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Haitian radio helps keep a country afloat

Signal FM, a music radio station, survived the quake and is helping others in the aftermath.

A tidal wave of emails swept in asking about loved ones, and Signal FM relayed the message onto the shattered streets of Port-au-Prince. Soon they were activating one of the country’s few fixed phone lines, and allowing an endless stream of people to make heartfelt calls to their families overseas.

“We became like a social center as well as a radio. But it was the only thing to do in these circumstances,” said owner Mario Viau, who speaks perfect English, as well as French and Haiti’s Creole language.

The station also gave out life-saving information about where there were field hospitals set up on the rubble-strewn streets, where trucks were handing out water and where shelters had been made for the homeless.

No newspapers were printing, so many of the journalists came to the station and started relaying all the information to Signal FM.

Viau said they tried frantically to get hold of government officials on the day of the earthquake to allow President Rene Preval to address his people. But they could not get ahold of him anywhere.

Eventually, in the second day they got in touch with Preval’s aides who sent them a written statement from him.

“Preval has been an almost absent figure in this crisis,” Viau said. “There has really hasn’t been a Haitian government since the earthquake. We have to have some kind of international force in control in Haiti now.”

His views are shared by many on the streets, who consider Preval to have utterly failed in the face of the tragedy.

As Haiti plods on to its second week since the tremor, Signal FM is focusing on the newly developing issues, such as where the U.S. troops are deploying with food aid and how city infrastructure is coming back.

The radio is also starting to look at what kind of Haiti they can rebuild in the long term. “We have all been dealing with the immediate problems. But eventually we will have to face up to some big questions about our country,” he said. “We don’t just need to build new houses. We need to build a new political system that actually works.”

When most people are asked what stands out in their mind in the first days following the quake, they mention the piles of dead bodies, the wounded and the smashed up city. But Viau has a different answer.

“It is the solidarity,” he says. “I saw so many people helping each other. That is what I remember most.”