving medication was expensive, too expensive to make anymore. So, for the next Ally, a medication that could possibly save her life may not be around. We are told there is only enough left to treat a few dozen children.
It is easy to get outraged by this fact, but it's also important to understand how drug companies make these decisions. In Ally's case, her cancer, Ewing's Sarcoma, is considered an "orphan disease," one with fewer than 200,000 new cases every year. At some point, it becomes increasingly difficult for drug companies to make medications that few people will use.
To be sure, according to a recent report, the drug industry does give more than $8 billion worth of cash and products to people who can't afford medications. And drug companies do need to turn a profit in order to develop the next generation of drugs.
So how do we reconcile this problem as a society? If you make the greatest cancer drug in the world, but it is too expensive, what good is it? I am anxious to hear your thoughts.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
This religious revival is a laughing matter
I am standing behind the main stage at a huge rock music festival in Illinois called Cornerstone.
For the past 24 hours, I've been hammered by thunderous sounds of modern Christian rock, in large part an ocean of thrash bands complete with tattoos and piercings, but very much with Jesus in mind.
I've been on the religion beat a lot lately, and have become aware of a great struggle among Christians to determine what their faith will be, can be, should be in America today.
In Florida recently, I met Rodney Howard-Browne, a South African minister who believes faith is, literally, a laughing matter.
When he speaks, hundreds of people in his congregation are seized by what they call holy laughter. They chuckle, guffaw, howl, and scream with mirth as, they say, the Holy Spirit fiills them. Sometimes the laughing fits last for minutes, sometimes for hours.
I have no idea how to judge the sincerity of their belief, or even if I should, but whether faced with laughing crowds or mosh pits, I hear Christians all over asking if their timeless faith is changing and wondering if that is good or bad.
What do you think?
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
When a 50-50 chance of living is good news
Nearly two weeks after Katrina hit, when I thought I had seen it all, I saw more: A clinic for evacuee children with cancer, filled with children who had no homes and whose parents had been frantically searching for a place to get the chemotherapy and radiation the kids so desperately needed.
With no working telephones or computers, parents heard word of mouth about this clinic in Baton Rouge, where many of the doctors were also homeless and all were working without the children's medical records as they pieced together what each sick child needed.
As I went from exam room to exam room meeting frightened and tired families, I heard screaming. Six-year-old Tony Nata was getting a central IV line put into his chest so he could receive the treatments he'd missed. His mother showed me pictures of the family's car floating, images of all their possessions awash on the front lawn in Slidell, Louisiana, their house devastated.
Tony used to receive his treatments at Children's Hospital in New Orleans, which had closed after Katrina. Tony has leukemia and was given a 20 percent chance of living without a bone marrow transplant. Even with it, doctors gave him only about a 50-50 chance of living.
I've been following the Natas ever since, and on tonight's show, viewers finally get to see Tony having his transplant. This is what his family has been waiting for -- to see if this procedure really does save his life.
Viewers also get to meet the heroes of this story, everyone from his four-year-old sister to firefighters from New York City. His sister, Allie, underwent the three-day procedure in the hospital to give her brother bone marrow cells (as she peered into his room, she said, "I hope you love me now, Tony!").
The firefighters, who are part of a New York City group that helps others as a way of saying thank you for the help received on September 11, helped rebuild Tony's house. Later, other groups from around the country pitched in to finish the house -- about 150 people in all, working to help a boy most of them had never met.
Before the transplant, Tony and his family had been living in a FEMA trailer and a relative's home. But because the procedures that prepared him for the bone marrow transplant basically shut down his immune system, he required a very clean place to live.
I plan to keep up with the Nata family for many months to come.
The dog kingdom's Noah
Sam Bailey's life has gone to the dogs -- literally and figuratively.
We met Sam at his new home, a FEMA trailer, in Pearlington, Mississippi, a town hit by the full force of Hurricane Katrina. The home he and his wife had lived in was destroyed by the storm and wreckage is still strewn throughout the property. Their new trailer is in their old yard, a yard they share with more than 50 dogs and cats.
You see, Sam is the founder of the Pontchartrain Humane Society, an organization dedicated to taking care of stray animals until they are adopted. His humane society is different than most, because the group has no building. Some of the dogs are kept at volunteers' homes, but most stay right in Sam's yard amid all the damage from Katrina.
In the days before the hurricane, Sam was able to place many of the dogs in temporary homes to wait out the storm, but he couldn't place all of them. So as Katrina approached, Sam acted like Noah -- he ushered the dogs up to the second floor of his house, and then the attic as the water continued to rise, climbing to over 15 feet. The one dog he couldn't get in the attic was a pit bull named Sampson. That particular dog was too big and stubborn to get into the attic.
