Haitian-Americans worry about homeland again rocked by disaster, glumly try to make contact

By Jennifer Kay, AP
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haitian-Americans worry about devastated homeland

MIAMI — Teachers in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood used the simplest terms they could Wednesday to explain the devastating earthquake that rattled the small nation.

Their words were little comfort to students like first-grader Mitchelle Monroe, who said her grandmother recently arrived from Haiti but she did not know the whereabouts of other relatives. She was among some 400 children who prayed during a solemn Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

“There was a lot of crying this morning, especially from the older ones,” said the school’s principal Sister Jane Stoecker. “The younger ones mostly see their parents’ reactions, but the older ones know their parents are desperately trying to get in touch with family in Haiti and only about 1 percent have been able to get through.”

Haitian-Americans in Miami, New York and other U.S. cities told similar stories of frantically trying to reach relatives and friends to see if they survived the largest earthquake to hit Haiti in 200 years. Communications were widely disrupted, making it impossible to get a full picture of damage and casualties as powerful aftershocks shook the desperately poor country where many buildings are flimsy.

“Everyone is in shock right now. No one can get through,” said the Rev. Robes Charles, pastor of St. Clement Church in Wilton Manors. About 275,00 Haitians live in the South Florida metro area.

Danglass Gregoire headed to Florida for a business trip Tuesday, leaving his wife and young daughter behind in Haiti, close to the epicenter of the 7.0 earthquake. When he arrived at Miami International Airport, the 41-year-old said he wasn’t sure if they were alive.

“I call. I call. I call. No one answers,” he said.

West Palm Beach firefighter Nate Lasseur tried to reach family and the firefighters he trains in the capital of Port-au-Prince, which has largely been destroyed.

He was doing training through his International Firefighters Assistance in November 2008 when a school collapsed, killing nearly a hundred people. He described chaos then — firefighters pushing through panicked crowds, digging through the debris.

“They are not prepared as far as equipment and training goes for something of this magnitude,” Lasseur said. “Their adrenaline and pure will to save their families — that only lasts for so long.”

A South Florida university confirmed Wednesday that three students on a mission trip to Haiti were safe. They are still waiting to hear from nine other students and two faculty members.

Daniela Montealegre, a Lynn University student from Nicaragua, e-mailed her family a brief message. “I’m OK. I’ll contact you later.”

The university hired a private contractor in Haiti but the recovery team had not yet made contact with the students, spokesman Jason Hughes said.

The students had just embarked Monday on a five-day trip to help staff food distribution tables and visit orphanages with Food For The Poor.

Angel Aloma, executive director, said the group is trying to charter a plane to get the students.

The organization is shipping containers with blankets, food and materials to repair roofs to the nation “even without knowing if they can be received because we have no communication with customs and the wharf but we want to make sure they are there and waiting because we know people are starving,” he said.

Others sought ways to get aid to the country.

In New York City, Fernando Mateo, head of the city’s taxi driver federation, said his 60,000 members and the Bodegueros Association that represents 14,000 grocery owners were launching Operation Rescue Haiti on Wednesday. They are seeking the help of a major transportation company to deliver the goods.

“We are going to mobilize a few industries to come together and bring supplies, food, medicine, clothing, water — stuff that’s needed immediately,” Mateo said.

In the Chicago suburb of Evanston, about 25 members of the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti gathered to pray and make plans to help.

“It’s a little somber, we’re trying to figure out what to do. We’re trying to get facts, come together, hold each other up and go beyond our own limitations and try to build collective support,” Lionel Jean-Baptiste, chairman of the organization and alderman of Evanston’s second ward, told the Chicago Tribune.

The Archdiocese of Miami is accepting donations for earthquake victims. Other South Florida Haitian relief groups have not announced their efforts but planned to meet Wednesday.

Not only major organizations are planning aid. King Moshe, 43, who works at Chef Creole in the Little Haiti area of Miami, said he will speak with local groups about collecting food, clothing and money.

“Right now is a time to come together to help the unfortunate ones,” Moshe said.

Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American author whose books about the country have won the National Book Award and the Pushcart Prize, gathered family and friends at her Miami home, which has become something of a command center.

“Some people are online, some are watching CNN, some are listening to Haitian radio,” she said late Tuesday night. “There’s a huge sense of helplessness about it. You want to go there, but you just have to wait. I think the hardest part is the lack of information.”

She said that for years, Haitians wondered with trepidation what would happen if an earthquake hit.

“Life is already so fragile in Haiti, and to have this on such a massive scale, it’s unimaginable how the country will be able to recover from this.”

Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in Tampa, Christine Armario, Lisa Orkin Emmanuel, Jennifer Kay and Sarah Larimer in Miami, Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale and Adam Goldman in New York contributed to this report.

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