Monday, January 18, 2010

The Citizens' BRESMA Relief Effort

I don't mean to "brand" it as the Citizens' BRESMA relief effort, this post just needed a title. Call it what you will. The following was written frantically, by me, through the morning of Saturday January 16th. Maria will confirm. However, out of worry that the possibility of the release of certain details might cause interference, it was embargoed until just now.

This is my story of what is reported within here on Friday, January 15th. Those are accurate enough accounts, but not particularly thorough nor illustrative. So here we go:

Sometime on Wednesday afternoon, I read what would have been Virginia's second or third fantastic blog post about the BRESMA orphanage crisis in Haiti. Here is the selection that got to me:

This is my plea to you to work any connections you have to help get Jamie and Ali McMutrie out of Haiti along with the children that already have adoption papers set for adoptions in U.S. homes.

I’m looking at you, local and state politicians with Washington connections. I’m looking at you, rich people with private planes. Please don’t look away from me.

Otherwise, these children will not survive. (That's Church)

Ginny has since taken down that post among several others. Which is fine. More than fine. Those posts served their purposes and now aren't necessary. The world moved. The world is still moving. It didn't need to move any further. I just resurrected that one tidbit to give you an idea how this started, for seemingly lots of people who are trying very hard.

Embarrassingly enough, I didn't act on that call-to-action until late into Wednesday evening. I just wasn't "activated" quite yet. That's when it occurred to me that the most powerful person I happen to know -- no offense, City Controller Michael Lamb, no offense, City Council President Darlene Harris -- would have to be former US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan.

So I sent her the following short e-mail at 12:51 AM:

Lots of specific calls to action on the Internet, here is one ambitious one to pass along:

At 9:00 AM in the morning I got a phone call. Ms. Buchanan was on the other end. She said, "This is horrible," and asked me who she should be talking to.


Ginny got me in touch with Jonathan Wander, who gave me a couple more names (and would go on to dispatch so much information amongst so many people over the next two days). I passed his information along to Buchanan. That was my contribution on Thursday, entirely.

Aside from occasionally staying in touch over e-mail, and watching a highly promising situation become inexorably, sickeningly more complex.

From what I understand, by that afternoon Buchanan had called some contacts in the public and private sector, received what seemed to be legal permission for these children to enter the country through Pittsburgh, got in touch with the sister of one of the BRESMA workers, learned that we were talking about 40 or so small souls and 2 very large ones, called a friend who owns a small private jet company and seemed well on the way to attaining the needed air transport.

It all seemed so easy for one morning and afternoon.

Way, way too easy.


In tracking down those early details, Buchanan had telephoned a Post-Gazette reporter who had already written a mid-day web update on the BRESMA situation. After getting the information she required about the family and the orphans, the reporter said something like, "Is this Mary Beth Buchanan, the former prosecutor?"

That's how Buchanan wound up in the online edition of the P-G that day. And so, the next day in two papers, in print. It must have seemed like press releases had gone out, but it just kind of happened.

Only a little later in the day, we would learn from Jonathan that the total number of orphans was more like 150 -- the 40 or so orphans ready for adoption would not be so casually separated from the rest of a larger BRESMA tribe. Getting a plane of that size, though not impossible, would be a lot harder. By the time serious possibilities for larger aircraft started to surface in the evening, it became known that the one airport in Port au Prince, which had only one operable runway, was growing impossibly jammed as the world also "activated" and rushed to help. I went to sleep not knowing what would happen.


"Bram, can you come over?"

Now it was Friday. I was eating breakfast.

Having been featured on Ginny's very popular blog, having been in touch with other volunteers through Ginny's blog and various social networks, and having been in the papers and having shaken a fair number of trees already by this point, Mary Beth was now being deluged with phone calls, e-mails, information, suggestions.

Buchanan also happened to be the most powerful person many of these other people knew, or now knew. Except for a few of the ones she was looping in, and so on.

I drove out there. Someone had to help her manage the deluge. We could have used another six.

So many people stayed active in the impromptu network all day. Amazing people. Doctors. Pilots. Aid workers. Lawyers. All just names coming up on a screen most of the time, or voices emerging from the other end of a phone, or far too often (UUURGH!) from voice mail. It didn't take long before they started organizing amongst themselves, while Mary Beth worked on her contacts in and around government.

Congressman Tim Murphy called just about every hour. It sounded like he was trying to get his hands on military assets: planes, logistics, aid delivery.

My friends, we know the social networking model can be powerful. It can be nimble. It can be innovative. It can connect and combine skills that would never otherwise interact. Yet it can also be a pain to wield when it grows too large too fast too desperately.

Grrrrrrr. If only I had sent that original e-mail about ten hours earlier on Wednesday. What the hell was I thinking.


During the day, we experienced highs and lows and lowers. I must have fielded a couple dozen phone calls from people who at some point thought they might probably be able to get a sizable enough plane very, very soon. There was the period where it seemed like the best bet would be to move the orphans to another airport in the Dominican Republic -- and they had the vans to get the children there! There were reports that FEMA and other aid planes were arriving in Haiti full and leaving empty -- the right contact at the right subcontracting company could make the difference. Late in the evening we received word that there were two planes, in the right airport, waiting, possibly for us.