As Katrina roared through, Sam did not think he and the dogs would survive. He found other animals out in the flooded yard. He pulled them into his house too. He saw dead animals float by. Then the storm started getting less ferocious and Sam realized he and his pets would be alright.
Now, more than ten months later, he has more animals than ever because the storm left multitudes of strays, with fewer people around to adopt them.
He admits that some of his animals have "social" problems because of Katrina and are unlikely adoption candidates. Yet, he has a policy of not putting animals to sleep unless they are terminally ill. So Sam isn't quite sure what he's going to do with all the animals.
He spends hours every day with volunteers who help take care of dogs in the outdoor kennels in the hot sun. There is no shortage of mud and insects in the primitive (at least compared to other kennels) outdoor compound. But he loves his dogs, knows all their names and personalities, and hopes they will get adopted even though the calls are not exactly pouring in.
Sam and his wife say they wouldn't mind leaving Mississippi permanently because of the damage they've suffered. But because of their dogs, they have no choice but to stay.
You can visit the Pontchartrain Humane Society online at: pontchartrainhumanesociety.org
Katrina survivors: Don't forget about us
"Please don't forget about us." That's what someone said to me just a little while ago.
I was watching the fireworks explode over the Mississippi River along with several thousand other residents and visitors in New Orleans. I came here to spend my Fourth of July holiday. I usually have to work whenever I'm in this city, so it's been nice to just spend a couple days walking around, eating great food, talking with people.
I didn't get the name of the lady who said, "Please don't forget about us," but I've heard those words from a lot of other people on previous trips to this region. I know people here feel like many in the country have forgotten about them.
Every time I come to New Orleans, I'm struck by the spirit of its people. I know it's a cliche, but it's true. Shopkeepers, school teachers, young and old, people are commited to bringing New Orleans back. A lot of the city is back, but there sure is a lot of work to be done.
We decided to devote the majority of Wednesday's program to the men and women who've been working so hard here. We are calling it "American Heroes: Giving Back to the Gulf," and I think you will be inspired and moved by some of the stories we're covering. Terrible things have happened here, but the situation would be much worse were it not for the incredible generosity of the American people.
We'll show you where the money that has been donated so far has gone. We'll also introduce you to some of the people who are making a difference here every day -- kids who are spending their summer vacations rebuilding houses with Habitat for Humanity, volunteers working at animal shelters, doctors struggling to care for the needs of a battle-scarred city, police struggling to deal with a growing murder rate while rebuilding the force and their own lives.
We'll also be joined by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, who are performing Wednesday night in New Orleans, with all the proceeds of their concert go to their charity, the Neighbor's Keeper Foundation. They've also given a lot of tickets away to volunteers who've been helping New Orleans and the Gulf Coast rebuild. I'll spend time with Faith and Tim tomorrow in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. We'll also broadcast live during their benefit concert.
It may not seem like a big deal, but to a city that is struggling to rebuild, a city that often feels forgotten, Wednesday's concert is a big deal. Like the librarian convention that took place here last weekend, it's an econonic boost to the city, and perhaps just as importantly, a sign of normal life slowly ... very slowly ... returning.
Monday, July 03, 2006
Are drivers on cell phones more dangerous than drunks?
People talking on cell phones in traffic are potentially more dangerous than drunk drivers. That is the startling headline
from Frank Drews, a University of Utah professor. It's easy to remember, and positively ignites public debate about the issue, but should it?
I spent time talking with Drews and found him personable, well-intentioned, and convinced of the validity of his research. He studied forty drivers navigating the twists and turns of a driving simulator while unimpaired, then drunk, then talking on a cell phone. His results are startling. The cell phone users braked more slowly, had a harder time keeping with the flow of traffic, and were generally more likely to cause an accident. They in fact did crash several times, while his drunk drivers never did.
But there are significant caveats to consider.
For starters, the sample was small and the drivers just barely drunk. Most people who cause drunk driving accidents are significantly above the legal limit for intoxication. Beyond that, recent, much larger studies have found that being distracted, trying to pick up things in the car, and being tired can all be more dangerous than cell phone use.
The cell phone industry folks say the proof is in the pudding: Use of cell phones has skyrocketed over the past decade, yet the number of auto accidents has not.
So where does the truth lie? I've been cut off in traffic by oblivious idiots chatting away on their cells. I've nearly been rear-ended by them, too. But should we further regulate cell phone drivers? Or are there just too many bad drivers out there, people who'll be just as bad on ... or off ... the phone?