WASHINGTON - To U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the rubble-strewn streets of Port-au-Prince had only a vague resemblance to the impoverished nation he lived in decades ago.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar went armed with a list of pending Haitian adoptions in Minnesota to help move things along.
Both Minnesota lawmakers returned from Haiti on Friday with a personal perspective on the devastation wrought by last month's magnitude-7 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people and left thousands more injured, homeless and struggling to survive.
"The disaster is just widespread, everywhere," Oberstar said. "Everything is in a state of collapse."
Oberstar and Klobuchar, both Democrats, joined 10 of their colleagues in the first congressional delegation to the island nation, making a one-day, round-trip flight in a C-9 military transport plane from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
The bipartisan group, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, landed amid crowds marking the 30th day since the earthquake -- designated a national day of mourning.
Oberstar returned with memories of Port-au-Prince's cathedral, which had stood for nearly a century: "To see just a few pieces of the wall standing ... and the cross ... only the cross did not collapse."
He had attended mass there dozens of times in the early 1960s, when he lived in Haiti teaching military cadets. The French- and Creole-speaking Iron Ranger had just been back for a reunion in October. Scores of those he met perished in the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Klobuchar went to Haiti with children on her mind. She has been a leading advocate in recent weeks for expediting the adoptions of Haitian children by parents in Minnesota and across the United States.
"Each kid you can get into a family is important; I look at it that way," she said. "You solve this one child at a time."
Minnesota has the nation's highest rate of international adoption. According to Klobuchar, there are now eight families in Minnesota with Haitian adoptions pending. One of the most recent was completed by Betsy Sathers, widowed when her husband was killed in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
Amid the wreckage that has all but halted Haiti's government and economy are many vital records, complicating what can already be an exasperating adoption process.
Adoptions will continue
A further setback was the arrest of a group of Baptist missionaries accused of trying to get children out of Haiti without proper documentation.
"They're having to be very careful with each case to make sure they're not sending kids that have parents and aren't supposed to go," Klobuchar said. Haiti's leaders assured her, however, that rumors Haiti will end adoptions are not true.
The United States is sending tens of millions of dollars in aid to Haiti, leading what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar international effort.
"It is crucial that the House and Senate -- on a bipartisan basis -- have the opportunity to examine the ongoing reconstruction efforts ahead of the U.S. Congress considering long-term assistance for Haiti," Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Oberstar, the Transportation Committee chairman and perhaps the leading expert on Haiti in Congress, wanted to see the damage firsthand.
On Friday, he saw it all: "The tragedy, the destruction, the random collapse of buildings, people just dazed in the streets," he said. "It was very emotional, a deeply moving experience."
3 years to cart away the rubble
The lawmakers' itinerary included a briefing with relief workers at the damaged Gheskio Center, renowned for delivering HIV/AIDS care before the earthquake, and a tour of what essentially has become a tent city on Champs de Mars.
Temperatures were in the mid-80s. It was dusty and dry.
"The devastation is everything we've seen on TV, but until you're really there, you just can't imagine how many blocks and blocks and miles and miles it is -- and just how deep it is," Klobuchar said. "And the president of Haiti today told us that it would take a thousand trucks three years to cart away all the rubble."
In addition to visits with U.S. military and humanitarian officials at aid distribution points, they met with Haitian President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
Earlier in the day, Preval had wept at a prayer service near the National Palace. Across the landscape of flattened buildings and destitute survivors, thousands of Haitians joined in ceremonies officiated by Catholic, Protestant and Voodoo religious leaders.
It's a tropical milieu that few know better than Oberstar, who taught English at the Haitian Military Academy from 1959 to 1962. He also taught French and Creole to American officials on the island nation.
Over the years, he has stayed in touch with his former pupils, some now in top military and civilian posts. He was an election observer in 1990, the year Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the country's first democratic election.
After a military coup, a period of instability and Aristide's return to power, Oberstar was back, this time with President Bill Clinton, who presided over a change of power ceremony.
Since his return in October, Oberstar had sounded optimistic about Preval and Haiti's future. Now, with the earthquake, Haiti is on the brink. Without an adequate response to the humanitarian crisis, he says, the nation of 9.6 million could face a dark political future.
Said Oberstar: "They need our help."
kdiaz@startribune • 202-408-2753 eric.roper@startribune • 202-408-2723