However, as the sun passed its zenith in the sky, a new problem became evident -- those "humanitarian parole waivers" and guarantees obtained the previous day were no longer all they were cracked up to be. The State Department had firmly gotten its arms around the situation -- and not without some justification. But a new challenge faced those of us worried about this orphanage situation: obtaining visas, for children some of which had no documentation.

Expectations had to be lowered. Slowly. Without shutting out the hail-mary entirely.


It was starting to become evident that others -- office holders, within government -- were wondering what the heck was going on down on the Mary Beth Buchanan homestead. Understandably. There was an undertone of leeriness on both sides. Since reporters were dutifully reporting on two different efforts it was only a matter of time before the political or partisan aspect became a "story". Understandably. But it was uncomfortable to think about.

To everyone's credit I don't think anybody ever "sabotaged" anyone else's efforts. That was the fear, but I think the notion seemed ghastly enough against the specter of these desperate babies that it was never actually realized. I hope not. Yet the two projects -- the establishment-led effort that seemed populated by local Democrats and the outside-the-box effort which happened to feature several local Republicans -- stayed, on the whole, warily out of one another's hair.

To his eternal credit, somebody in our network at least once received outreach from the office of Vice President Joe Biden. From what I could make out, he asked where we were in our aid attempts, and if there was anything possible he could be doing to help. We gave him a status report and told him whatever seemed to be our pressing needs at that particular moment, I forget entirely. It was classy even for him.


We received some late updates from the orphanage thanks to Jonathan, who never stopped riding herd. It wasn't good. It was awful. They were running out of supplies. They were running out of water. They were running out of time. Our doctor became an increasingly important figure in our little society. She used to be there to tell us what needed to be on the plane once the children arrived at the airport, smiling, grateful. Now she was there to tell us what needed to be hauled, raced to these kids as soon as humanly possible. Again, it was water more than anything else.

There were a couple times I thought about calling it a day. Hopeless. Out of our hands. Let the others do it.

Mary Beth wasn't exactly a font of bubbly enthusiasm by that point either, but she didn't stop. By which I mean, not for a moment. For 13 hours. Or seem to pause. To my knowledge. Of course, the phone kept ringing. Someone would always come along with a promising notion.

By which I don't mean to say she was unique. There was a conference call on Line 2. "Line 1" was whichever phone she was on, "Line 2" was whichever phone I was on . And I had to take a call on "Line 3". I told them I had to hang up, but Mary Beth would join the conference call as soon as she was off the phone with a State Department contact. They were happy to wait -- that was the one aspect they lacked information on most.

Well, the phones kept ringing, and it probably took a little longer to patch back into the conference call than we anticipated. They were waiting for us, before they got started. Ms. Buchanan wasn't the "leader" of the operation any more, but folks still seemed heartened by her involvement, and she still held a few puzzle pieces.

As it turned out, that might have been a profitable late-night conference call. We all connected -- we think we all connected -- someone who knew of aid resources stashed on the ground in Haiti to competent personnel that might be able to get it there. And if those basic supplies could get handed off and get through, in a hurry, supposedly Anderson Cooper could get there on Monday and ride to the rescue.

It occurs to me. This is what Katrina did to us.

Anyway. After all that. It still seems too easy. Ludicrously easy. Way too easy to be true, that these supplies could really be there in the airport, some custodian-in-abstentia talking to the right person on the ground. To be followed by this cable TV journalist. Silly.

But we take heart. Why? Because we're not the only ones working on this. If our own attempts to assist these poor desperate children from the orphanage in debris-strewn Haiti -- run by two heroic local girls -- fail to succeed, then guess what, we still have lots of other people doing everything they can. All the attention generated throughout these last days resulted not only in uncommonly focused media coverage, but in the specific and concerted attentions of many of our leaders: local, state and national.

I'm not going to lie to you. It still seems impossible. Way impossible. But we may do this yet. We may even do it the old-fashioned way:

And if that doesn't pan out, we'll move on to Plan Q.


  1. Thank You. For all that you are doing.

  2. Meh. It's "amazing" in that it's surreal, this is true. Please everyone save all the attaboys for anybody until the children are safe. Then hopefully we can all go to Las Velas and cry.

  3. Thanks for doing what you could, and then some. Thanks to Mary Beth Buchanan as well. Talk about going above and beyond. Agreed, congratulations are way too early, but there's always time for thanks. It will be interesting after (if there is an "after") to dissect what in the hell made the best of efforts turn into what appears from the way oustide to be complete disrespect. Virginia is a much better person than I.

  4. incredible and humbling work, Bram. Thank you. A potentially devastating story - we learn of our capacity to extended hope beyond so many boundaries only to be stymied by bureaucracy and red tape? Too-short runways and dirty water?

    god bless the children and all those working on their behalf.

  5. Wow...thanks for the insight into what's been happening!!

  6. Bram, yep, that's what I meant by amazing - "surreal" Hoping for the Las Velas tears as well.

  7. Proud of you, Bram.