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Story Pick: In Haiti, Twitter now & essays then

All through the day Wednesday, I watched with amazement as the news of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti unfolded on the web. I logged on to washingtonpost.com and saw a constant update of Twitter feeds about the latest developments.

2:46: "dead bodies are everywhere I haven't seen ambulance or professionl (sic) med care anywhere in port-au-prince"

2:47 pm: "the road from Port-au-prince to jacmel is cut and there's no way to pass ... even on a rhino or a motorcycle."

2:48 pm. "Port-au-Prince flattened ... more than 100,000 are dead," says haitian consul general to U.N."

There were more posts about the runways at the airport being in good enough condition to receive aid flights, damage to the port, 100 Catholic priests on retreat killed and more than 200 children trapped under the rubble of their collapsed school.

Some of the feeds were repetitive, But it was an impressive, continually changing reminder of the power, speed, immediacy and connection of new media. People posted photos and videos all over the web, including CNN's iReport. The Utne Reader Media blog linked to other blogs with stories from the heart of the hellish scene.

But for context and deeper understanding of both the people and the place, there is really no match for a well-written "legacy media" story. I was in Haiti in 1994 at the time of a military coup and threatened U.S. invasion. I found the country as deeply captivating as it was puzzling. (I spent an afternoon with a well-respected priest who was stocking up on "white powder" to, he explained, turn U.S. Marines into zombies.) Ken Ringle, a Washington Post Style section writer, captured the country's essence and surreal contradictions beautifully with this piece, HAITI NOTEBOOK: Where reality looses its grip.

Here are the first three tantalizing paragraphs:

Just when you think you have the surrealism of Haiti in some sort of perspective, Dr. Maryse Narcisse tells you that one suspected source of AIDS transmission in Haiti is ritual healing ceremonies that involve the sharing of leeches.

The leech factor becomes another one of those disquieting Haitian images gnawing at your mind on dark nights. Like the strange pile of little bones beside the voodoo-favored waterfall at Saut d'Eau, not far from where the Virgin Mary (or something) once appeared in the top of a palm tree. Or the chickens wandering in and out the sagging, ornate doorways in Jacmel, a town whose haunting, decaying grandeur might have been lifted, fragrances and all, from the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

After a while this sort of thing begins working on you. The other day up in Cap Haitien, a town with a disturbing number of one-legged beggars (and what happened to them?), a young man named Vincent looked over the looted ruins of the once-dreaded police station and explained that the only thing wrong with the Americans shooting the malevolent officers there a few weeks ago was that now the wrong person might bring them back as zombies.

By Brigid Schulte  | January 14, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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