Q&A With Attorney Chris Cotton: Haiti Update

Chris in Jacmel with orphan Merci Dieu, which mean "good God" in Creole.We've been privileged to get to know Chris Cotton over the last couple of years as he's become an integral part of Counsel On Call's Nashville attorney team. His stories from his time spent in Haiti are well-known in our company, and his work with the Hands and Feet Project has been a source for inspriation for many of us (at right: Chris in Jacmel with orphan Merci Dieu, which mean "good God" in Creole).

So when the earthquake struck Haiti last Tuesday, Chris instantly became a source of news for our staff through his communications with people on the ground in Jacmel and put an even more personal face on the tragedy. Chris was interviewed as part of a local news story and the HAF project has been profiled on several national media outlets in the last few days, and the stories change with each passing hour. Chris was able to break away and chat with us for a few moments:

What are some of the latest updates?

It’s been a really tough, but great weekend… as of Sunday morning, no aid had reached Jacmel since the earthquake last Tuesday… 40,000 to 70,000 people were cut off from medical aid, food and water for five days. But yesterday the first private planes began landing at the Jacmel airport, which was great. I think five or six were able to land during the day and they expect 25 today (Jan. 18).

How big of an area is Jacmel?

Geographically it’s not that big of an area, and it’s about 25 to 30 miles south of Port-au-Prince, but it’s only accessible by one road, which was completely destroyed in the earthquake. Jacmel is a base for about 70,000 people and we know that there are at least 5,000 dead, 20,000 to 25,000 injured, and 75% of the buildings were destroyed. So that means there are at least 30,000 people with no shelter in the community, which is really just hard to get your head around. 

What’s your involvement in the Hands and Feet Project?

It was started five years ago by the Christian music group Audio Adrenaline, and the lead singer, Mark Stuart, had been a friend for awhile and they needed someone to run it. This was back in 2004-05, and I had been working at the record label for awhile. This allowed me to split my time between the label and working with the HAF Project and I spent 2005-06 in Jacmel.

The goal was to build orphanages around the world, and Jacmel was the first… I won’t say it was completed, because it never will be, but there are 45 to 50 kids – or were, because now they’ve taken in at least 15 more. There are four American staff and 10 to 15 Haitian staff. The kids are fine, the staff is fine, the building is actually fine… ours was one of the only buildings not damaged in the earthquake. Most of the orphanages in Haiti are thankfully built to a higher standard. It’s good because we can focus not on our needs, but on the needs of the community… Like I said, the kids and staff are fine – relatively speaking, because they’ve seen horrors we can only imagine – so we’ve been able to share supplies and our store house… and we had a private plane donated that is going to fly in and out of Jacmel five times a day so we can get the supplies and foods in that are desperately needed.

What are the age ranges of the kids at the orphanage?

They range from a couple of months old to our oldest child who is nine… and these are true orphans. I say that because there are many kids who are “orphaned” in Haiti because their parents can no longer feed them, or will give them up because they know they have a better chance of surviving.

Yes, this tragedy has certainly shined a brighter spotlight on Haiti… we’ve seen stories about families who can’t care for all of their children and some of the common practices in those situations… Does this tragedy amplify the mission or change it at all, or has there been any time to process that?

Truthfully, the entire point was not to just take in orphan kids, and we don’t do adoptions in the States or anything like that. Our mission was to see if we could help out an entire generation of Haitian kids, educate them, and turn these kids and adults back into their community so they could really make a difference locally. The desire was to make an impact on those around us and that’s never going to change, but maybe the means to do so might be altered or expanded based on the circumstances, and maybe that’s a blessing.

Before the earthquake we ran programs for the community, like bringing in doctors and dentists to help and serve the broader Jacmel area… the Haitian people are very relationship-based, and we really got to know our neighbors and they were very protective of us and we have great friendships with them. This tragedy has changed the focus, and we’re going to have a lot more kids, and we’re going to have to expand and a greater role of helping those in the broader community… we don’t want to be an island within an island, have a big wall around us or anything… our gates are always open. But there's going to be more need than ever.

It’s a true blessing to be able to coordinate the relief effort, but the price of doing business is going to skyrocket. Before, the day-to-day costs of getting supplies in and out of Jacmel was high, but now it’s hard to imagine, and probably going to be very expensive. As an aside, one of my HAF friends there is now running the Jacmel airport – it just shows how desperate and even dicey things are.

If people want to help?

Go to HAFproject.org and there is a donations page… peoples’ generosity has been amazing, but this will fade from the public consciousness in the next weeks, which is completely normal. But it works on an inverse scale: as awareness decreases, the needs will increase. And so it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what it’s going to take to help the Haitian people. Over the next couple of years, it’s going to be hard to get relief there and more support than ever is going to be needed.

Is there a chance you’ll return to Haiti soon?

A friend on the Board emailed me last night and asked if I was ready to go… and I said yes. I’m pretty eager; I’ve been down there many times and even though my friends and colleagues are OK, you make relationships with people in the community and want to find out who is OK and provide relief for some of our workers who are on the ground and who are physically and emotionally exhausted at this point. I hope to help.

Chris Cotton is an attorney with the Nashville office of Counsel On Call. He is a 1997 graduate of The Pepperdine School of Law and practiced in the entertainment field for eight years in Los Angeles before moving to Nashville in 2005 to work at a record label and to run the non-profit organization The Hands and Feet Project. He now divides his time between his work with Counsel On Call and his private practice, primarily representing music artists.